Stourhead: a grand 18th century garden (Wiltshire)

Stourhead has a Georgian house that tells an interesting tale about 18th century nouveau riche. However, visiting Stourhead is all about the garden.

Reason to visit: see a garden largely unchanged in layout* since its original 18th century inception.

*The masses of rhododendrons are obviously later.

This is somewhere to visit while the spring is still in your step: there’s lots of walking, though the paths easily take wheelchairs and scooters and at the bottom of the garden there is a pub in the estate village!

We were lucky enough to arrive just as a garden tour was about to begin.  No one else wanted to take the tour, so we joined.  We therefore had a personal 1 ½ tour of the garden with a volunteer who was also a student specialising in 18th C garden history.  I learned a little bit more technical and factual detail that I ordinarily do when visiting a National Trust property.  Once the guide realised we were a little bit more than just interested she willingly cranked the level up to give us as much detail as we could handle.  I’m so glad I took the tour and can’t thank her enough.  I definitely suggest pitching up for 11am on a weekend to take advantage of a similar tour.


The garden is the realisation of Henry the Good’s scheme to create a garden worthy of the picture landscapes he had seen while visiting Italy.  Bear in mind, he’d never seen an actual garden like the one he wanted to create, just idealised classical painted images.

The first view from the top of the path

Henry the Good had inherited the house in his late 30s and divided his time between London and Wiltshire.  He was married with 2 children.  Sadly, shortly after inheriting his wife died.  He was a man in his early 40s in need of a focus and so he set about creating his garden.

The garden design was laid out between 1741 and 1780.  When Henry II died, he decided (controversially some would say) to leave the estate to his grandson, Richard Colt-Hoare.  Young Richard was more academic and he decided to pursue botany.  In fact, he was influential in the field of pelargoniums and the NT have rebuilt a derelict Victorian glasshouse in one of the courtyard gardens to house a new collection of pelargoniums.  When you see the glasshouse look for the pond in front of it – that bush growing on the railings is in fact a kiwi tree!

The garden

Somewhat unusually for me I’m going to start with the garden, which is a 5* fantasy for those interested in 18th century gardens: it’s not a landscape garden of the sort that came along with Capability Brown et al, but a wonder garden, a garden that teases and pleases its visitors and offers them a new and indulgent experience around every corner.  The owner of this type of garden isn’t trying to create a landscape that offers the pretence that the estate extends as far as the eye can see.  He is trying to entertain his guests.  And indeed, since conception this garden has been open to tourists, with at least one or two groups visiting every week even in the 18th C.

Unlike many others, Henry was blessed with a natural valley.  He built follies, grottoes and a bridge.  There are letters in the NT’s archives describing how the grandchildren could not be prised out of the pool on hot days.  The more puritan and academic Richard Colt-Hoare is recorded to have removed ‘a Turkish tent’ from the garden as it was ‘not in keeping with classical principle’.

Some of the trees are rather special, including two mature pocket handkerchief trees.

Taking the 18th C route (clearly sign-posted) visitors experience the garden as Henry II intended, albeit the paths are now flanked by an abundence of rhododendrons and some magnolias and of course the trees have grown quite a bit during the last centuries.

We timed this trip to see the rhododendrons displaying colour.  Visiting in April was our chance to see a garden in glory, and we weren’t disappointed.  I definitely suggest a spring visit.

We often visit gardens in the summer (for the good weather) and we see masses of green bushes.  I remember our trip to Trewithen (Cornwall), which is widely regarded to have one of the best rhododendron & magnolia collections.  What did we see on our West Country trip in July 2009?  You guessed it, a garden full of big green bushes.  Incidentally, Trewithen is an absolute gem of a house and I can’t recommend it more highly for effort and experience (topped off by the tour being by the owner): Do visit in spring though!

Our wander around the garden at Stourhead took a couple of hours and could easily have stretched to three.  Had we wanted to visit the wider estate we could have had lunch in the estate pub and spent the whole day here.  I though was eager to see the house.

Stourhead definitely deserves a return visit to tackle some estate trails at a later date, maybe even taking in a trip to the folly King Alfred’s Tower, some three miles away from the house.

The house

Here I return to the family story.  Who was this Henry the Good and how did he find himself inheriting a grand pile in Wiltshire, not far from that other great feat of architecture, Longleat House?

There had been a house on the site of Stourhead for centuries.  However, the Stourton family was down on its luck.  By the 18th century the existing manor house was falling down.  The exact location of the manor is unknown but it was probably forward of the current house and to the right; what is now a cow field.

Hoare's Bank, Fleet St, London

At the same time the Hoares had been making their money in London from banking:  money lenders benefiting from the Glorious Revolution!

The family still owns the bank: it’s that beautiful neoclassical building housing C Hoare & Co on Fleet St in London (at the bottom of Fetter Lane).  I go past it every morning and it’s my version of a morning cup of coffee: a shot of neoclassical architecture to brighten up each day.

When the Hoare family were left with no male heir after an only son was killed at war, in 1946 the house passed to the National Trust.  However, one family member has retained a flat in the property ever since.

Henry the Good’s father was Henry the Magnificent.  He was the son of Sir Richard Hoare.  By Henry the Magnificent’s generation the family was wealthy.  However, while Henry worked for the family business and had wealth, he was no landed gentry.  He “wanted in”, to woo potential clients, and in the 18th C the way to do so was to have a country house.

Henry I bought the Stourhead site from the Stourton family, pulled down the manor house, and in 1717 commissioned Colen Campbell to design him a smart Palladian mansion faithful to traditional models seen in the Veneto.   Such design was the height of fashion (and is my preferred form of building).  Some say they’re not large enough to live in.  Chiswick House, for example, was just a showpiece, a set of state rooms, for Lord Burlington, who lived elsewhere and built Chiswick to embrace the architectural principles he admired.

The house at Stourhead was built by Nathaniel Ireson between 1720 and 1724.   To put the house’s architectural statement into context, Chiswick House was completed in 1729 and similarly dated houses were still being built in the Baroque style.

Interestingly, at a later date the medieval gateway that accompanied the manor house was moved to the bottom of the drive, to create a grand statement and suggest a house more firmly grounded in its landscape than it actually was.

There was (in my view) an architectually criminal (albeit practical) act by Richard Colt-Hoare.  He added wings onto the house to house his library and sculpture collection.  He also increased the house’s depth at the rear: the two additional windows seen here to the left are later.  This throws off the proportion and balance of the house as originally intended.

Except for the wings, the interiors are essentially reconstructions (though our guide resisted this description): in 1902 fire savaged the interior save for the wings and while the servants saved the furnishings, the same could not be done for the panelling etc.

I did try and ask a room guide whether the marble from the fireplaces were saved but she had no idea.

I do wish all NT houses would try and offer at least one guided tour with all the blinds open (perhaps the during the first hour?) for people like me who want to find out more without amassing an entire library of guide books for each house visited!  It is hard to imagine a house properly when all the blinds are down (though I understand completely the argument about preserving fabrics etc).

I did like the salt seller on display in a dining room.  Silver gilt.  Never seen anything like it.

There is also on display a very intricate pope’s cupboard that must have taken years to construct.  There was a very useful exhibition in the basement of the house showing its interior.

The bad egg of the bunch was a 19th century gambler who sold off most of the good furnishings, including the Canalettos.  All that remains of his work is a faded pencil drawing. 😦

The house therefore isn’t worth a special visit; some people I imagine go nowhere near it and visit Stourhead for the garden alone.  That I can understand.  I’d say go to the house first, spent 20 minutes in there, check out the exhibition downstairs and marvel at the Pope’s cupboard and then head off around the garden.  After a 2 hour trip around the garden (all up and down) it is hard to muster the strength to be enthusiastic about the house.

When visited: 2011

Stars out of 5 (house): **

Stars out of 5 (garden):   *****

Nearest town:  Sailsbury (30 mins away)


Theme tune: Money, money, money (Abba)

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