When we started planning this blog we thought what better way to start than by suggesting a winter walk through one of our great historic gardens and landscapes.  Unfortunately the weather probably stopped most of us being able to do that over the last few days but don’t give up on the idea because as soon as the rain stops there’ll be plenty of chances to get outside and enjoy the wintery weather.  It may be cold but winter does have its advantages. One is that it reveals the framework of gardens and the structure of landscapes more clearly than when they are lush and leafy in the summer. This can often help you understand the changes and alterations that have taken place over time, and can make the links & connections between the various parts of the site more obvious. Another is that the colours and contrasts are much stronger – which is great even if you’re not a photographer.

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The Palladian Bridge and Gothic Temple,  Dec 2013 © David Marsh

One garden I was going to suggest for that walk was Stowe in Buckinghamshire.  I’d gone there just a week before Christmas when it was bright and clear, to see the changes that the National Trust have been making recently.  Stowe is an iconic landscape and has a fascinating but complex history.  As you’ll see from our database Sir Richard Temple laid the foundations of the current house in the mid-17thc and from 1668 started improvement works on the garden, but it was his son Viscount Cobham who was responsible for much of what we see today.  In 1711 he completely redesigned his father’s garden and instead laid out a vast and elaborate parterre.  Over the next few decades he called in a succession of leading landscape designers and architects to help him lay out one of the most impressive gardens in the country. Charles Bridgeman was responsible for creating long axial vistas, and woodland walks, for the ha-ha that still forms much of the boundary, and for the Octagon Lake. John Vanbrugh added pavilions and James Gibbs more temples and the Palladian bridge.  More famously William Kent “saw that all Nature was a garden” and created the Elysian Fields with its stunning collection of garden buildings in a naturalistic setting.   Apart from their intrinsic appeal they also reveal a lot about Lord Cobham’s politics [and if you wonder how that’s possible then see the links at the end of this post].  And finally the 25 year old Capability Brown was appointed head gardener in 1741. He laid out the Grecian Valley in what was to become his characteristic style: clumps and belts of trees, large expanses of short grass and serpentine curves. He also began altering the work of his predecessors, notably “naturalizing” Bridgeman’s lake.  Incidentally it will be the tercentenary of Brown’s birth in 2016 and Stowe is a good place to start discovering perhaps the best-known English garden designer of all time.  For more about his career and the other gardens he designed, take a look at  http://www.capabilitybrown.org/

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The House across the Octagon Lake, Dec 2013 © David Marsh

But nothing stays the same for ever, especially in a garden. Not even in a garden as grand as Stowe.  No sooner had Cobham died in 1749 than the new owner, his nephew Earl Grenville, began a series of major alterations, softening the formal lines, classicizing buildings and turning grand avenues into clumps of trees.

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The Temple of Concord and Victory, Dec 2013 © David Marsh

Later owners opted for a grander style once again, building new entrance lodges and laying out exceptionally long approach avenues that cut across the entire estate.  Although today this is somewhat marred by the paraphernalia of a gold course, you still get a sense the scale and grandeur of the original conception.

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The house seen through the Corinthian Arch, Dec 2013 © David Marsh

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View from the house back to the Corinthian Arch, Dec 2013 © David Marsh

Of course all this cost money and the family began to run out, finally selling up in 1921 when the estate was sold and became a public school. Some restoration work was undertaken during their tenure of the garden, before the National Trust acquired most of the garden and much of the park in 1989 and embarked on a long-term comprehensive garden restoration scheme.

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The Gothic Temple and Lord Cobham’s Monument, Dec 2013 © David Marsh

Stowe is a great example of how successive owners and designers leave their mark on the land, but equally how ephemeral that mark can be.  A walk around the estate now shows layer after layer of history. The new entrance via the former New Inn, crosses Bridgeman’s ha-ha, passes by garden buildings adapted to new uses, gives a view of the house through the branches of trees and across undulating parkland and then reveals new eye-catchers at almost every turn. But it is not the individual buildings themselves, marvellous though they are, that are the main attraction of Stowe. As Patrick Taylor says  it is “the large-scale animation of the landscape that is the most thrilling and memorable quality of Stowe. Some very large gardens, often designed to proclaim the importance of the owner, can crush the spirit. Stowe has the opposite effect: it induces a feeling a of delighted exhilaration.” [The Gardens of Britain and Ireland, London: Dorling Kindersley, 2003, p.108]

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The statue of Venus in The Rotunda, Dec 2013 © David Marsh

In short Stowe is much more than a living document of English garden history at its best it is also a magical and enjoyable place just to be.  So, ignore the cold and the wet, go and see for yourselves….and by the way there’s a very nice cafe at the new entrance to warm up & reward yourself in afterwards!

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The Rotunda seen across Eleven Acre Lake, Dec 2013 © David Marsh

Here are some links and suggestions for further reading if you’d like to know more about Stowe and its history.

For opening times& other visitor information:  http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/stowe/

For a detailed history & descriptive guide to the gardens and its monuments: http://faculty.bsc.edu/jtatter/summary.html    and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stowe_House

Selected further reading:

Michael Bevington, Stowe: The People and the Place, (National Trust, 2011)

Michael Bevington, Stowe: the bibliography: the landscape garden, park, house, estate and school, (Leeds: New Arcadian Press, 2004)

Patrick Eyres (editor), How pleasing are thy temples now?: The political temples of Stowe, New Arcadian Journal, 1997

G.B.Clarke (editor), The Description of Lord Cobham’s gardens at Stowe (1700-1750), (Aylesbury: Bucks Record Society 1990)

Timothy Mowl, Gentlemen & Players: Gardeners of the English Landscape, (Stroud: Sutton, 2000)

Steffie Shields, ‘Mr Engineer Brown’: Lancelot Brown’s Early Work at Grimsthorpe castle and Stowe, Garden History, Vol.34 no.2 (Winter 2006), pp.174-191

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Detail of the Palladian Bridge, Dec 2013 © David Marsh

David Marsh.

31st December 2013.

We’d welcome your comments and feedback on our blog.  Please note that all views expressed are the responsibility of the author and not Parks and Gardens UK.

About Parks and Gardens UK

Parks & Gardens UK is the leading on-line resource for historic parks and gardens providing freely accessible, accurate and inspiring information on UK parks, gardens and designed landscapes. Email - info@parksandgardens.org. Website - www.parksandgardens.org
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