Space Age Science Helps Reveal What Lies Beneath - The Grounds at Charlton House

by Megan Cable

The Grounds at Charlton House:

Space Age Science Helps Reveal What Lies Beneath

Over 400 years in the making, the grounds at Charlton House are a well-used community asset. The open lawn, herbaceous borders, serpentine paths and walled-gardens are loved by dog-walkers, picnickers, joggers alike, as well as those looking for a quiet place to sit and reflect. But have you ever wondered what the view would have looked like, gazing through the leaded windows of the house in Victorian times or even as far back as the 1600s?  It’s a question that has fascinated us for some time and this year we decided to do something about it.

It is possible to investigate what lies underground using a surveying method called LIDAR. This stands for Light Detection and Ranging. In simple terms, a pulsed laser light measures the distance from the detector above ground to objects underneath the surface (see image 1). This technology may sound cutting edge, but it was used as early as 1971 on the Apollo 15 moon landing, to survey the moon’s surface.

Thanks to a generous grant awarded of £6,985 by Charlton Ward Councillors in February 2018, it was possible for Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust to commission the specialist company, Cloud Conversion, to undertake these investigations.

Circular contours were found beneath the grassed area between the summerhouse and Charlton House. This was first thought to show the crater left by a V2 rocket which struck during WW2 in January 1945 (see image 2). Although the circular pattern was considered to be too regular for a bomb blast.  Further research led us to believe that this may be the central feature in a formal garden, as shown on a 1784 plan by Reynolds.

At the outer boundary at the back of the house, results showed the line of the infilled Ha Ha, (see image 3).  A Ha Ha is a barrier created by building a wall within a trench in the ground.  In the case of Charlton House, it would have prevented animals wandering into the formal gardens, whilst maintaining an uninterrupted view between both house grounds and grazing pasture.  The central part of the Ha Ha still exists, (see image 4).

Elsewhere, results show the existence of serpentine paths, raised terraces and the original site of the dairy, which would have backed onto what is now Canberra Road. The results of these investigations will assist Dominic Cole Landscape Architects in contributing to the masterplan for Charlton House and gardens, currently being developed.  As the layouts and features of the formal gardens have been altered so many times, it would be impossible to recreate all the designs.  Instead, we plan to incorporate features borrowed from the garden’s  history into an exciting new landscape design, which will allow us to tell a story of the past and create a space that can be enjoyed by all our visitors in the future.   

Image 1 - LIDAR Scanner

Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust 

Image 2 - Borough Surveyor Bomb Map

Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust 

Image 3 - Hill and Batewam 1765-67 Detail

Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust 

Image 4 - Lidar Survey - Surface Contours

Cloud Conversion Drawing 23.03.2018

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