DURING OUR TEENAGE YEARS, my friends. Francis, Hugh, and Michael, and I used to take short trips to places of interest outside London. Amongst the many places we visited were Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury, and Winchester, to name but a few. In those days, the mid to late 1960s, none of us could drive. So, we had to rely on getting to places by public transport. On one occasion, we arrived in Cirencester, hoping to find some way of getting to the remains of the Roman villa at Chedworth, which is about ten miles distant from it. The situation looked desperate. We were worrying that we would have to walk when I spotted an old-fashioned looking bus arrive. The driver told us that he operated a once a week service that passed Chedworth. We boarded and reached our goal.
One place that we always wanted to visit was the garden at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Famed for its spectacular landscaping including many architectural ‘follies’, this place was, despite our extensive research, impossible to reach using public transport. It remained one of our greatest wishes to see Stourhead, as great as the Jewish people’s desire to see the so-called Holy Land. Stourhead was almost our ‘Goldene Medina’. We never managed to reach it together.
Many years later, in the 1990s, my wife and I made our first visit to Stourhead, travelling by car. We saw the place at its best on a bright sunny afternoon. In late September 2020, we returned to Stourhead on a grey, rainy afternoon during the covid19 pandemic. Despite the inclement weather and the restrictions as to where we could walk, we had a wonderful time. Every footstep we took led to one after another exciting view of the landscaped parkland. Wherever we looked, we saw fine trees and a wide variety of shrubs and other plants. Much of the walk is around an irregularly shaped man-made lake, the shores of which are dotted with architectural ‘follies’, constructed to enhance the romantic landscape. Many of these are built to resemble Greek or Roman classical temples. There is also a cottage built in Gothic Revival style and a wonderful and rather weird artificial grotto containing statues and fountains. Words cannot begin to do justice to the beauty of the gardens at Stourhead. The place has to be seen to be believed, and the weather, both good or bad, simply enhances the delightful experience that has been produced by nature skilfully assisted by mankind.
The gardens in the 2650-acre estate of Stourhead were designed by Henry Hoare II (1705-1785), a banker and garden designer. They were laid out between 1741 and 1780 in a classical 18th century design, based on the landscape paintings by artists such as Claude Lorraine and Poussin. The Hoare family owned paintings by some of these great masters. Many of the monuments or follies that adorn the garden were designed by the architect Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769), who died in Hampstead, the area in which I grew up. The slightly over one-mile long walk around the lake was designed to try to evoke a journey similar to that of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld. The design of this path was conceived to produce alterations in the mood of the visitor as he or she walks along it, moods reflecting those of Aeneas on his journey. If that was the intention, Aeneas must have had a wonderful trip.
In brief, the grounds at Stourhead should not be missed by anyone with even the very slightest interest in gardens. In the words of the Dutchman Baron Van Spaen van Biljoen (1746-1827), who visited the garden in the late 18th century:
“Nothing in England could compare with Stourhead … we were in such ecstasy we had the utmost difficulty in tearing ourselves away from this charming spot…”
This noble Dutchman visited many gardens in England with his stepfather-in-law, Baron W. C. H. van Lynden van Blitterswijk (1736–1816) during the summer of 1791. His opinion is still valid today. The Dutch visitors would have seen Stourhead when the oldest part of the garden would have been only fifty years old. The plants would have been far less developed than they are today. As my wife said wisely, Hoare and his family were not only creating the garden for themselves but for the many generations that would surely follow in their footsteps.
On the day we visited Stourhead, we visited another garden not far away, near the charming town of Bruton in Somerset. Like Stourhead, created in the 18th century to depict nature naturally but under the guiding hand of man, the Piet Oudolf Field next to the Somerset branch of the Hauser & Wirth art gallery is a carefully curated ‘wilderness’, an attractive sea of wild flowers and shrubs. Piet Oudolf (born 1944), a Dutch garden designer, began creating the one-and-a-half-acre garden next to the gallery less than ten years ago.
The garden grows on a plot that slopes gently down to the buildings housing the gallery. At the highest point in the garden, there is what looks like an oversized donut or, perhaps, a huge whiteish mushroom (when viewed from outside it). It is in fact a structure that was the temporary summer pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2014. It rests on giant rocks and was designed by Smiljan Radic, a Chilean architect born in 1965. Made of a semi-transparent fibre-reinforced plastic shell, it is hollow and allows the visitor to walk around in what looks like part of a large snail shell. Although it looks quite different from the plants growing around it, its fungal resemblance makes it blend with them in a remarkably pleasing way.
Incidentally, the Oudolf Field is worth visiting in combination with the spacious art gallery and its associated restaurant that provides exceptionally good food. I recommend their Sunday roasts!
Both Stourhead and the nearby but much younger Oudolf Field, are fine and beautiful examples of man’s interaction with nature. Visiting these gardens lifted our spirits despite the rain that fell almost incessantly. I had to wait for over thirty years before my wish to visit Stourhead was fulfilled, but it was well worth waiting for.