Zoë Ward lived almost all her life in Horringer near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. She was one of two daughters born in the first decade of the 1900s to the village postmaster, Charles Leech, and his wife Eleanor, and she was the village headmistress for many years. In her book Curtsy to a Lady (1985), Zoë Ward says that the Ickworth estate was like their playground. She recalls that the ‘busted canal bank’ was one of many favourite places for their games. ‘When there was any water in the stream – or, to give it its proper name, the River Linnet – we used to paddle there’. The story of the busted canal bank goes back to the start of the 19th century.
In 1808 the Little Saxham estate to the west of Ickworth was added to the estate as a result of an agreement between the then 5th Earl of Bristol, Frederick Hervey, owner of Ickworth, who had inherited the nearby Rushbrooke estate, and Robert Rushbrooke, the owner of Little Saxham, to exchange the two estates. The parish boundary between Little Saxham and Ickworth lay along the River Linnet for just under a mile, and a public road, the Chevington Way also ran along the boundary. This was a well used route at the time. It went from Chevington rectory past Chevington Lodge and Hall Farm, through the Iron Gates into Ickworth Park, down to the River Linnet and alongside it as far as Westley Bottom, and then onto Bury St Edmunds. It is said that the Abbots at Bury would use it to go to their manor at Chevington in the summer, but more importantly it would have been used by all kinds of people going to and from Bury St Edmunds, especially to sell corn, dairy produce and livestock at the ancient market which dates back to 630AD.
So in acquiring the Little Saxham estate, the 5th Earl of Bristol found himself with the Chevington Way, a public road, running right through his private land. The Chevington Way was joined by two other roads. One from Chedburgh joined just outside the estate boundary at Chevington Iron Gates, and the other, Hargrave Lane, met the Chevington Way further down the Linnet valley towards Bury. At best, the surface of these roads, which were the responsibility of the parish, would have been of broken stone, but they would have been bumpy, rutted and full of pot-holes. In winter they could be impassable for carriages or carts.
It was important to the Herveys as owners of a huge country estate, that they owned all they could see. This also required that they would not encounter anyone from the agricultural and labouring classes on the estate, indeed no one that they did not know, other than their own workers. Their presence on the Chevington Way would have been an inconvenience, an intrusion, though there is no written record of this being the reason for what the 5th Earl did next.
In 1814, the 5th Earl obtained an Act of Parliament to close off the road on condition that it was replaced by an alternative route. He had made a new road skirting the Ickworth estate, costing £2,000, which went from near Chevington Rectory past Chevington Lodge to Little Saxham, where it picked up the route into Bury via the Westley Road.
However, people were used to the shorter road, the ‘Cheventon Way’ as it was then called, and continued to use it in spite of notices and warnings. Something had to be done, so the Earl announced that he was going to have an ornamental lake made across part of the old road. In 1823 work was started on building an earth dam east-west across the valley of the River Linnet from the edge of the new Pleasure Grounds of Ickworth Lodge on the east side, and from Dairy Wood on the west side. Eventually the rising waters formed a 15 acre lake that drowned the Chevington Way and cut off the access through the park.
Constructing the dam took a lot of labour. This was recorded in the Ickworth Labour account book for 1818-27 with entries under the heading ‘New Canal Account’. In May 1823, there is an entry of 98 workmen’s days for ‘making head for trial to intended Canal’. The main work on the Canal seems to have done in the spring and summer of 1824. From April to July that year, over 100 days work was carried out each week. One of the last entries is for 54 days of ‘levelling’ in September 1825. The total cost of the work was £500. Material to construct the dam likely came from two chalk pits, one on each side of the valley, and which can still be found today hidden in the woods.
Around 1823, the 1st Earl also cut off the road from Chedburgh where it met the Chevington Way on the other side of the Iron Gates, by building a pair of cottages across it. Horsepool Lodge, now derelict, was also built beside Hargrave Lane on the edge of Horsepool Wood, and gates were put up across the lane presumably with the same intention of stopping people using the lane to go down to the Chevington Way.
The new lake first appears on C & J Greenwood’s map of 1825 (detail from map below left). The new Pleasure Grounds created a bulge of woodland towards the high water mark of the lake, and the New Canal, or Ickworth Park Lake, as it came to be known, dominated the west side of the Park (detail from Richard Payne’s 1850 Tithe Map below centre).
In 1842, the dam burst due to a fault in the construction, and the waters poured down to Bury causing widespread flooding in the vicinity of the Spread Eagle public house at Out Westgate. One source said that the dam was never rebuilt, but it was rebuilt as it is shown in Payne’s tithe map. There are also two undated plans from this time in the Suffolk Record Office which seem to be proposed alterations to the canal after its creation, one of which adds two islands that appear never to have been constructed.
At some point late in the 19th century the dam broke again causing flooding in Bury (it is not uncommon even today for the Linnet to flood on the west side of the town). When exactly is not known, but the lake disappeared and the canal was not re-built. William Robinson, the horticulturist and writer, saw the lake in 1873, and it is shown, albeit hard to spot, on the 1885 Boundary Commissioners’ 4″ map of West Suffolk, but not on the 25″ OS map of the same year. A date in the early 1880s for the dam breaking seems likely. The 25″ map however shows the busted dam in great detail, and a path that seems to follow the waterline of the old lake, though today the path is alongside the river (detail from 25″ map above right).
Zoë Ward wrote that ‘everyone said it served the Earl right, and that the bursting of the dam was an Act of God’ (this likely refers to the later bursting of the dam as this would have been in the living memory of her parents and other villagers).
There doesn’t seem to be any paintings or photographs of the lake. Up until the 1870s, there were very few landscape photographers; it was then technically very difficult to take photographs away from a studio. Even after that photographers would have been drawn to more distinctive and emotive locations. Nor is there any information about the wildlife in, on or around the lake. Perhaps further digging in the Ickworth archives may reveal something.
Ickworth Park Lake is said to be the most significant lost feature in the park. Both the 1st Earl’s Canal Lake, created in 1717, and the Fairy Lake constructed in the 1870s for the 3rd Marquess, remain, but they are much smaller. Nothing has taken the place of the lake.
The bed of the lake was never replanted and the arable fields are currently leased to a tenant farmer (photo below left). In 1957 both sides of the dam could still be seen with a gap in the middle where the dam was breached, but at some point after that, the bank of the dam on the west side was levelled and almost all traces of the dam on that side are now gone. But on the east side, just downstream from the wooden footbridge over the Linnet, the dam still forms a steep bank overgrown with trees and shrubs (photo below right). One historical landscape specialist has said that there is a ‘good case for making a closer study of the New Canal and the desirability and feasibility of its reintroduction’.
As a child, Zoë Ward wasn’t aware of this history of the lost lake and the dam: ‘We didn’t know all this; we just knew that the Busted Canal Bank was a fine place to play. It was a long way to go, but worth it!’