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Situated in Halesowen on the southern edge of the West Midlands urban conurbation, Leasowes is a 57-hectare public park containing the remains of one of the most important and influential landscapes of the 18th century.

William Shenstone and The Leasowes

Shenstone's family on his fathers side were essentially farmers whilst his mother's family belonged to the petty gentry, and it was her money, all be it limited, that enabled Shenstone to live the life of a gentleman after his parents' death.

However, William Shenstone was a poet and not a farmer and when he inherited the working farm at The Leasowes his attempts to run it as a going concern were rather half-hearted. Instead he channelled his enthusiasm into transforming parts of farmland into a landscaped garden, a creation he called his 'ferme ornee' - literally meaning an ornamental farm.

Natural Landscape Garden

The Leasowes is significant in that it is considered to be one of the first natural landscape gardens in England.

At the time that The Leasowes was created, gardens elsewhere in Britain were still being laid out to formal designs following either the Italian Style with grand steps, terraces and water features or the French Style with formal and geometric avenues of trees and regularly shaped flower beds.

At The Leasowes, Shenstone broke away from this fashion and instead created a landscape that both followed and enhanced nature. In so doing he created a garden, which represents the very beginning of the Picturesque English Landscape Movement.

Indeed Shenstone began by laying out his garden at The Leasowes in a formal style. However, he soon abandoned this approach, having neither space nor funds to complete such a garden. Instead his poetic nature led him to create a new type of landscape that respected and utilised the natural landscape.

He worked in an unplanned fashion, his limited funds meaning that he had to economise and use his imagination to create the desired effect.

Public interest in The Leasowes increased during Shenstone's lifetime and continued for some years after his death. Indeed, for a period during the middle of the 18th century it became one of the most visited gardens in the country.

Circuit walk

Visitors to The Leasowes would take the famous 'circuit walk'. This path led around the garden allowing every aspect of the design to be fully experienced and appreciated. Walkers would be led past seats and urns carefully positioned to enhance a scene, or to allow the opportunity to rest and admire the carefully created views.

Many of the features also bore poems placed by Shenstone to evoke a sense of mood; some of the seats and urns were also dedicated to Shenstone's close friends. Water was of great importance in the design of The Leasowes and whilst walking around the garden the visitor would be constantly aware of both the sound and sight of water as it flowed through the valleys and rushed over cascades to plunge down into pools.

Virgil's Grove

The garden that Shenstone formed in the fields and valleys of The Leasowes is a truly incredible tour de force. He managed, by skilful use of views (guiding the visitor to view the same feature from different locations and angles) to create the impression that his garden was considerably larger than it actually was. Nowhere in The Leasowes was his genius as a garden designer more clearly shown than in his transformation of the part of one of the valleys which he called Virgil's Grove in dedication to the Roman poet.

It is not easy to account for the fondness of former times for straight-lined avenues to their houses, straight-lined walks through their woods, and in short every kind of straight line

W. Shenstone

Archaeological Investigations

Ruined Priory

Archive material in the form of engravings, maps, written descriptions produced by 19th century visitors to The Leasowes and William Shenstone's own paintings have provided evidence of the locations and appearance of many of the structures which Shenstone erected in his garden. Whilst sadly, none of these now remain visible above ground, archaeological excavations have identified the original foundations and footings of many of these features. 

Leasowes Lane Dam

Back in April 2001 a narrow trench was dug across the road which exposed part of a cobbled surface, it was hoped that the archaeological investigations would tell us if these cobbles were the surface of the dam in William Shenstone's time. We also wanted to know how far the cobbles extended, and whether there was any further evidence of the original walls of the dam.

The investigations proved to be hugely informative revealing sufficient information to enable us to piece together the history of the Leasowes Lane dam and to establish how its structure has changed over time.

The dam's history can be divided into 4 clear phases shown in the tabs below.

  • The tarmaced roadway is the result of the remodelling of the dam in the 1950's. The work was quite extensive, and included the widening of the dam to its present width, and the creation of a new lower face to the dam with an outflow for water from the pool behind. The area behind the new wall was back filled with a mixture of ash and clinker. The present low walls on each side of the dam have been made from reused paving slabs and date back to the same period.

    When the archaeological investigations had been completed a protective layer was placed over the cobbles, using a geotextile membrane. The dam was then temporarily back filled with the loose material which had been dug out at the start of the excavations.

    The design for the reconstruction of Leasowes Lane dam is now almost complete. This artists impression shows how it will look once rebuilt. The drawing also shows that the cascade on the lower side of the dam will take on a strikingly different appearance with stone being imported and placed by crane to form the appearance of stone strata over which the water will flow (from a stone arch in the dam) to create a cataract effect.

  • The remains of a simple land-drain was unearthed it was formed from upturned tiles laid into a shallow trench. As the cobbles have been cut through to lay the drain it is clear that this is a later addition to the dams construction.

  • Sections of brick wall from various eras were found along the lower side of the dam. The heights of these walls correspond to the level of the road surface which was gradually raised over time. It appears that the dam has also suffered from partial collapse on the downside; this has been dealt with by the part reconstruction of the walls in an attempt to hold the dam up.

    However, it seems that these measures proved to be insufficient and that eventually it was considered necessary to completely remodel the dam to make it stable. The rebuilding of the dam was probably carried out in the 1930's, after the local authority had taken ownership of the Leasowes.

    Interestingly, this historic photograph shows the dam with a tall brick wall with regular spaced piers on both sides. The style of the ladies dress would suggest that the picture was taken around the end of the 19th century, or perhaps early into the 20th century. Close inspection of the photograph reveals that the lower wall is already beginning to tilt indicating some movement in the structure of the dam.

  • The tarmaced roadway is the result of the remodelling of the dam in the 1950's. The work was quite extensive, and included the widening of the dam to its present width, and the creation of a new lower face to the dam with an outflow for water from the pool behind. The area behind the new wall was back filled with a mixture of ash and clinker. The present low walls on each side of the dam have been made from reused paving slabs and date back to the same period.

    When the archaeological investigations had been completed a protective layer was placed over the cobbles, using a geotextile membrane. The dam was then temporarily back filled with the loose material which had been dug out at the start of the excavations.

    The design for the reconstruction of Leasowes Lane dam is now almost complete. This artists impression shows how it will look once rebuilt. The drawing also shows that the cascade on the lower side of the dam will take on a strikingly different appearance with stone being imported and placed by crane to form the appearance of stone strata over which the water will flow (from a stone arch in the dam) to create a cataract effect.