A secret garden that has lain undisturbed for almost 300 years may have been discovered at one of the UK’s most popular National Trust sites, thanks to a three-year study by a Hertfordshire author.

Tim Woodbridge, who lives in Rickmansworth, has published evidence of a grand and “picturesque” 18th century garden buried, mostly intact, below the Great Lake at Stourhead in Wiltshire.

It is believed to extend to at least 200 meters – half the size of the current lake – and includes the foundations of two smaller lakes, a Chinese bridge, an ornamental pool and canal, and the remains of a giant sentinel oak tree - all preserved in silt.

Watford Observer:

No expense was spared in its creation and an estimated 50 labourers from the Stourhead estate, working seasonally over five years, were needed for its construction, research suggests.

The partnership of a master designer, and a banker of “almost limitless means” points to the garden being a “particularly fine” example of neoclassical landscaping.

Astonishingly, the elegantly landscaped park – created by the head of one of the country’s richest banking families – has been lost to history since 1755.

Until now the Great Lake at Stourhead was believed to have been Hoare’s first and only choice as the garden’s centerpiece – a focal point that would create a mirror for the magnificent monuments and temples.

Evidence indicates that its heartbroken owner, Henry Hoare II, destroyed his own legacy by flooding the entire area after the sudden death of his son and heir, Henry III.

The masterpiece he created now sits entombed under approximately 30ft of mud, silt and fresh water below the estate’s Great Lake at its deepest point.

Watford Observer:

It is revealed for the first time in The Choice, a new book out this week by the son of Stourhead’s master historian and former World War II intelligence codebreaker, Kenneth Woodbridge.

Author Tim Woodbridge spent three years piecing together the evidence for the lost garden from documents in his late father’s archive and concluded that the Great Lake is indeed hiding a “magnificent, dark secret” in its depths.

Speaking yesterday, Tim said the study’s conclusion casts a shadow over Stourhead’s origins.

“It’s my view that Henry Hoare’s original garden was very different from the one we see today,” he said. “It would have been a real tour de force - a beautiful example of neoclassical design that was meant for his son and heir, Henry.”

Woodbridge estimates that the original garden would have cost at least £5,000 to create – a fortune at the time.

Stourhead Manor was bought in 1717 by Henry Hoare I, who replaced it with the Palladian mansion still admired today.

But it was his son, Henry Hoare II, who set about turning Stourhead into an Arcadian paradise at the height of neoclassicism in the middle of the 18th-Century.

Hoare, also known as Henry the Magnificent for his generous patronage of the arts, created the monuments and structures at Stourhead - including the iconic Pantheon and Temple of Flora - in his obsessive pursuit to create a dynasty and memorial for his late wife, Susan, who died in 1743, and a legacy for his son and only surviving heir, Henry Hoare III.

He spared no expense and hired the celebrated English architect Henry Flitcroft and the sculptor John Michael Rysbrack to bring his ideas to life.

Flitcroft and a team of around 50 labourers are believed to have spent five years, from 1744 to 1749, building Hoare’s dream.

Hoare, a banker and the heir to his family’s fortune, later described the result as “the fruits of industry and application to business that shows what great things may be done by it”.

Watford Observer:

Woodbridge’s research suggests that the original garden would have featured two smaller lakes to the north and south, with a Chinese bridge crossing the former, a Grand Canal leading to the Temple of Flora to the east, and an ornamental pool on the west side in front of a grotto that still stands today.

The remains of the sentinel oak, plus the foundations for the original lakes, ornamental pool and Chinese bridge, were detected during an underwater survey in 2005.

Woodbridge, 71, said the cost of digging up the Great Lake makes it unlikely that the original garden would ever be uncovered.

He added: “Hoare set out to create a lasting legacy for Susan and then for Henry. His lost garden represented the first steps of an artist trying to find himself.

“However, his drive to express his innermost feeling at the loss of his son led him to create a masterpiece, the current garden, which resonates with us today because it speaks to us at a deeper level than if it was simply a piece of good horticultural design.”

Hoare died in 1785 and the 2,650-acre estate, located at the source of the River Stour in Mere, was passed on to his grandson and only remaining heir, Sir Richard Colt Hoare.

It was acquired by the National Trust in 1946 and the Great Lake has become one its most photographed vistas.

The site is understood to attract more than 400,000 visitors per year.