In the heart of south-west England, not far from the tourist-beloved Stonehenge is another superb example of our country’s rich and varied heritage. Stourhead gardens in Wiltshire are among the best examples of English landscape gardening – a favourite mode for 18th-century gentry to show off. We went to take a look.
Our guide was Mike, a long-standing volunteer at Stourhead, a National Trust-owned property (and indeed, one of its most-visited). He led us along the lakeside path, pointing out views, unusual trees and telling us the history of the gardens. He warned us in advance – following the path around the lake is meant to evoke a journey similar to that of Aeneas's descent in to the underworld.
With the lake always at the centre of attention, paths wind through clusters of trees and shrubs for ever-changing vistas out across the water. Greek-style temples, frivolous monuments, grottoes and bridges provide focal points amidst the lush foliage.
Mike explained how in the early 1700s a certain young Henry Hoare II, upon returning to the estate fresh from the Grand Tour of Europe had visions of idealistic landscapes from paintings in his head. He set to work and it would take an incredible nearly 40 years to complete the scene. We went onwards and upwards to reach a circular temple called Apollo. Now here was a view. We could take in the whole lake and on the opposite shore the Pantheon – the largest of Stourhead’s temples and fully equipped for lakeside gatherings with an underfloor-heated terrace.
To our pleasant surprise, Mike fished in his pocket for a jangle of keys and unlocked the door to Apollo. Inside this pleasingly cylindrical room, the eye soars up to see a golden Apollo himself peering down at us through his sunbeams. The temple is used as a wedding venue and it’s easy to see why. Apollo and Pantheon were definitely built with many a warm evening’s soiree in mind.
Stourhead gardens were used for filming in the movies Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Barry Lyndon (1975).
How to see Stourhead
For entry to the house and grounds: adult £13.20; child £6.60 (correct in February 2014).
Stourhead is open all year but check the National Trust website for specific details as sometimes the house or certain areas of the grounds are closed.
Nearest rail stations: Gillingham 6½ miles; Bruton 7 miles. Driving: Follow the brown signs off the A303. The property is on the B3092 from Frome. Thanks to VisitWiltshire, the National Trust at Stourhead and tour guide Mike for showing us around – to find out more about Stourhead, check out the VisitBritain LoveWall.