25 November 2013

Stourhead for Man and Beast

There is a moment on the Stourhead estate, post-visitor centre, pre-ticket kiosk, when you find yourself walking along a lower road, steep bank either side, bridge overhead. On your right are some pretty little houses and on the left an august inn.

It's a picturesque setting. As with so many National Trust properties a suspension of disbelief takes place, at around this moment. Is this place for real? Yes, it has always been quite real, though the NT version is more thoroughly sign-posted. The house, garden and inn were built 300 years ago with the visitor experience very much in mind. Garden pride led to garden showing-off: What was the point in having a fabulous place if nobody saw it?

Richard Wheeler, who spoke at the Garden Museum last month, is National Specialist in Garden History for the NT and his brief covers over 100 gardens. He knows his stuff. He may not agree with the idea that gardens evolve after their creator has gone ("Can we do better than Vita? No") but this might be because in his view, things haven't changed much. 

The cult of celebrity was in full swing 300 years ago and gardens were visited out of curiosity for Georgian lifestyles of the rich and famous. The stories behind the buildings at Stourhead would have gone over the head of the hoypoloy then as they do today. More of us are educated now but few have a good grasp of Latin. This can also be said of garden design and horticulture: All very nice I'm sure but—is that the tea room over there?

There were three classes of visitor, like the three classes of train travel persisting well into the 20th century. Top people visited their friends on their estates, like be-wigged Bertie Woosters. The middle-classes, the biggest group of garden visitors (who also read Latin) hired a post chaise and stayed at a place like The Spread Eagle Inn, bang in the middle of Stourhead. The third class went by coach or flooded in over the ha-ha.

Keeping people out became more important in the 19th century, with the beginnings of the 'fortress mentality' which is so prevalent today. Even before those days, according to Richard Wheeler: "You had horrific vandalism." The Watch Cottage was built near the Pantheon for just that reason, "But still it got done over."

The garden boy, notoriously "a mine of misinformation," was tipped a small amount for a garden tour. The butler could be persuaded, for considerably more, to open up the house to a better class of person. Things were changing though: Blenheim Palace and Wilton formalised the visitor arrangements soon after being built, with the family living in one set of rooms and the public shown around another. The days of gamboling up the drive and trying your luck with the housekeeper, like the trio in Pride and Prejudice, were numbered.

A classic visit to a place like Stourhead involved three days: for house, garden and park. Each day would begin from the nearby inn, instead of a train station in London, and visitors would be equipped, naturally, with riding gear. The best was left till last. A day exploring the park meant a freedom to trot, canter or gallop from a few feet higher up: so much more exciting than earth-bound, nylon-clad rambling. The landowner's arcadian vision, seen from between the ears of a horse, was mapped out before you. It could almost feel like yours, for that third day.

Richard Wheeler's reaction to complaints about gardens under his watch looking old and tired is: "Good." For the staunch traditionalist at the National Trust then: bring back the grand tour on horseback.

1 comment:

  1. Glad I visited your blog today. Interesting history and photos of the estate. Thanks for the tour. JC