I know I have quoted this often when referring to Stourhead, but I do mean it. “If it were merely a fine house richly furnished,” said she, “I should not care about it myself; but the grounds are delightful. They have some of the finest woods in the country.” Mrs Gardiner would have had the right of it if she were describing Stourhead. The house is a fine house richly furnished, but the 2,650 acre grounds are what make Stourhead worth the drive.
The estate itself has a long history even before Stourhead house was built. The Barons of Stourton resided on this land for more than 500 years. At the time, there was a manor house, but not anything like the large Palladian home that now sits upon the hill. In 1714, the land and home was sold to Sir Thomas Meres whose son John Meres sold it to Henry Hoare I, son of prominent British banker Sir Richard Hoare. This sale occured only three years after Meres bought it from the original owners.
During this time period, art and architecture were revolting against Baroque and Rococo and looking back to ancient Greece and Rome, which resulted in a popularity to take from the Italian architect Palladio (1508-1580). Palladio primarily built buildings in Venice, but he was heavily influenced by ancient Greek and Roman architecture, finding particular inspiration in the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius (born 80-70 BCE – died approx. 15 BCE). So when Henry Hoare bought the estate, he ripped down the existing manor house and had the Palladian Stourhead built in its place. He did not live there for long, since he died shortly after its completion.
His son, Henry Hoare II, then set to work on the gardens of the estate. He formed a dam that created the lake and had temples positioned around the water to create specific views. In fact, when you tour the gardens, the guides can tell you in which direction everything is meant to be viewed. I have read that following the path is supposed to evoke a journey “similar to that of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld. According to the National Trust website, in 1750, a magazine called the gardens “A living work of art.” I can definitely attest to that.
When you arrive at Stourhead, parking is not near the house itself. There is a bit of a walk and some of the flower and kitchen gardens must be passed. The stable block is before you reach the house as well. The house itself is seated upon a rise in the grounds and when facing it, you can see trails leading to the woods to the right (I have heard the bluebells are beautiful in the spring!).
As I said earlier, the house is lovely and richly furnished, but I admit to preferring Ickworth and Oxburgh to Stourhead. It had some interesting features – lovely trim work, stained glass windows in the library, and of course art, but I wasn’t wowed. I will say for anyone who loves antiques, there is a good bit of Chippendale furniture.
From the house, we took a trail that begins to the left side of the house and followed it through some amazing woods to the lake. It is here that you begin to notice the uneven and hilly terrain more. You travel down quite a bit to reach the lake that you can almost view from one end to the other. The temples are not always visible at every angle, but when they come into view, they truly add to the landscape.
My daughters are big Percy Jackson fans and wished to see the Temple of Apollo first, so we ended up travelling in the opposite direction Henry Hoare II intended. We found the trail that circles the lake and began walking, coming to the Temple of Flora first. It is set close to the water, and it is open so you can go inside as well. From there, you pass an obelisk called the Bristol High Cross. The bridge that Keira Knightly ran across in Pride and Prejudice is closed to people touring the grounds, so you must follow the trail. Unlike the way the movie makes it seem, the Temple of Apollo is not near the lake. In fact, there is a trail ascending from a rock cave on one side and stone steps on the other side. It is quite steep but the view is incredible when you reach the top.
The temple itself is very interesting with its Corinthian columns and shape, but the inside is fascinating as well. It is essentially empty with the exception that they might have chairs for when weddings are held as there were the day we visited. There is a gold face of Apollo in the center of a recessed ceiling and when you stand in the middle and speak, there is a peculiar echo that is really only heard by yourself, the speaker. You do not have that effect anywhere else in the building but the one spot. The guide who sits within the temple will even mention it for those who do not know.
The last temple is the Pantheon, which is a smaller version of the original from Roman antiquity. The doors to the temple were locked the day we visited, but the views from the lawn in front were lovely. There is also a gothic cottage and a grotto to be seen along the path as well. The grounds all around the lake are beautiful from where you can view the dams and the water wheels to the temples, to the ancient tremendous trees. I cannot gush more about how amazing the area was.
My only complaint of the day was our travel to Stourhead. We mapped it at a 3-3.5 hour drive, but it took almost 45 minutes longer because of Stonehenge. For those who do not know British roads or geography, there is but one major roadway to travel down to Devon and Cornwall, the A303. (If you look at a map and see roads with B or C in front of them, the letter designation has to do with how much money the government spends on the road. A roads are the best, while C may be one lane two-way roads with lay-bys for two cars passing in opposite directions.)
The A303 dwindles down to mostly a two lane road that opens to three periodically to allow drivers to pass, but passing Stonehenge is a major hassle. Yes, for those who do not know, you can see it from the A303. No, you cannot pull off of the road to view it as there is no shoulder, long weeds and grass, and too much traffic. I know in the states, we’ll often have signs and small areas for people to pull off and enjoy views. They do not have those here, SO you wind up travelling behind an enormous line of rubberneckers and tour buses. I can prove this is true because as soon as Stonehenge is out of site, the road is no longer bumper to bumper. We spent 30 minutes driving 5 miles while waiting to pass Stonehenge. We tried to map our way around it, but all of the directions GPS gave us to and from Stourhead passed Stonehenge. I will still look for a way around the next time we travel in that direction!
Do not let the traffic warning deter you from viewing Stourhead, though. I just wanted to give a warning to allow any of you to plan for the delay in your travels. In my opinion, the drive and traffic was worth it in the end.
Next up…Deal (No, I’m not making a deal, but Deal along the Kent coastline!)