The cliché that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place is patently false: after all, lightning rods are designed specifically for the task! But when it comes to magical moments, there is often a kernel of truth in the statement.
How often have you gone somewhere and had a fantastic time—maybe it was an incredibly delicious meal at a new restaurant in town, or perhaps a visitor attraction that left you buzzing? You are on top of the world. You rave about your experience. You can’t wait to go back.
And when you do, it just doesn’t live up to that first time.
MrElaineous and I had this happen during a trip to Paris when we ate at a café overlooking Notre Dame. The atmosphere was amazing, the service friendly, and the chocolate torte? Fresh from the oven and absolutely exquisite. We were in heaven. We went back a few days later to relive the experience, only to find the café uncomfortably crowded, the waitstaff surly, and the torte more meh than marvellous.
With this warning flashing through my mind, it was with some trepidation that I packed a picnic to take to Rousham. It had been two years since MrElaineous and I had last visited this estate in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside, and that first trip was pure magic: the weather was gorgeous, the crowds non-existent, and the flowers out of this world. We were able to take the time to meander through the historic parkland, enjoy lunch under a cloudless blue sky in the middle of a walled garden while admiring spring blooms and a collection of great crested newts. There were a lot of powerful memories to live up to … and a very high bar when it came to expectations.
Somehow, Rousham continues to meet—or even exceed—them.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. Rousham has been left more or less unchanged since William Kent designed it in the 18th century, giving it a timeless quality that is rare in today’s world of constant innovation. In the intervening centuries, the trees and plantings have matured, transforming the landscape into a green stage and the visitor into an actor who is encouraged to explore, going wherever their feet takes them.
Those words were chosen carefully because there is a deliberate theatricality to the landscape garden, with new vistas opening up around each corner, whether a grand statue of Apollo or a temple folly. The follies in particular allow visitors to sit for a moment and take in the views, but with the addition of Gothic arches that frame the scene, blurring the line between natural and manmade. And what views! The river Cherwell wends its way along the bottom of the garden, and, in the distance, one of Kent’s eye-catchers does just that, attracting the viewer’s eye to the distant hills.
As there are so many routes through the garden, each visitor’s experience is likely to be unique, adding to the feeling of exploration and discovery that permeates the entire place. Indeed, we managed to nearly reverse our previous path, seeing scenes from completely new angles and following the water course uphill instead of down.
While Kent’s successor, Lancelot “Capability” Brown is perhaps better known for his water engineering and giving lakes the appearance of rivers, Kent’s use of water at Rousham is much more restrained but no less effective. A rill not only injects the sound of running water into the very centre of the garden but guides the visitor to an octagonal plunge pool and onwards to a larger pond complete with bathing goddess and sly satyrs. Below this classical scene is a grotto and memorial to a previous owner’s beloved dog; both long gone but a human touch within a landscape otherwise dedicated to larger-than-life mythological figures.
At many grand properties, the landscape garden itself and its connection to William Kent would be enough to turn it into an attraction, but at Rousham the hits keep coming. There is a kitchen garden, where the vegetables for the house would have once been grown. A 12th-century church records the sacrifices of the Cottrell-Dormer family and community of Rousham over the past century while remaining a living place of worship. The dovecote garden has beautifully shaped hedges and the titular dovecote, still serving as home to well-heeled pigeons.
Yet there are no tearooms at Rousham, no commercial trappings; the website itself says: Bring a picnic, wear comfortable shoes and it is yours for the day. And this is what many visitors do: find their own private patch of paradise to sit, eat, and lose themselves in a place that feels outside of time. MrElaineous and I did the same, setting up camp in the walled garden, with its flowers, trained apple trees, and a perfectly manicured expanse of lawn that is an ideal location for a picnic. It was sheer bliss.
I have a suspicion that Rousham will continue as it has done for centuries, remaining a place where you can escape from the constant changes of daily life and soak in the atmosphere of a bygone era. Indeed, I hope that it does—I am already looking forward to a third visit.