The National Trust claim that wherever you are in the England or Wales you should never be more than 45 minutes from one of their properties. I think we must be right at the limit of that. Undoubtedly we're in the 'Why us?' group of members who wonder just how it's possible that nothing is nearby.
We kicked off our 'Year of Trust' with a visit to Lyveden New Bield - just about 45 minutes to the North East of our home and then followed it up with a visit to Stowe Landscape gardens - approximately 45 minutes south of where we live. Yes, you can now get out your maps and 'triangulate' our home location if that's the kind of thing you are into.
Stowe was a place my mother and stepfather recommended. They have 'life' membership of the Trust so there's not too much that's missed their attention over the years. Since Stowe is signposted off the route from our house to their house they'd been a couple of times. We set off in May, a time that was still fairly cool weather-wise, but before the main crush. Leave it a couple of months and a collective madness sweeps across the country as households up and down the nation are thinking themselves "It's Sunday, what do we do now? Let's find a National Trust property to visit".
~Could you Locate Buckinghamshire on a Map (if you didn't live there?)~
Stowe is located in Buckinghamshire, not one of the nation's more memorable counties. In fact Buckinghamshire makes living in Northamptonshire seem slightly less awful. Stowe is about 3 miles to the north of Buckingham and travelling from Northants, it's just south of Silverstone, the home of the national Grand Prix circuit. We followed signs off the A43 which took us down narrow roads and through small villages before leading us up a grand driveway towards Stowe School, a fee-paying school which now inhabits the stately home whose gardens are now known as Stowe Landscape Gardens.
We parked up in a field and headed towards the entrance, stopping to show our membership cards and pick up a map before we headed in. My husband had been particularly organised and had made a picnic lunch and since it was around 1.30 when we arrived, we were keen to find somewhere to sit and eat quite soon.
The gardens have always been intended for public consumption, although in the days when the Temple-Grenville family who lived at Stowe Hall were in situ they were most likely to be seen by a 'certain class' of visitor. The hoi polloi were unlikely to get much of a look in back in the 18th Century when even national travel was the preserve of the well-to-do. The land on which the gardens stand was in the hands of the same family for over 350 years and at one time it was said that they family were 'Richer than the King'. As any family with money to burn will find, it's nice to have a hobby and in the case of two of the family members - Lord Cobham and his nephew Earl Temple - their hobbies were gardening and travel.
I can relate to returning from holiday with a few mementos and knick-knacks and the inspiration to bring a bit of your holiday destination back with you. We have a bright blue summerhouse/log cabin in our garden which was inspired by a visit to the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech. These two men came home inspired to build dozens of stone buildings that reflected the palaces, temples and inspirational buildings that they had seen. Or more accurately they paid other people to build them for them. One or two such 'homage' buildings might be enough for most wealthy folks but these two went a bit crazy and with plenty of land to spare (the gardens are more than 100 hectares), they built a succession of weird, wonderful and downright bizarre buildings around the gardens. It's a bit like taking a trip to a glorified garden centre with extreme displays of ornamental monuments.
We live close enough that we decided that if we liked the place it wouldn't be difficult to return later, so we didn't attempt to cover everything in just one visit. Instead we passed up on the opportunity to join a guided tour and headed off to follow our noses and see where we'd find ourselves. We fancied the sound of the 'Elysian Fields' and followed signposts in that direction until we came to the 'Temple of British Worthies' - a shrine to the great and the good of our national history and a handy place to sit and eat lunch whilst gazing out across the lake towards a little round chapel which I think is licensed for civil weddings. It would certainly be a lovely spot.
We headed towards an intriguing triangular gothic lodge which caught our attention. Wading across slightly boggy fields and trying not to scare the sheep or be scared by the grass-snake my husband spotted (I really have to train him not to shout 'Look' at the top of his voice scaring me and the snake out of our skins) we came to this fantastic construction. It's apparently available for hire by members of the public who have deep pockets, want a unique holiday venue and don't mind being stared at by tourists. From there we headed towards the covered bridge, stopping to wonder if the sheep were a special giant breed or just incredibly well fed. One of the wardens bumped into us by the bridge and stopped to chat (at length....) and to confirm that they were 'ordinary sheep' though I still have my doubts. We stopped off to see a Chinese pavilion, painted in jazzy designs, passed a small chapel, a grotto decorated with shells (very tacky) and to walk beside a large lake resplendent with spring time little birds - ducklings, goslings and all manner of cute feathered fluffy critters.
More grottos and temple-like buildings followed including a golden naked lady surrounded by pillars before we found ourselves at the back of the school where the children were playing cricket on a pitch that overlooked a far-away arch. We lamented that the main house wasn't open to the public and then started our trek back to the entrance. We'd covered less than half the land but the skies were starting to look a bit moody and it seemed like a good time to head for cover. All too often sod's law ensures that the rain holds off right until you get to the farthest point away from the car park and we were determined not to get caught out again. I'd certainly aim to return and walk the gardens in the opposite direction next year but we'd seen enough for one afternoon.
~Facilities - aside from grottos - and other details~
Facilities include a small shop, a restaurant/cafe, plenty of toilets and hire of disability vehicles for those who aren't so stable on their feet although these need to be prebooked. This is a very big site with a lot of up and down paths so I would suggest that hiring a vehicle is a good idea if you struggle with long distances or uneven paths. There's no information on the website about whether the National Trust charge to hire these vehicles.
Entrance fees are £7.50 for adults with reductions for children and families but not apparently for OAPs. It's free of course for National Trust members. The gardens are open on different days at different times of year so be sure to check before you visit. From early March to end October they are open from 10.30 to 5.30every day except Monday and Tuesday but outside these dates the opening is more restricted.
With many more National Trust properties under my belt, I'd now say that unless you are passionately interested in landscape gardening, this is one to consider if you're in the area, but not worth travelling too far to see.
Stowe Landscaped gardens Buckinghamshire.
Stowe is part of a massive estate deep in the Buckinghamshire countryside. It is has a beautiful house which is now used as a private boarding school. Visitors are not generally admitted to the school except on certain days however there are private function rooms available and you can even get married there.
The extensive grounds are however very much open to the public for you to enjoy the wonderful vistas and the landscapes that have been nurtured over hundreds of years. There is something for everyone to enjoy including deer park, woodlands, formal gardens, natural habitats and a wide variety of trees and monuments.
A little history of Stowe.
The area around Stowe consisted of mainly farm land for grazing sheep and was bought by a Sir Thomas Temple who was a social climber by marrying into wealthy families. He bought a Baronetcy from King James the 1st thereby creating a hereditary title ship for his offspring. The building of the house started in 1680 and has been added to at various times throughout the years.
The family were fairly ostentatious and very extravagant in the building of Stowe and often did not have the funds to complete the works resulting in Stop and start building. By marrying into wealthy families over the centuries more money was ploughed into Stowe at various times. Some of the family heirlooms and works of art were sold off to pay for maintenance and rebuilding or refurbishing the house. Death duties also crippled the family from time to time. So although the house is a beautiful creation it has had a very tragic history.
Grand receptions and parties were held at Stowe and extravagant living mostly beyond their means resulted in it changing hands. Very important people were invited to Stowe including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. A massive archway was built right in front house a couple of miles in the distance which looks a little like the arc de Triumph in Paris. This can be viewed from the house and seen in the distance with beautiful landscaped grounds and the lake in the foreground. Queen Victoria was the only person ever to have arrived through this gateway. The 2nd Duke of Buckingham lived far beyond his means and restructured the interior to accommodate Queen Victoria for her visit which lasted for only three days. The Queen was not impressed by this extravagance apparently. This resulted in spiralling debts and the only way out was to sell many of the moveable furniture and pieces of art. This was known as the first great sale. Only £75,000 was raised against the £1.5 million pound debt. The house was then closed.
On the Death of the Duke in 1861 his son returned to Stowe and consolidated all the building work and landscaping however his early death in 1889 meant that his daughter was unable to support Stowe due to the death duties and the pension being paid to the Dowager Duchess and tried to sell it off to no avail. The house was closed again. Eventually in 1922 the 2nd great sale took place of all the moveable fixtures both in and outside the house. The house was bought by a property developer who was going to do it up and donate it to the nation but couldn't raise enough money so it was sold again. The property was about to fall into disrepair and was going to be demolished but a consortium of old Etonians brought the property and turned it into a private school.
To the present day the house is still used as a private school and they open the house on about 100 days per year to the general public so that they are able to view the massive state rooms of this beautiful building.
The grounds were landscaped but it became unmanageable to maintain the massive estate and over 40 temples and monuments so the land was given over to the National trust along with a sizeable donation. A programme of restoration of the grounds took place by the National trust and now it draws over 100,000 visitors a year.
The Grounds and gardens.
The grounds are absolutely beautiful with wonderful landscapes and vistas as far as the eye can see. In total it covers an area of 750 acres. You may see various scenes in many period films the landscapes from Stowe which are used including the formal gardens and the monuments spread throughout the estate. There are countryside walks you can take through meadows, farmland and woods. Meandering through the grounds with the forty temples and statues help make it very picturesque and pretty and the different temples and monuments appearing at various places throughout the estate provide fantastic photo opportunities. The grounds are spectacular all through the year giving delightful contrasts both in the winter spring summer and autumn.
The Corinthian arch.
The view of the massive Corinthian Arch from the terrace of the house is beautiful. The landscaped gardens lead down to the lake and on the other side of the lake there is a shingled roadway leading to the arch. The view from the house was created by Capability Brown. It took over 20 years to create this view as we can see it today. This is the most spectacular view in Stowe and the centre point of your visit.
The Octagon Lake.
The lake is right ahead of you and was known as the Octagon Lake but it is no longer an octagonal as it was restyled in 1750. There used to be a massive Obelisk In the centre of the lake but that was also removed at the same time. You can walk around the perimeter of the lake affording you wonderful views of the house especially from that farthest side.
The Elysian fields.
This was created in the 1700's to honour the most notable people in history.
It includes the following temples and monuments.
The Temple of Ancient virtue is dedicated to four great Greek men Socrates, Homer, Lycurgus and Epaminondas.
The temple of British worthies is a shrine in honour of famous people whose names that you would instantly recognise famed for their great ideas or actions. There are two sets of eight busts set in Grecian alcoves in a wall including Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth the 1st , Milton and Alexander Pope to name a few. This is a beautiful and peaceful area to walk through. There is also a rose garden to walk through with a wide variety of roses.
The seasons fountain made in honour of the Prince of Wales visit in 1805 made out of an old marble chimney
St. Mary's church a 13th century church still in use today.
The Eastern Garden.
The gothic temple based on medieval buildings such as Westminster abbey. It is currently inhabited and looks fantastic from different views around the estate. It looks quite spooky and is on top of a hill in the middle of a field.
The friendship temple was used as a meeting place for men but was burnt down and the ruins remain as a monument. It is still a magnificent building to look at.
The Queens temple currently being used as the schools music room.
The Palladian bridge which has featured in many films. It is much lower now since the damming of the lake.
The Chinese house. This was the first known Chinese style house built in the UK. It had been dismantled and reassembled on the Wooten Estate but returned to Stowe after an absence of 200 years.
The seven Saxon deities. These statues are representative of the Saxon Gods that gave their names to the days of the week. Mona, Tiw, Woden, Thuner, Friga, Seatern and Sunna.
The rotunda temple with a golden statue of a posing Venus.
The Grecian valley. Created by Lancelot Capability Brown in 1741.
The biggest temple on the estate is the temple of concord and victory. It is a beautiful palladian building and took many years to build and has continually been remodelled over the years.
The Cobham Monument is a Memorial to remember Lord Cobham and there is a statue of him on the top of it dressed in Roman Armour. It is the tallest building on the estate and from the top you can see 5 surrounding counties. It is 104 feet tall and the statue was blown off the top by a bolt of lightening in 1957. The only surviving part of the statue were the head and a hand which has been restored and placed back on the top using those two original pieces.
The fane (Sacred place or temple) of pastoral poetry originally housed the busts now placed in the temple of worthies.
Would I recommend a visit here.
Yes at any time of the year as the gardens are beautiful in different ways according to what time of the year you are visiting. The autumn is very beautiful with colourful brown, red and golden hues of the trees. The lakes take on different appearances at different times of the year and look stunning when it is frozen or glinting in the spring sun and calm and inviting during the summer. Be prepared for quite some walking and decent walking shoes are a necessity.
There are the following facilities in the park.
Parking, Toilets, Tea room, gift shop, Dogs may be taken but must be kept on a lead.
The parklands are run by the National trust and are open all year round and it is free entrance but the gardens are mainly open every weekend throughout the year and also some weekdays as certain times for which there is a charge.
Family Ticket £17.95
Stowe Landscape Gardens
Telephone: 01494 755568 (Info line)