Stourhead is often called
“one of the most beautiful of this country’s landscape gardens”
with a gentle harmonious planting of broad-leaved trees, conifers and rhododendrons. The valley landscape began in the 1740s by Henry Hoare II who had returned from a three-year tour of Italy and was inspired by the Roman Campagna ( a low-lying area surrounding Rome in the Lazio region of central Italy) which also inspired many landscape painters of the time.
It is probably a garden best seen during the spring or autumn when the tree colours are at their best. But my visit was towards the end of July on a particularly warm, but overcast day. Located in Stourton, Wiltshire the garden is best approached by walking downhill from the car park, past the estate village with its inn, church and row of cottages and down to the lake.
There is a circular walk around the lake, taking in the woods, with glimpses between the trees of the garden buildings. The understorey is mostly a glossy evergreen with shrubs of cherry laurel and rhododendron, here and there a glimpse of wild flowers or hydrangeas and hostas.
Above on a hill is the Temple of Apollo and on the far bank of the lake, the portico and rotunda of the Pantheon. The buildings disappearing as you continue into the woodland and make your way around the lake.
The Temple of Apollo
The Temple of Apollo
The Temple of Apollo
The Temple of Flora
The layout of the garden is not random, but alive with hidden symbolic meanings and it is no coincidence that Stourhead’s story was based on Aeneas’s journey to Carthage, following the fall of Troy. The first building you come to (if you walk anti-clockwise) is the Temple of Flora. Dedicated to the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, this temple was the first garden building erected by Henry Hoare II between 1744 and 1746. Over the doorway the Latin inscription reads:
‘Keep away, anyone profane, keep away’.
The visitor then descends on paths in an anti-clockwise route around the lake, recalling Aeneas’s descent into the underworld, finding Dido who turns away from him. Continuing his journey he enters the Grotto, where the river god shows him the way out and he completes his heroic quest by founding Rome, symbolised by the Pantheon.
Palladian bridge and the Bristol Cross
The Pantheon: Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, this structure was built in 1753-54. It’s the largest garden building at Stourhead. ‘Pantheon’ means a temple sacred to all the gods. The temple is filled with statues of classical deities, including a marble Hercules created by Rysbrack. Well worth a look inside.
Leaving the Pantheon behind you take in a different vista. Across the lake to the Palladian bridge a five-arched stone bridge built in 1762. Although ornamental, the bridge was intended to look practical. It was designed to create the illusion that a river flows through the village and under the bridge.
High on the hill is the Temple of Apollo, built in 1765, by the architect Henry Flitcroft, to outdo William Chamber’s earlier Temple of the Sun at Kew. It is dedicated to Apollo, the sun god. Nestled on a hilltop, the temple has delightful views over the lake.
People picnic on the lawns. Sit on the steps. Fish in the lake. Although busy the grounds are so vast it doesn’t feel crowded.
The panoramic vistas are wonderful, but for me the best part are the old stable yard and walled kitchen garden, which were being renovated on my visit several years ago. A Foster and Pearson glasshouse dating from 1902 stands in the lower walled garden and housed a collection of pelargoniums.
The success of Stourhead lies in its painterly views; the way you can’t see all of the garden buildings at once and the anticipation of glimpsing a view through the trees. Hoare noted that
‘the greens should be ranged together in large masses as the shades are in a painting.’
I’m afraid that I prefer a plantsman’s garden to this landscape garden, my joy comes from the colours and forms of flowers and Stourhead doesn’t really ‘do’ flowers. But nothing can take away the fact that this is a truly magnificent garden landscape.
Size: 93 acres (38 hectares)
- Street: Stourhead
- Postcode: BA12 6QD
- City: Stourton
- County: Wiltshire
- Country: United Kingdom
- Website: Stourhead Gardens website
If you like a walk, long or short, then please visit Jo for her regular strolls in the UK and the Algarve and maybe you would like to join in too. She’s very welcoming.