An 18th century landscape of temples and statues

Stowe Landscape Gardens. Perhaps one of the finest examples we have of the fashion for ‘natural’ gardening that blossomed in the mid- to late-18th century. And this was natural as opposed to the more formal approach to gardening that was common before this period, and perhaps quite well exemplified by the Anglo-Dutch garden at Westbury Court in Gloucestershire.

Covering an area of about 250 acres, Stowe Gardens and Park are open to the public almost all year round, and are best approached along the Grand Avenue from the nearby town of Buckingham.

It’s a 10 minute walk from the car park to the entrance into the gardens, and there, on the other side of the lake, stands the magnificent Palladian mansion, Stowe House (now a public school and open periodically to the public). We must have walked more than eight miles in total.

The gardens as we see them today were developed – and greatly expanded from an original formal garden – by General Sir Richard Temple, later Viscount Cobham follwoing his marriage in 1715. A number of landscape architects were involved in developing the gardens and building the various temples and other structures that are dotted about the park, including ‘Capability’ Brown who was Lord Cobham’s head gardener in 1746. A detailed description of the gardens and the various buildings has been published in Wikipedia (so there’s no need to repeat this here) and is certainly worth referring to for more information about each, who designed them and when.

Stowe Landscape Gardens are now regarded as one of the most significant to have survived into this century, and can now be enjoyed through the National Trust. The rest of this particular post is dedicated to the photography I enjoyed during our visit in early September. Each of the images has a caption so you can locate each building on the map below.

Entering the gardens 

The Palladian Bridge

Along Lord Cobham’s Walk from the Palladian Bridge to the Grecian Valley

Virtue and Worthies

The western walks


Tis well. (George Washington, 14 December 1799)

George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of the Nation, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, first President (1789 – 1797) of the United States of America, and slave owner, was born in Virginia in 1731. And like many (most, probably) of his contemporaries, descended from English forebears.

In fact, the Washington family is an old one from County Durham (now Tyne and Wear) in the northeast of England, and the ancestral home is Washington Old Hall in the small community of Washington that is now surrounded by a complex of arterial roads that connect Newcastle and Sunderland to the main motorways to the south.

At the end of September on our way home from Newcastle, we stopped off at Washington Old Hall – less than 10 miles from where our younger daughter Philippa lives in Newcastle with her family.

The south facade of Washington Old Hall, from the Nuttery

The south facade of Washington Old Hall, from the Nuttery

Situated in the center of the ‘village’, the hall is not very well sign-posted and it took a couple of wrong turns before we ended up at the hall, and were, for the most part, the only visitors that morning inside the house (although some local mums were walking in the gardens with their children).

Although there has been a building on this site since the 12th century, much of what we see today was built in the 17th century. And had links to the Washington family until the 1930s. Before it was taken over by the National Trust, it had been divided at some period of the last century into a series of dwellings, each family essentially having just one or two rooms. The ground floor of the hall has been restored more or less in 17th century style, while the upper floor has mainly been turned over to Washington family memorabilia and their connection with the USA’s illustrious first president.

The grounds are quite small, but attractive. Below the main terrace in front of the hall there is a parterre garden, an apple orchard and vegetable garden, and beyond those, a nuttery. And, as with most National Trust properties, there’s a small cafe where you can enjoy a welcome cuppa.

In 1976, the USA celebrated its bicentennial. Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th President in November that year and took office on 20 January 1977. During his first overseas trip as president, Carter visited the UK, and on Friday 6 May he made a special visit to Washington Old Hall, flying into Newcastle International Airport (known as Woolsington Airport then) on Air Force One (a Boeing 707), in the company of UK Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. Click here to read the detailed itinerary and schedule of that visit to Washington Old Hall, as well as Newcastle and Sunderland.

This visit to Washington Old Hall in September was our second encounter with George Washington this year. In June we visited the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and saw the impressive sculpture that honors Washington along with presidents Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln.

Four presidents in the sky

Four presidents in the sky

Strange shapes on the skyline

The clues are there if you only know how to recognize them. For many landscapes it is quite difficult to determine just what forces of nature sculpted what we see all around us, and frankly take for granted as always having been there.

As a geography student at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s, I studied geomorphology (the study of landscapes and the forces that shape them) over three years. So it’s quite fun when we are out and about on our travels trying to work out how any particular landscape evolved. Of course, in the past 10,000 years or less humans have had a dramatic impact on what we see, often hiding the very features that would provide a straightforward answer.

But there are many landscapes when it is much clearer how ice, water, or wind acted upon the geology to reveal those landscape features that we all treasure. The tors of the Dartmoor, formed through chemical weathering of granite in a tropical environment, find their counterparts in Nigeria, for example.

Walking round Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire (just northwest of Knaresborough and Harrogate) the effects of wind erosion on a 400 million year old sandstone, Millstone Grit, during the last Ice Age some 12-18,000 years ago) – and earlier periods of weathering in warmer climates millions of years ago – can be clearly seen. And some fantastical rock formations are now carefully protected by the National Trust.

Steph and I visited Brimham Rocks at the end of September on our way north to Newcastle, and what glorious weather we had. You could see south and east 20 miles or more over the Vale of York. In fact the tower of York Minster was clearly visible on the horizon. And to the west, the landscape rises towards the backbone of England, The Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales.

Walking up from the car park, we took the left hand route round the Rocks. In the video you can see several of the rock formations that are indicated on the map: Surprise View, Cannon Rocks, Eagle, Dancing Bear, Druid’s Writing Desk, and Idol, among others, finally come round to Druid’s Castle Rocks from the north and east (click on the map, ©2002 The National Trust, to open a larger version, and which is reproduced here for illustrative purposes and to encourage visitors to Brimham Rocks).

©2002 The National Trust – inlcuded here for illustrative purposes and to encourage visitors to Brimham Rocks

Canals and hedges – the formality and beauty of an Anglo-Dutch water garden

At the beginning of September, we headed some 48 miles southwest of where we live in Worcestershire to Westbury Court Garden, a National Trust property in Gloucestershire, on the banks of the River Severn estuary. It was a typical early September day when high pressure dominates the weather scene – somewhat misty and murky, overcast, and the sun taking until mid-afternoon to burn away the worst of the low cloud.

Maynard Colchester commenced excavation of the garden in 1696, with the digging of the first canal, and layout of the garden in the formal Dutch style, shown in Johannes Kip’s 1712 engraving below of the house and garden. You have to remember that Dutchman William III was King at the time.

And until today, Westbury Court Garden remains the only surviving garden in this Anglo-Dutch style. There is no longer a house on the site.

There are impressive north-facing views over the garden and canals from the Tall Pavilion.

Along the canals are planted espaliered fruits, mainly heritage apple varieties (some dating back to the 1500s), but also some pears and plums. There is one area of formal gardens, but the gardeners are having to grub out the box hedges due to box blight. The yews lining the canals are apparently being affected by a fungal disease (a Phytophthora attack) and unless this can be brought under control the yew hedges might be lost as well.

The gardens are not large, but in the contrast between the canals (full – even choked – with water lilies) and the formal beds, they are a delight to the eye, and a haven of peace (even though a rather busy road does pass by at the north end). Among the features worthy of special mention are a glorious tulip tree (Liriodendron sp.) that must be at least 100 feet tall, and an impressive 400 year old evergreen oak (Quercus ilex).

You can easily take in all that Westbury Court Garden has to offer in 60-90 minutes, but as a stopover on the way to another destination (we were headed for the Forest of Dean, and The Kymin), it is certainly worth a visit. After all, it is a unique remnant of a by-gone era of gardening in this country before the fad for open landscapes (championed by the likes of Capability Brown) took hold later on in the eighteenth century.

The perfect picnic spot . . .

It’s been a perfect picnic spot since Georgian times in the 18th century. And where’s this ideal place? Why, The Kymin, of course.

On a steep hill overlooking the town on Monmouth in the Wye valley on the English-Welsh border, The Kymin has a number of features that you wouldn’t associate with an inland site (although it’s not that far from the Severn Estuary).

There are two buildings at the top of the hill: the Round House (which is open only on certain days, and not when we visited) and the Naval Temple, constructed in 1800 to commemorate the British naval victory at the Battle of the Nile, but also British admirals who had played major roles in confronting the French leading up to that date.

Admiral Lord Nelson and his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton visited The Kymin in 1802.

On a clear day the views from the top must be spectacular to the south and west, towards the Brecon Beacons and the Welsh valleys. On the day we visited it had been overcast in the morning, and the cloud was beginning to burn away only by early afternoon when we arrived. But it was still very hazy and we couldn’t see many miles beyond Monmouth itself.

It’s a very narrow and winding road (but with passing places) from the main road A4136 up to The Kymin. But the climb is certainly worth the effort – if you can find the exit from the A4136 (traveling east to west towards Monmouth would be much easier, since the road leading up to The Kymin is on a sharp bend).

More Loire Valley than Thames . . .

The day dawned fair, and as so often this summer, Steph and I took full advantage of the weather last Wednesday to take in yet another National Trust property. Heading 73 miles southeast from our home just south of Birmingham, our destination was Waddesdon Manor, built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874. Surrounded by mature parkland (these house builders from previous centuries certainly had a long term vision) full of majestic trees, Waddesdon Manor sits on a hill with magnificent views over the Vale of Aylesbury, the Chilterns, and west towards Oxford and the Thames Valley.

Designed in the style of a Renaissance French chateau, the property comprises the main house (with its separate ‘bachelor’ wing), overlooking an impressive parterre that the National Trust gardeners maintain to an impressive standard, a rococo aviary stocked with many species from Southeast Asia that we are familiar with from our nineteen years in the Philippines and, at some little distance from the main house, a stable block that now houses visiting exhibitions and dining outlets.

The National Trust has recently built a car park for 1000 cars, which goes to show just how popular visits to Waddesdon can be. We were quite lucky, and it was not too busy during our visit. There’s a regular shuttle every 10 minutes from the car park to the house. The walk takes a suggested 15 minutes (but we think much longer). Entry to the house is by timed ticket that can be booked online ahead of your visit.

There’s no doubt that Waddesdon Manor is one of the most impressive houses we have visited. Everything has been cared for, and the house certainly does not have the feel of a museum, even though it’s stacked to the rafters with the most exquisite objets d’art – but more of that later. Even as early as the last years of the 19th century Baron Ferdinand’s sister Alice was aware of the effect of sunlight on the furnishings, and from then till now, the house contents have been shielded in good part from the worst effects of light. Surprisingly, photography is permitted throughout the house (unless indicated otherwise, but there were no restrictions during our visit), but as with all National Trust properties, the use of a flash is not permitted. Thank goodness for the advanced settings on digital cameras that permit photography even in low light levels.

But it’s the interiors of Waddesdon Manor that leave one feeling rather slack-jawed. The opulence – and ostentation – is overpowering. Priceless clocks, ceramics, silverware, and sculpture adorn almost every available surface. Old Masters cover the walls. There is magnificent furniture dating back several centuries in almost every room. This is a Rothschild expression of wealth and power, kept in the family by a series of astute marriages between quite close relatives.

While you can’t help marveling at the wonder and beauty of the enormous collection assembled by Baron Ferdinand, I came away from Waddesdon Manor with a sense of unease. I have now visited quite a few National Trust properties over the past three years, many of them built and furnished by individuals who, in their time, were fabulously wealthy. Was Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild any different, or is it that the construction and furnishing of Waddesdon Manor is comparatively recent compared to many of the other properties? I read that Baron Ferdinand built Waddesdon to house his collection of fine objets d’art, to show off to his friends. So I got the feeling that he somehow assembled such a fantastic collection just because he could, not because he really appreciated their beauty. They were there to be displayed, not to add to the aesthetics of the Manor. Certainly there is so much to see, so much to take in, that it really is challenging to appreciate everything there.

Waddesdon was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957, but the family still have an interest in the property. And one of these is the sale of fine wines from the Rothschild vineyards in the Bordeaux region of France. A visit to the wine cellars under the west wing is fascinating, with one of the galleries stretching for many tens of meters, and stacked, floor to ceiling, with boxes of wine ready for sale.

So although I’m glad I visited Waddesdon, and did marvel at the beauty of the many things we saw, it won’t be high on my list for a second visit any time soon.


Lost in the mists of time . . .

Before Monday I’d never heard of Hailes Abbey. Owned by the National Trust, but managed by English Heritage, Hailes Abbey (or what now remains of it), is a 13th century Cistercian monastery, nestling under the Cotswolds escarpment, a few miles east of Tewksbury in Gloucestershire.

Having seen that the weather would be fine this week, we began to plan another day out. on Tuesday. Browsing through the Trust’s handbook for members it soon became clear that several properties we wanted to visit were not open on a Tuesday. That’s when I turned to a neat National Trust app on my new iPad mini. And that’s when I ‘discovered’ Hailes Abbey (and also a 14th century tithe barn in a village we would pass on our way home).

Royal connections
Founded in 1246 by Richard, Duke of Cornwall, son of King John, and younger brother of Henry III, I was surprised to learn that Hailes had been an important house in the network of Cistercian monasteries founded all over England, and certainly one to rival Fountains Abbey or Rievaulx  Abbey, although perhaps not quite on the same scale.

But that’s actually quite hard to fathom, since so little of the original buildings remain, that were constructed from the local oolitic limestone. It is clear however that, from the dimensions of the church at Hailes, it must have been a pretty impressive community, like many others that were founded more or less around the same time. Of course, Hailes suffered the same fate as other religious houses under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century.

The monks gained much of their income from wool – supposedly they kept up to 4,000 sheep (the famous Cotswolds breed, perhaps). Also, the community had a relic of the ‘True Blood of Christ’ (and later on even a relic of ‘The True Cross’). Pilgrims apparently flocked to Hailes, and made donations for the privilege of venerating the relics.

Just a few walls are still standing today, and some of the surviving stone carvings have been removed to a small museum on site. Nevertheless, the dimensions of many of the buildings and rooms are still visible. And from the dimensions of the walls, and from what is still visible, it’s not too hard to imagine a grand church vaulting skywards.

On most days it would be an extremely peaceful site to visit, and in most respects it was. But the staff were busy mowing the grass, so for much of our visit there was the background drone of mowers and strimmers.

Just across the road from the Abbey is a small chapel, older than the abbey, and constructed in the mid-12th century, with some impressive frescoes still visible. I guess many churches were decorated like this before the Reformation. And behind the chapel is the site of a former castle, but no signs of it at all are visible today. Instead the fields are owned by a plant breeding company, and laid out to wheat variety trials.

Another medieval tithe barn
In August last year, we visited a tithe barn in Bredon. Just a few miles upstream, at Middle Littleton (just northeast of Evesham and south of Bidford-on-Avon), is another 13th century tithe barn. It’s certainly an impressive structure, and although we were there for only about 30 minutes, it’s worth stopping by. The stone roof is particularly interesting, especially seeing how the roofers accommodated changes in pitch and angle. The beam structure underneath holding it up is also impressive. It’s open every day from 2-5 pm, between 1 April and 31 October.