Visit Busbridge Lakes, a waterfowl wonder near Godalming
- Credit: Leigh Clapp
An enchanting garden, with something of a forgotten, fairy-tale like feel about it in parts, Busbridge Lakes, near Godalming, is a must-visit this spring to enjoy the flora and feathered fauna
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2016
The ideal place for a spring stroll, at Busbridge Lakes, near Godalming, you’ll find fresh foliage reflecting in tranquil lakes where bird life takes centre stage. Open for just a handful of days each year, this Grade IIa listed heritage garden makes a beautiful backdrop to one of the country’s largest collections of waterfowl. Take the chance to wander the park-like setting with its mature trees and shrubs, and lakes animated with a myriad of bird life. The atmospheric grounds harbour a few secrets, too, but more of that later…
Home to the Douetil family, who purchased the estate in 1966, the charming property at the centre was formerly the coach house and stabling of the original Busbridge Hall, which was demolished in 1906. Celebrating their 50th anniversary of living there, the family say that things have certainly come a long way since they first moved in.
“When we arrived, the gardens and grounds had been neglected and they were overgrown with brambles and nettles, while the hillside was impassable in places, so it was a large project,” says Fleur Douetil. “Since we moved here, we have endeavoured to improve the house and grounds as well as preserving the antiquities and follies, which include an 18th century Doric temple, a Gothic boathouse, classical statuary and a grotto. We have tried to keep it informal to enhance the natural beauty of what is here.”
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In all, there are some 40 acres to explore, with hidden shady paths, benches placed to look out over the water and the impressive population of every kind of duck, goose, swan, crane, pheasant and fowl to admire. Some are in enclosures, others waddle around the gardens, and then there are the wild birds dropping in to join the party.
“I was given my first pair of ducks in 1967, and it was then that we realised how lovely waterfowl looked on the lakes,” says Fleur. “So we put up a fox-proof fence around the middle lake, where we housed not only ducks but also our fancy breeds of bantams, and that’s how it all started. The collection has escalated yearly.
“The breeding and rearing of different species has been a great challenge with many different methods being employed over the years, from incubators and broody hens to parent-rearing, which is the method we now try to use to raise most of our birds.”
With around 1,000 birds from over 120 species, it is indeed some collection! And, what is more, their work is also helping to boost endangered species too.
“Our aim is to rear as many of the vulnerable birds as possible, whilst keeping the birds in the most natural environment,” adds Fleur.
“We are still adding to the collection and doing everything we can to rear the endangered and threatened species, so that future generations can see and enjoy them.”
First and foremost a family home, the grounds of Busbridge Lakes are open to visitors 20 days a year, timed around bank holidays and school holidays. The atmosphere is a trifle eccentric, rustic and relaxing. Children will enjoy watching the bird life and can feed them with food from the home-produce stall.
“People often say that they never knew we were here, thanking us for a lovely day out in such a beautiful place,” says Fleur. “We also have many return visitors and wildfowl enthusiasts who travel from a long way to visit. Some people bring a picnic, or buy something from our take-away café, and stay all day. I’d say you need at least a couple of hours to enjoy it all.”
Among the other highlights are the fine trees, including yew, cedar of Lebanon, reputably the largest buckeye in Surrey, a towering ‘Restoration’ chestnut planted in 1660 and a lovely tulip tree, as well as the ferns, wild daffodils and primroses. In spring, fresh green leaves of weeping willows and beech also contrast with splashes of colour from lilacs, wisteria and flowering quince.
“The gardens are rich in flora so an extensive insect fauna is not surprising,” adds Fleur. “Numerous different moths and butterflies, flies and beetles, bumblebees and cuckoobees, wasps, dragonflies and damselflies may be seen at various times of the year, especially among the lakeside plants.”
Also of interest are the various antiquarian features and curiosities dotted throughout the landscape – which harbours a few secrets too.
“In the 1920s, a number of pieces of stone bearing Roman inscriptions were found around the estate; it is assumed that they were brought from the north of England during the 18th century by Philip Webb, then owner of Busbridge and an enthusiastic antiquarian,” says Fleur.
“There are a number of caves and other features, both natural and man-made, in the grounds too. One was excavated in 1756 as a tomb for Philip Webb’s wife and two of his children. It stands across the lake from the house, in the heavily-wooded, sandstone cliff, and the entrance is a round arch of rock work with a fragment of Roman lettering set into it. Although the grotto and caves aren’t open, you get a glimpse of the past from the old stonework clad in greenery, giving the garden a ‘sleeping beauty’, old-worldly charm. You can, however, wander into the temple and the boathouse complete with a fireplace and two verandahs.”
The latest project will perhaps be the most special of all though – a butterfly garden in honour of Fleur’s late husband, Dane, which will be located on the rockery.
“We’ll be using a wide range of plants, some given by friends, including buddleias and lavender, and we are planning to put wildflowers on all the banks,” adds Fleur. “We also have plans to introduce wallabies in a pen at the top of the hill.”
So be sure to pop along to this hidden gem and enjoy it all at its springtime best.
Godalming GU8 4AY.
Easter week: Friday March 25 to Sunday April 3
May Bank Holiday: Sunday May 1 and Monday May 2
Spring Bank Holiday: Sunday May 29 and Monday May 30
August Bank Holiday: Sunday August 21 to Monday August 29
(10.30am to 5.30pm each day)
More details at: busbridgelakes.co.uk
• The style here is very informal with a largely natural backdrop
• The presence of water, from a series of spring- fed lakes, is fringed with marginal planting and mature trees
• Colours are green, soothing and relaxing
• Seating is strategically placed to make the best of the views
• The scene is animated with waterfowl
• Various habitats give areas for the birds to roost, rear their young and have easy access to the water
• Ancient art pieces and buildings draw the eye
• The lakes are also home to a variety of fish, including species such as koi carp and tench
• Fencing is essential to keep the foxes out