Stourhead Gardens temple
Stourhead Gardens
Stourhead is reason enough to visit England all by itself. It is one of the best examples of the English landscape style of garden; a brilliant Arcadian design begun by Henry Hoare in 1741, incorporating ever changing vistas around a lake, replete with temples to Apollo and Flora, a rock bridge, a cascade, a pantheon, a thatched cottage, and a grotto. The idea behind the Arcadian movement was to create an idealized version of classical antiquity.

The Arcadian ideal is the sort of background scene you see in many Italian Renaissance portraits, including the Mona Lisa; a landscape full of allegory in the form of carefully placed mock ruins and classical Greek or Roman temples and monuments. This is a vision of gardening where the garden is almost secondary to the philosophy of ordered nature (ordered and arranged by humans).  Given the complexity of the design it is not surprising that Hoare did not complete his garden until 1780.

Stourhead Palladian Bridge and Bristol Cross
The Palladian Bridge and Bristol Cross
The best way to experience Hoare's original vision is to follow an anti-clockwise route around the lake. As you walk you will catch glimpses across the lake of attractive temples and other buildings through openings in the trees and bushes. The when you arrive at the building you see another vista to a different goal. In 1765 Horace Walpole described the view from the Temple of Apollo as "one of the most picturesque in the world."

Henry Hoare's vision did not run to the rhododendrons, for which Stourhead is world-renown. These were added by Richard Colt Hoare between 1791 and 1838. Richard also was responsible for importing many American species, including tulip trees and swamp cypresses. The woodland walks are superb, moving through mature woods planted with a variety of exotic trees.

Stourhead Palladian bridge
The Palladian bridge
The house itself was designed by Colen Campbell in 1721 and contains fine art and furniture by a young Thomas Chippendale. Nearby is King Alfred's Tower, a red-brick folly rising 150 feet from the top of a hill overlooking the estate. The Tower was built by Henry Flitcroft in 1772 and it offers wonderful views over the garden and the surrounding countryside. Also part of the Stourhead estate are the Iron Age hillforts of Whitesheet Hill and Park Hill Camp.

Best in: spring for rhododendrons, early summer for azaleas, and anytime for a truly wonderful landscape garden experience. One of the great gardens of the world, and my personal favourite among British gardens.

Stourhead for families
In a word, excellent! Our children, ages 5 and 11, very much enjoyed Stourhead. There is plenty of space to run around in, and interesting curiosities like the Grotto, and the various temples to explore. The National Trust has information packs for children to help them get the most out of their visit - and they might learn something about landscape gardening, too!