Stourhead is a stunning example of an English landscape garden. During the summer months, take a picnic and enjoy the views over the lake.
Nothing can prepare you for your first view of the gardens at Stourhead – one of my top gardens to visit.
The stunning landscape is dotted with Classical temples and garden buildings and is full of historical and political references.
Don’t miss the formal gardens surrounding the house.
If you have time, drive a few miles north-west to King Alfred’s Tower. Built as a folly by Flitcroft in 1762, it is believed to be where King Alfred the Great rallied his troops in 878.
Dogs are sometimes allowed at Stourhead – check the website for details.
The majority of the garden is wheelchair accessible with gravel paths, steep in places.
National Trust members visit for free
The Stourton family owned the estate before the Norman Conquest and sold it to Henry Hoare in 1717.
Hoare asked the architect Colen Campbell to rebuild the house as a Palladian Villa. In 1725, Henry’s son, also called Henry, inherited the property and in about 1733 he began to extend the garden to the west by a formal terrace. After he returned from his Grand Tour in 1741, Henry abandoned the 17th century formal garden and laid out one of the most impressive Arcadian landscapes in England.
Scholars have theorised about Hoare’s intentions at Stourhead. I will leave their arguments aside and include a description of the landscape by Baron Van Spaen Van Biljoin who visited Stourhead in 1791: ‘we were in such ecstasy that we had the utmost difficulty
in tearing ourselves away from this charming spot.’
Amongst the garden buildings that Hoare commissioned was the Pantheon dedicated to Hercules, Henry Flitcroft’s Temple of Flora and in the woods above, the Venetian Seat, Turkish Tent, Chinese Alcove and Chinese Ombrello.
Hoare also built the Grotto of the Nymph and the River God. A dark, flint lined passage leads to a dimly lit central chamber where the springs of the Stour flow out, past the statue of the Sleeping Nymph and into a deep plunge pool. On the left, perfectly framed is a view of the lake which Joseph Spence recorded in 1765 was ‘coverable with a sort of Curtain, when you chuse it’. Hoare and his friends often bathed naked in the cold bath: ‘A Souse into that delicious Bath and Grot, fill’d with fresh Magic, is Asiatick Luxury and too much for Mortals’. They would then retire to the central-heated Pantheon. Lit from the top, it was originally called the Temple of Hercules.
Overlooking the lake is the circular Temple of Apollo built by Flitcroft in 1765. In Henry’s day it was a prime tourist attraction and can now be hired for weddings.
Not long before his death in 1785, Hoare gave Stourhead to his grandson, Richard Colt Hoare. Colt Hoare pulled down many of the Turkish and Chinese buildings as he felt that his grandfather had ‘overcrowded his gardens with buildings, and unfortunately of different countries, for the Chinese was mixed with Grecian and the Roman with the Gothic.’ Colt Hoare also destroyed a Gothic Hermit’s Cell that was made up of a series of chambers decorated with trunks of old trees.
In 1946, Henry Hoare gave Stourhead to the National Trust.