Capability Brown's Wimbledon Park, in His Day and Ours
The Spencers remained in Wimbledon until the 1820s but in 1846 the parkland was sold to the same property developer who had bought another Brown commission, the neighbouring West Hill estate, Putney, the previous year. Substantial house building over the following decades saw the former 1200 acres of open land shrink dramatically as residential areas such as Southfields appeared for the first time.
In 1914 Wimbledon Council purchased part of the former Spencer estate and created a municipal park with the lake between it and the golf course. In 1922 another 13 acres to the west of the golf course were taken over for development by the All England Lawn Tennis Club, an area since expanded to some 42 acres. In 1993 the AELTC also bought the freehold of the golf course itself from Merton Council so those 75 acres could eventually face development too when the current lease expires.
The lake, probably the most defining feature of Brown’s 18th century design, remains in public ownership although now slightly reduced to 22 acres following some reclamation by the golf club. It was certainly the focal point in the celebrated view towards London from what had previously been the Duchess of Marlborough’s manor house. The two older ponds from which it had been formed originated in springs at the edge of the flat gravel terrace occupying the top of the hill to the south and west. In Brown’s day the catchment was predominantly common land, parkland and farms. The water quality was good and there was a fine fishery.
Today like many lakes in lowland Britain, it is eutrophic with extensive beds of pondweed. The catchment is predominantly suburban and has extensive hard surfaces, such as houses and roads whose runoff carries pollutants. This was exacerbated in the late 1990s by construction of an extra inflow to take runoff from the AELTC. Other sources of pollution are intensive management of the golf course, feeding of the carp by fishermen, large populations of waterfowl and excess bird feeding by the public. The lake has lost its beds of waterlilies and
submerged water plants can be a problem.
It has also been slowly silting up. Once up to 2.5 metres deep, there are now few places deeper than a metre. To provide sufficient depth for water sports, the outflow weir has to be kept high, and this causes a high water table and some flooding. The Friends of Wimbledon Park hope to raise the funds to remove silt and secure the lake’s future.
It is important for water birds, especially in winter, when many arrive from continental Europe seeking ice-free water. In summer, it also attracts at least four species of bat to feed on the rich insect life associated with the water. Its value as wildlife habitat has led to its recognition as a Site of Borough Importance for nature conservation. Large geese numbers visit seasonally while others include common terns, kingfishers, grey herons and cormorants.