This was my first visit to Stourhead though I had read quite a bit about it and seen images so it was exciting to get the opportunity to have a look whilst in Wiltshire. I had naively thought that it might not be too busy, that perhaps it is a bit of an undiscovered gem … I was of course wrong. It was a half term Sunday in late October with the trees beginning to burn with autumn colour so obviously we weren’t going to be the only people there. It being run by the National Trust though everything is very well organized so getting in was pretty quick and easy. And I should have recalled that Stourhead has always been a popular garden to visit – in its early days the local pub/hotel had to be expanded to cope with the number of visitors.
Stourhead was created over a long period by Henry Hoare a wealthy banker. It was his vision made without the services of a professional designer like Kent or Brown, although he did enlist the services of architect Henry Flitcroft in the design and building of the garden buildings. It is a garden that shows the influence of the landscape painting of artists such as Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin and Gaspard Dughet – “a pretty landskip” in the words of the 18th century essayist Joseph Addison who switched the use of the word to describe an actual living scene not only the painted. It has been said that Stourhead resembles Claude’s Coast View of Delos With Aeneas
and there is certainly something in the framing and placing of buildings, trees and water to support this. Stourhead is though of course a garden, a living place - we visitors find our own routes through, frame our own views and take in a whole range of sights, sounds and smells depending on the seasons.
We began our walk near the house at the garden entrance just beyond the stableyard, The ground was covered in sweet chestnuts from contorted trees that are showing their 400 year old age but are clearly still very productive.We picked up a few that the squirrels hadn’t got. After a few failed attempts at catching falling leaves we veered off to the right to find the wide level green path that takes you out and away from the house towards the obelisk. We then weaved our way down through the trees underplanted with laurel (which had recently been very carefully cut to keep it at knee height). As we made our way through this darker wooded area we caught glimpses of the vast lake, the reflective heart of this landscape, made by damning the river. Crossing the lake at the bottom of the path gave views back across the lake and the vibrant autumn tones of acers against the more muted yells and fading greens of beech, oak, sycamore and ash. Not everything can be seen though, there are beautiful visions still to come.
Following the path near the edge of the lake takes you down into the jagged roofed grotto of running water and still pools. A dark narrow tunnel leads into the brighter main chamber where light floods in through a hole in the roof above. A nymph reclines in the water, with the words of another great grotto maker, Alexander Pope, at her feet. If she craned her neck she would be able to look out through an almost lake level porthole opposite, across to the bridge and church at the other end of the lake. Beyond this chamber a river god in the shadows beckons you forward. A stepped climb out of this 18th century thrill ride leads on to the thatched Gothic Cottage, with open fire and beams decorated with evergreens. It now offers tea and cake and views back over the lake to the bridge and Temple of Flora.
The next building is the splendid Pantheon, another of Henry Flitcroft’s works, housing a statue of Hercules accompanied by others including Diana, Flora and Isis. This would have been a fine setting for dinner parties or an evening gin and tonic. Further round the lake there is a choice between a level path and a steep zig zag – the more difficult choice is rewarded with a visit to the Temple of Apollo which looks down and over the lake providing those landscape painting garden views. Back down to the lake and you pass the Palladian bridge, a simple, elegant creation designed to appear as though it belonged to the village beyond. The final building is the Temple of Flora one of the first built features in the garden, dedicated to the goddess of flowers and spring. The path then takes you back into the dark greenery of the woodlands and then up and out into daylight again.
The garden isn’t exactly as it would have been when first built – some buildings from ‘around the world’ that were original features have since disappeared but perhaps to our eyes this now makes for a more coherent arcadian vision. Stourhead uses it valley location to great effect to create a place of beauty and colour full of myth and magic.