Last week we went on what could be the ultimate autumnal outing, certainly for those of us who haven’t been to New England in the fall. Thanks to modern weather forecasting the predicted blue skies and sunshine made the gardens of Stourhead picture perfect. It was a little early for nature and photography experts, the trees had not reached their full colour potential, but when a gentle breeze sends golden beech leaves floating to the ground it is like pennies from heaven and perhaps this is the closest to heaven on earth most of us will get.
Like most National Trust properties and other great houses and castles that you pay to enter, you are sealed off from real life. There is no traffic except the gardeners’ tractor and trailer, no traffic noise, no building work going on, no homeless people to remind you of the darker side of life and little likelihood of being mugged or caught up in a street riot. Your children can safely run around, as long as they don’t fall into the lake… Everybody is there to enjoy nature or a healthy walk. I guess there is always the chance a fight will erupt between photographers spoiling each other’s view, perhaps the loser rolling down the manicured lawns into the lake; that would make a good story, but it didn’t happen on our visit.
Fortunately patience prevailed at the archway to the house. Two Japanese ladies left behind by their party were admiring the masses of red leaves of the Virginia Creeper that smothered the stone arch. They kept rearranging themselves to photograph each other and also seemed to examine each leaf in detail. Meanwhile on one side was Cyberspouse with his camera and on the bank opposite a couple of photographers waiting for the ladies to move out of the way. I like taking pictures with people in, but I guess the others had to wait until next autumn.
Inside the house, phones were to be switched off, bags left in lockers and no flash photography. My point and shoot compact has a habit of switching its flash back on so I only managed one quick picture of the library before one of the volunteers started telling me how they cleaned the books with pony hair brushes, then suck the dust away with a mini vacuum cleaner. But I did ask the important questions readers and writers would want to know. Did the family of old read all these books? Yes, this was their learning and entertainment centre and only a few books have been found with the pages still uncut at the edges. Does anyone still read them? Yes you can apply. What is the oldest book? ‘Oh dear, I never remember’ said the lady, then called up to an elderly gentleman perched precariously on top of a ladder – one of the hazards of having book shelves that go up to the ceiling. He wobbled down to tell me the answer, a German manuscript of 1591.
The Hoare family who created the house and beautiful gardens were bankers. Henry ‘the good’ bought Stourton Manor and medieval buildings were replaced by a Palladian villa, but he died in 1724, a year before the house was completed. Henry the Magnificent’s nickname was earned by the landscape vision he created in his garden. With hills, water and classical architecture overlaid by a fabulous collection of trees and shrubs, Stourhead was described as ‘a living work of art’ when it first opened in the 1740s. Henry died in 1785, but like all altruistic planters of trees he could not know how his gardens would look over two centuries later.
You can walk all round the lake, created by damming the River Stour which flows sixty miles to Christchurch harbour. Stop to admire follies, temples and the grotto as well as the views, then return to the Spread Eagle Inn to enjoy refreshments.