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In an English Country Garden
Stourhead Estate (Wiltshire)
Member Name: koshkha
Stourhead Estate (Wiltshire)
Date: 10/03/12, updated on 10/03/12 (92 review reads)
Advantages: Spectacular scenery
Disadvantages: Expensive if you aren't a National Trust member
~PLEASE can we go to Stourhead?~
Each time we go to visit my parents in Salisbury my husband asks if we can go to Stourhead. It's a lot nearer to them and to my sister than it is to us but even so, once we get to Salisbury, there always seems to be something else - weather or my mother having other plans - that comes up and gets in the way. Even though Salisbury and Stourhead look to be quite close on a map and are about 25 miles apart, the route is cross-country and it takes about three-quarters of an hour to get there.
On this occasion in July we stayed at my sister's place in the west of the county and took the opportunity to spend the day at Lacock Abbey and Stourhead. Stourhead was our second stop of the day.
We arrived mid-afternoon and the sky looked threatening. As we'd gone to visit the gardens and not the house, we knew there was a high risk that we'd get wet and on the drive between Lacock and Stourhead we'd had monsoon-like rains. We parked up in the car park, showed our membership cards and headed down the hill towards the gardens. It's quite a long walk before you even get to the entrance so if you're not too steady on your feet, ask for a transfer on one of the site's golf-buggy like shuttles. The path down the hill is quite steep but once you can get down to the actual entrance to the gardens, the path around the lake is fairly accessible and wheelchairs are available if required. The paths are compacted gravel and there's a bit of 'up and down' but nothing terribly steep. I would suggest a decent pushchair will do fine on the paths but a heavy wheelchair might not be much fun to push and there is no buggy alternative as far as I've been able to find out.
Before reaching the gardens there's an interesting courtyard of craft and art shops and the Spread Eagle Inn offers food and drinks indoors or on the terrace outside. Looking at the sky we wanted to get a move on and decided to look at the shops on the way back and not delay any longer.
My husband has been to Stourhead before and knew already that he loved the place. I'd only seen a couple of photos on the National Trust website and knew that they often make a place look more attractive than it really is. Stourhead bucks this trend and is far better in real life than in any of the beautiful photos you may have seen.
~History and the Buildings~
The gardens were laid out in the 18th Century for the Hoare family who had the local river dammed in the 1740s in order to create the lake which is the central feature of the gardens. Up to that time garden design tended to be very formal and full of straight lines and geometric designs so Henry Hoare II's decision to recreate a more natural and undulating landscape went against the trend of the time which had been heavily influenced by the French garden designers. It was also a period when the wealthy liked to take trips round Europe doing the so-called 'Grand Tour' and many returned with big ideas based on what they'd seen. Whilst we're content to bring back a fridge magnet of the Acropolis or a snow dome of the Eiffel Tower, the travellers of the 18th century came home with big ideas to build their own classical follies in their gardens. I was reminded of the gardens at Stowe, near Northampton, where the landowners filled their landscape with rather cheesy looking statuary and mini versions of great buildings. Stourhead is an altogether classier garden where the follies and buildings are tucked temptingly and tantalisingly amongst the vegetation to be glimpsed rather than stared at.
We passed what I assumed was a war memorial by the entrance to the gardens, showed our membership cards and headed in. You really have only one decision to make and that is clockwise or anti-clockwise and once that's decided, just follow your nose. I am always a bit frustrated by gardens with too much choice and too many different parts. My desire to not miss anything drives me crazy and means I'm almost always left with the sense of missing something no matter how hard I try. That's one of the reasons I loved Stourhead - all you have to do is follow the path and you really can't get lost and equally important, you can't miss anything.
The circuit is about one and a quarter miles in length but it feels much shorter because there's so much to see. We went clockwise since we've spent a lot of time in Buddhist countries and learned to always go that way but also because there's just something contrary about going widdershins. The first feature of note is the Palladian Bridge, a stone bridge with five symmetrical arches. It seems to be placed primarily for aesthetic purposes since walking across it would save only a few paces compared to walking round and I suspect it's there to reflect in the water but I suspect it's intended to give the impression of a river running out from the lake. The water around the bridge was a bit scummy and less clear than elsewhere so it was clear that there was no river draining under the bridge.
Walking with the lake on our right hand side we took pictures the whole way around. In the old days of 35 mm film, these gardens would have been a 'two-reel' attraction - guaranteed to need at least a second reel in order to get all the pictures you would want. The next building we came to was the Temple of Apollo, a rotunda-like building sitting above the lake. You can walk up to it but we chose not to, our eyes always on the colour of the skies.
The grandest of the buildings is called the Pantheon, named after the Roman temple to all the gods which was built by Marcus Agrippa. The Stourhead version is more modest but takes the heavy frontal columns and the triangular facade above the pillars. This is about half way round the lake so we stopped to sit down and take more photographs. The next building was a small cottage which I decided not to photograph as a woman covered in tattoos was determined to get her boyfriend to shoot dozens of pictures of her and I didn't particularly want her in my photos so we moved on to the grotto.
The grotto is a fine example of how even someone with the most sophisticated taste and almost unlimited funds can have a bit of a brain-burp and build something hideous. It would need only a few gnomes and some shells in the mortar to look like something from the most down-market of seaside resorts. Clearly a lot of manpower went into creating this ugly grotto as the pattern of pebbles on the floor must have taken weeks to put together. The final building I remember was the Temple of Flora, not unlike a smaller version of the Pantheon, it was another handy place to stop and watch the ducks and swans on the lake.
~When can we go again?~
July was a good time to visit. The long days and traditionally rubbish English weather meant everything was lush and green. The rain held off long enough for us to get round though it certainly wasn't warm enough to linger as long as we might have done if we'd been less concerned about getting really wet. The swans and ducks were entertaining and getting there before the school holidays started meant we pretty much had the place to ourselves and - tattoo lady and her beau excepted - nobody really got in our way or made us modify our plans. The walk back up the hill was completed with the rain still holding off which we felt was reason enough to celebrate with big hearty slices of cake and a couple of hot drinks. Having seen it in summer, I'm now really keen to go back again with my camera and see it in autumn, winter and spring. Sounds like my Mum might be getting more visits than she expected.
Now that we've been I can't quite believe it took us so long to get there. Stourhead is a stunning garden and I can't imagine anyone wouldn't love it. Mobility issues have been discussed already and the National Trust will happily get you to the gates of the gardens but from then on, it's not so easy for those who aren't good on their feet. Even so, I wouldn't say 'don't go' since you could take a seat in the Temple of Flora and just enjoy the view.
There are no toilets in the gardens - the nearest are probably at the Spread Eagle Pub or back in the car park near the cafe. The gardens are open daily from 9 am to 6 pm throughout the year. By contrast Stourhead House has more complex opening arrangements so if you want to see the house as well as the gardens (and I suspect most people don't bother with the house - it's apparently 'nothing special' according to the guide we spoke to at Lacock Abbey) be sure to check the website for the times and days
of the week as these vary at different times of the year.
Gift aid admission prices for the gardens are £8.10 for adults and £4.40 for children with family tickets for £19.20. Turn up by bicycle or on foot and they offer reduced prices.
Summary: Love it! Can't wait to go again.
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