An 18th century landscape of temples and statues

Stowe Landscape Gardens. Perhaps one of the finest examples we have of the fashion for ‘natural’ gardening that blossomed in the mid- to late-18th century. And this was natural as opposed to the more formal approach to gardening that was common before this period, and perhaps quite well exemplified by the Anglo-Dutch garden at Westbury Court in Gloucestershire.

Covering an area of about 250 acres, Stowe Gardens and Park are open to the public almost all year round, and are best approached along the Grand Avenue from the nearby town of Buckingham.

It’s a 10 minute walk from the car park to the entrance into the gardens, and there, on the other side of the lake, stands the magnificent Palladian mansion, Stowe House (now a public school and open periodically to the public). We must have walked more than eight miles in total.

The gardens as we see them today were developed – and greatly expanded from an original formal garden – by General Sir Richard Temple, later Viscount Cobham follwoing his marriage in 1715. A number of landscape architects were involved in developing the gardens and building the various temples and other structures that are dotted about the park, including ‘Capability’ Brown who was Lord Cobham’s head gardener in 1746. A detailed description of the gardens and the various buildings has been published in Wikipedia (so there’s no need to repeat this here) and is certainly worth referring to for more information about each, who designed them and when.

Stowe Landscape Gardens are now regarded as one of the most significant to have survived into this century, and can now be enjoyed through the National Trust. The rest of this particular post is dedicated to the photography I enjoyed during our visit in early September. Each of the images has a caption so you can locate each building on the map below.

Entering the gardens 

The Palladian Bridge

Along Lord Cobham’s Walk from the Palladian Bridge to the Grecian Valley

Virtue and Worthies

The western walks


Tis well. (George Washington, 14 December 1799)

George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of the Nation, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, first President (1789 – 1797) of the United States of America, and slave owner, was born in Virginia in 1731. And like many (most, probably) of his contemporaries, descended from English forebears.

In fact, the Washington family is an old one from County Durham (now Tyne and Wear) in the northeast of England, and the ancestral home is Washington Old Hall in the small community of Washington that is now surrounded by a complex of arterial roads that connect Newcastle and Sunderland to the main motorways to the south.

At the end of September on our way home from Newcastle, we stopped off at Washington Old Hall – less than 10 miles from where our younger daughter Philippa lives in Newcastle with her family.

The south facade of Washington Old Hall, from the Nuttery

The south facade of Washington Old Hall, from the Nuttery

Situated in the center of the ‘village’, the hall is not very well sign-posted and it took a couple of wrong turns before we ended up at the hall, and were, for the most part, the only visitors that morning inside the house (although some local mums were walking in the gardens with their children).

Although there has been a building on this site since the 12th century, much of what we see today was built in the 17th century. And had links to the Washington family until the 1930s. Before it was taken over by the National Trust, it had been divided at some period of the last century into a series of dwellings, each family essentially having just one or two rooms. The ground floor of the hall has been restored more or less in 17th century style, while the upper floor has mainly been turned over to Washington family memorabilia and their connection with the USA’s illustrious first president.

The grounds are quite small, but attractive. Below the main terrace in front of the hall there is a parterre garden, an apple orchard and vegetable garden, and beyond those, a nuttery. And, as with most National Trust properties, there’s a small cafe where you can enjoy a welcome cuppa.

In 1976, the USA celebrated its bicentennial. Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th President in November that year and took office on 20 January 1977. During his first overseas trip as president, Carter visited the UK, and on Friday 6 May he made a special visit to Washington Old Hall, flying into Newcastle International Airport (known as Woolsington Airport then) on Air Force One (a Boeing 707), in the company of UK Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. Click here to read the detailed itinerary and schedule of that visit to Washington Old Hall, as well as Newcastle and Sunderland.

This visit to Washington Old Hall in September was our second encounter with George Washington this year. In June we visited the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and saw the impressive sculpture that honors Washington along with presidents Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln.

Four presidents in the sky

Four presidents in the sky

Strange shapes on the skyline

The clues are there if you only know how to recognize them. For many landscapes it is quite difficult to determine just what forces of nature sculpted what we see all around us, and frankly take for granted as always having been there.

As a geography student at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s, I studied geomorphology (the study of landscapes and the forces that shape them) over three years. So it’s quite fun when we are out and about on our travels trying to work out how any particular landscape evolved. Of course, in the past 10,000 years or less humans have had a dramatic impact on what we see, often hiding the very features that would provide a straightforward answer.

But there are many landscapes when it is much clearer how ice, water, or wind acted upon the geology to reveal those landscape features that we all treasure. The tors of the Dartmoor, formed through chemical weathering of granite in a tropical environment, find their counterparts in Nigeria, for example.

Walking round Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire (just northwest of Knaresborough and Harrogate) the effects of wind erosion on a 400 million year old sandstone, Millstone Grit, during the last Ice Age some 12-18,000 years ago) – and earlier periods of weathering in warmer climates millions of years ago – can be clearly seen. And some fantastical rock formations are now carefully protected by the National Trust.

Steph and I visited Brimham Rocks at the end of September on our way north to Newcastle, and what glorious weather we had. You could see south and east 20 miles or more over the Vale of York. In fact the tower of York Minster was clearly visible on the horizon. And to the west, the landscape rises towards the backbone of England, The Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales.

Walking up from the car park, we took the left hand route round the Rocks. In the video you can see several of the rock formations that are indicated on the map: Surprise View, Cannon Rocks, Eagle, Dancing Bear, Druid’s Writing Desk, and Idol, among others, finally come round to Druid’s Castle Rocks from the north and east (click on the map, ©2002 The National Trust, to open a larger version, and which is reproduced here for illustrative purposes and to encourage visitors to Brimham Rocks).

©2002 The National Trust – inlcuded here for illustrative purposes and to encourage visitors to Brimham Rocks