Stowe, May 2012

As part of my research on garden design and its changes, I’ve read about landscape gardens. However, like with most things that you read about, seeing one in person is a whole different experience.

Landscape gardens are a completely different animal from a ‘regular’ garden. They’re about scale and aspect, about what is shown and what is hidden, about mystery and artifice.

Gatehouses at the entrance to Stowe; one of each side of the road, they’re part of larger houses now.

To get to Stowe, I had to travel. A lot. Well, a lot for the UK. 15-minute walk to the station, 20-minute train to London Bridge, 20-or-so-minute trip via Tube to Marylebone station, an hour by train to Bicester North, about a 30-minute bus ride to Buckingham, and then a 2+-mile walk to Stowe (40 minutes from bus stop to the National Trust centre). About 3 hours, one-way. That left me a few hours to see the place before heading back to London.

The walk from Birmingham to Stowe was, thankfully, mostly dry and along a path off the road, so I wasn’t in danger of being flattened by a car (unlike at Sissinghurst, which I’ll describe in the following post).

The Arch, or Bell Gate, where once upon a time visitors would ring a bell and the gardener would allow them entry. Gamekeepers also lived inside.

After paying for entry at the National Trust visitors centre, which started life in 1717 as the New Inn, I started my tour with a map, knowing I would walk a lot, yet not expecting the sheer scale of the place. This was my first view of the house, on a hill beyond fields of grazing sheep…

…which are kept in check by a ha-ha. My first Ha-Ha! (For those of you making the ‘What?’ face, a ha-ha is a low wall backed by a ditch; those in the house can’t see the wall or the ditch and it looks like the animals are grazing right on the front lawn; the animals can’t jump up the ditch to get to the house. All very pastoral. All complete artificial and created to add to the feeling of being ‘one with nature’.)

The Eastern Lake Pavilion. On the same side of the entry road, and not very far, from the identical Western Lake Pavilion. Stowe–and landscape gardens in general–are thick with pavilions, temples, monuments, and other creations that both add to the view and are a place from which to take in the view.

Lakes: another artificial addition to landscape design, created to add to the ‘natural’ characteristic of, well, nature. Gone were gardens with right angles and straight lines; in were gardens with natural forms, serpentines, curves.

Architecture in the mid-to-late-Georgian period was inspired by the classical forms seen on Grand Tours of Europe. This travel also influenced the inclusion of statuary into gardens of the time. The picturesque was a third aesthetic idea to come out of the era’s expansion of scope; characterised by irregular forms–often ‘ruins’ of classical structures–the picturesque was all about making a ‘picture’ in nature. Stowe contains several ‘ruins’, including this arch with a cascade, Dido’s cave (complete with pieces of ‘classical’ buildings and shell work), a shell bridge, and a grotto.

The Rotunda. It now stands along the edge between a golf course and the Stowe School’s grounds, which definitely detracts from its once prominent place in a large ocean of grass. It’s hard to get the true feeling of this piece’s grandeur when men in pastel shirts and plaid trousers are playing through just a few feet away.

The house. Yes, it’s enormous! It was open for tours, but I decided not to be distracted as I was there to see the gardens.

The most important thing about the house for me that day was the view FROM the house. At the distance is the Arch. Between here and there, though, are temples and lakes, but none are visible. And though the Gate is a straight shot, you can’t get there from here because there are water features in the way. Again, landscape design is about artifice, about the view, about creating a reaction, about placing the human in scale to nature.

Temple of Ancient Virtues. Not far from the house, but invisible from it, this temple houses statues of Socrates, Homer, etc. From the temple, one can view…

…the Temple of British Worthies. Gardens of the times were set up to be ‘read’. There was a dialog between the garden and the visitor, who had to read the temples and monuments to discern the important ideas of the time, often influenced by politics and popular philosophy (the Enlightenment, natch). And, of course, the Temple of Ancient Virtue, atop a rise (which was very likely built by moving tons of earth), is visible from here. The placement of one temple ‘above’ another is no mistake in a garden laid out with such purpose.

The Grotto. Another fake ruin and a popular place for dinner parties in the past. But even it’s not immune to the importance of…

…a view! Again, what one may see from the grotto’s cave opening is no mistake. And viewing a seemingly deserted, completely ‘wild’ area from an irregular stone ‘cave’ opening is also not a lucky accident. This view was as planned as the one from the house’s front staircase.

To add to the feeling that the grotto has been here forever, has links to history, and grew ‘organically’, its inside is panelled in pebbles and shells (sorry–pics didn’t come out), while its outside is built of stones, some of them carved with what looks like Latin, as if they were pieces fallen from an ancient Roman temple.

Swans! Just because.

The Palladian Bridge. This is another example of a structure that I spied many times while on my walk, but could only reach by following an exact path. Granted, I could have gone off the path to reach it (and many other structures), but in a landscape garden like Stowe (which was the first garden with a visitors guide) the idea is to stay to the path and be forced to see each structure from afar, framed by a particular view.

Inside the bridge. Even though these structures were created to be seen from afar, they weren’t built like pieces of a stage set, without beautiful details.

The Chinese House. I missed the far west corner of the grounds (behind the golf course) and the far east corner, which contains more temples and other structures. But this tiny house made up for it because it was a complete surprise. It’s nearly 300 years old and covered–inside and out–in painted panels depicting flowers, fruit, and people. In the winter the house is covered to aid in its preservation.

View from the temple of Friendship (near the Chinese House) of the Palladian Bridge with the Gothic Temple and the Cobham Monument in the background. Chinese, Classical (or neoclassical) and Gothic all within a stone’s throw of each other.

Landscape gardens aren’t known for their flower beds. While there I saw a few (very few) primroses, poppies, and these lilacs (the burnt-out ruin of the Temple of Friendship is in the background). Trees and shrubbery, often planted for what it would look like decades in the future rather than immediately, were the ‘bedding’ of the landscape movement.

The Pebble Alcove. Built around 1740, the alcove is decorated with pebbles pressed into some sort of plaster or concrete. Most interesting is the inclusion of astrological symbols around the coat of arms.

What’s a landscape garden, or any English garden from the 18th century, without a hermit and a hermitage? I expected the hermitage to be larger–a sort of small house or cottage for said hermit to live in. Instead it’s one tiny room with a few alcoves and a small tower. Unfortunately, the hermit (who would have stood in as a sort of alter ego for the landowner) is no more.

Obligatory flower close-up number one: Forget-me-nots

After all of that walking (I figure I easily did 10 miles that day) it was time for a cream tea. NOM

Obligatory flower close-up number 2: Queen Anne’s Lace

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This entry was posted in Buildings, informal, Landscape, Manor Houses, Nature perfected, Out of London, Ruins and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Stowe, May 2012

  1. Pingback: Updatery, May/June « Little Fish Across the Pond

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