I know, I know. This view is so bloomin’ obvious, it’s practically a gardening cliche. I felt almost embarrassed taking it. Then I checked myself. It’s a great view. Why shouldn’t I enjoy it for what it is?
I used to come here several times a year when I was a child. I know it intimately, but had not returned for about ten years – until two weeks ago.
I spend half my life seeking out ‘secret’ gardens. Lost gardens, little-known gardens, the ones no one else has discovered yet. It’s my job. But in always going for the obscure, always lionising the secret, am I in danger of missing out on the joys of the popular? No one’s going to pay me money to write a piece about Stourhead, but does the fact that everyone’s heard of it make it any less beautiful?
I suppose in some ways that could be ‘yes’. It’s certainly a lot more crowded than it was back in the 1970s. Dad used to park our ancient Ford Anglia down by the Spread Eagle for goodness’ sake. Now not even blue badge holders do that.
The paths have been made wider, more substantial, and vistas have been opened up. The ‘jungle’ feel of a garden that had become overwhelming to its gardeners but for a kid opened a secretive world that I could get lost within, has long given way to neat & tidy, regimented formality – probably, if I’m honest, more what Henry Hoare intended.
Deep within I do sort of regret the days when this urn was almost completely covered with creeper. I used to get right inside the tangle of weeds to find, Enid Blyton style, the crumbling remains, and wonder what it looked like.
The cottage, when I was a child, was so tumbledown it disappeared completely into the murk beyond. An obelisk on the hill was fenced off with barbed wire and the path that once led down from the house (and now does again) was out of bounds.
To get to the distant eye-catcher, St Peter’s Pump, you had to trudge through fields for almost a mile. You still do. The only difference is that now it’s allowed. And that’s a good thing, right?
So why should I be sad that when I visited Stourhead for the first time in years last week, I was able to actually go in the little cottage through whose dusty windows I had tried, and failed, to peer as a child? It’s a perfectly nice little cottage, nicely presented and gives a great vista of the lake. But now there’s nothing left to fantasise about and I need to take my imagination elsewhere.
Why does the fact that the path down to the grotto is widely advertised as part of the regular walk, rather than something that you need to seek out, depress me instead of rejoicing that everyone gets a chance to see it this way? Perhaps because before, you had to make your own discoveries. Now ‘secrets’ are presented on a plate for time-poor coach parties.
The romantic in me battles with the crowd-controlling mass-market corralling that the National Trust has to do, but I cannot deny that Stourhead is still fabulously beautiful.
I need to celebrate that now I can see the waterwheel, rather than just hear it. That the lake is no longer full of algae and the market cross is not crumbling into oblivion. That the hermitage I read about in the guide book but which on countless visits failed to find, is now on the regular path up to the Temple of Apollo (when I was a child that particular temple was locked – we used to take it in turns to peer through the keyhole at a dusty old fireplace – or something that looked like one. The temple’s still locked but the hole is now blocked, chiz.).
And I need to realise that I have changed too – perhaps for the good.
As a child I just wanted to clamber through the jungle of Rhodedendrums. I didn’t care what variety they were. Now I love the fabulous colours and the fact that some of them smell heavenly.
The house wasn’t open when I was a child, either – or at least only on high days and holidays. Now it’s part of the regular tour and I am delighted to find that Stourhead was once one of the foremost growers of pelargoniums – presumbly in this little glasshouse.They still do grow them, though nothing like on the scale of their Victorian forbears.
Times change. I get it. I really do. So why do I tussle with ‘what used to be’ when ‘what is now’ is, in many ways, actually better?
As a gardener I know things cannot stay the same. They are forever evolving and need to be celebrated for what they are now, not what they were or will be.
I love Stourhead. Reacquainting myself with it was like seeing an old friend after many years. We have both aged in many ways, but essentially we’re the same as ever. And for that I am glad.
Stourhead is in Wiltshire and, whatever I may say here, is one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.