On the hottest day this year in the south of England, temperatures rose to 30° C. So I took myself off to Painshill Park in Cobham, Surrey an 18th century landscape garden which was originally created by the Honourable Charles Hamilton between 1738 and 1773. Being only a ten minute drive from my daughter’s house where I was pet-sitting for the week, a walk around the Serpentine Lake and under shady Heritage trees seemed like a good idea, especially with several mystical follies to find. The accessible route is about 1.5 miles but then there is an additional mile or so on the historical route which is steeper and more rugged, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy coming along with me. Just bring some water – it is hot!
The garden was designed as a series of ‘moods’ each one leading to the other creating a romantic landscape. Hamilton was a painter as well as a plantsman and was, at the time, in the forefront of the picturesque movement. The landscape was among the earliest to reflect the changing fashion from geometric formality to the naturalistic style. Not much in the way of flowers for me, but none the less a pleasant stroll around a parkland that I suspect will look glorious in a couple of months time dressed in autumn’s glory.
A short climb up to the Fir Walk through the woodland brings you above the vineyard planted on the slopes to the lake. From this path you have lovely views across the landscape. Many of Painshill’s trees are very old and the park has full collection status for the John Bartram Heritage Collection of North American trees and shrubs. From here it is a level walk to the Gothic Temple which affords a ‘living painting‘ view through the pillared windows.
Pathways lead down to the lake shore and the Ruined Abbey and through the peninsula planting of shrubs.
A Chinese bridge (which I was expecting to be painted red) crosses over the lake at this point and on to Grotto Island where you will find the Crystal Grotto, hundreds of thousands of crystals – calcite, gypsum, quartz and fluorite – including originals recovered from archaeological works have been used to restore the Grotto. Being slightly claustrophobic I decided against venturing inside, but instead continued my route over the Woollett bridge to the opposite side of the lake, stopping briefly to photograph the numerous ducks, swans and geese that have made their home here.
Following the path around the lake and enjoying the shade of the treeline, you next come to the Five Arch Bridge which has revived Hamilton’s long lake vista which can be viewed from the Gothic Temple or the Turkish Tent. Now that’s what I call a view.
Overview of the lake and park
At this junction you can cross the bridge and walk back to the starting point alongside the opposite side of the lake or turn left before crossing the bridge and head off on to the Historic Route to look at some of the other follies in the parkland. This route is more uneven and made up of steep inclines and unmade paths, but let’s go and take a look!
The Hermitage is built above the side of a steep slope with views across the countryside with the River Mole below. A Hermit was employed by Hamilton to live here as a recluse with a strict seven year contract. Within weeks he was found drunk in a nearby Cobham inn and never returned. The Gothic Tower was built for the views. If you like you can climb the 99 steps to the top where apparently on a clear day you can see as far as Canary Wharf and Windsor Castle. Given my issue with an Achilles tendon, I passed on the climb, instead made my way across the Elysian Plain to the Temple of Bacchus site which again provides a convenient bench or two with amazing countryside views. Sadly it was at this point where I slipped on the uneven pathway and twisted my ankle, so the rest of the walk back to the car-park was a bit of painful hobble.
The Turkish tent is where you get that great long lake vista, it was the last stop of the garden tour before returning across the open parkland and where visitors could rest and take refreshment. A shame there isn’t refreshment provided here now! The core of the tent is, and always has been, a solid building with the original surviving until c1870. This new tent retains the views but the cornice, once made from papier mâché, and the drapes, originally painted canvas, are now recreated in a more robust form.
I wandered down to the Five Arch bridge and decided to cross the bridge and walk back alongside the lake to get a view of the Ruined Abbey and the vineyard from the other side. You can of course retrace the route across Grotto Island or else follow the path to the left of the bridge and up through the woodland. I wanted to stay as level as possible though at this stage as my ankle was swelling alarmingly.
Which brings us back to the start where you will find the toilets, shop and tea-room and also a splendid statue of Bacchus that was originally purchased by Hamiltion in Rome for a sum of £2000. It was housed in the Temple of Bacchus and admired by many including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson when they came to visit in 1786. Sadly it was sold along with the rest of the contents after the death of the next owner and remained a mystery as to its location. The National Trust discovered it in 2001 in Anglesey Abbey. Being too fragile to be outside, this is a replica. Once the temple has been restored it will take pride of place back where it belongs.
More lovely walks can be found over at my friend Jo’s place.