“We reached Stourhead at 3 o’clock. By that time the sun had penetrated the mist, and was gauzy and humid ….. Never do I remember such a Claude-like, idyllic beauty here. See Stourhead and die.”
James Lees-Milne, May 1947
It is incredible to think 20 years have elapsed since I last visited Stourhead. Incredible because I don’t consider that I’ve lived long enough not to have done something, except eat rusks or use a potty, for 20 years. Incredible because Stourhead is worth visiting much more often and incredible because I know it. So, on a gauzy, humid evening this week, armed with my iPhone, I re-entered the famed gardens to remind myself what I’d been missing for two decades.
It’s hard not to gush when one describes the loveliness of the landscape gardens at Stourhead. They are as close to a vision of earthy paradise as you are likely to witness, in England at least. And that, of course, was the hope and intention of generations of the Hoare family, the creators of these idyllic acres. Started by Henry Hoare in 1743, Stourhead was conceived as a garden in the Arcadian style, incorporating ever-changing vistas around a man-made lake, replete with temples devoted to Apollo and Flora, a rock bridge, a cascade, a grand pantheon, a gothic cottage, a grotto and acres of artfully positioned trees and shrubs. The aim was to create an idealized version of classical antiquity that would amuse, provoke and thrill visitors, and the Hoares exceeded themselves in delivering their romantic concept.
Despite the vision of Eden, all about you is false. From the lakes and islands to the tiny village with its green centered on the medieval Bristol Cross, everything was carefully contrived to create a scene of perfect peace and serenity. I recall, on a university field trip, being told of the allegories that informed the creation of this outstanding garden and its many set-pieces; how visitors were intended to experience intense emotions – good and evil, happiness and melancholy – as they circumnavigated the lake. It was the 18th century version of a roller-coaster ride.
Together with his chief adviser and designer Henry Flitcroft, Henry Hoare employed 50 gardeners, under the supervision of steward Francis Faugoin, to plant and tend thousands of beech, oak, sycamore, Spanish chestnut, ash, yew, larch and holm oak trees. He worked “con spirito” (as the spirit moved him), planting his “naked hills and dreary valleys” in picturesque swathes of varying greens. Inspired by Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Gaspard Dughet he worked in a painterly fashion arranging different trees so that dark masses would contrast with lighter, airier ones. Eventually his grandson, Richard Colt Hoare, would add splashes of colour in the form of the rhododendrons for which Stourhead is now famous.
“Nymph of the grot, these sacred springs I keep. and to the murmur of these waters sleep; ah! spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave. and drink in silence, or in silence lave”
We were blessed on our evening stroll by perfect conditions: golden sunlight, not a breath of wind, hardly a soul about and a pub at the end of our perambulations. Not just any pub, but The Spread Eagle, one of several estate buildings built specifically to complete the picturesque illusion of an English village. I can confirm it looks even better after two pints of bitter.
As we slowly circled the lake we were enveloped by the distinctive, sickly sweet scent of Rhododendron luteum and watched the white bracts of the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, fluttering lazily down from the shady canopy. In every direction there was a view across the lake towards a temple, or a glimpse across a hazy meadow, or a delicious carpet of fallen blossom to trample through. In places groves of Crinodendron hookerianum, philadelphus, rhododendron and Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel) were in full bloom.
As a landscape garden, Stourhead stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries: a greater vision of loveliness it’s hard to imagine. This would doubtless have pleased Henry Hoare enormously. Risen from the ranks of the merchant class he sought land on which to make his mark, and that he did. My excursion may have been long overdue, but I am determined that a return visit to Stourhead will not wait another 20 years.