Blenheim Palace. Chatsworth. Stourhead. The honours list of top gardens in Britain seemed obvious. So it was with some surprise that my husband and I watched TV presenter Monty Don also award this title to Rousham Gardens, a property we had never heard of, despite it being located in Oxfordshire just a stone’s throw from the mighty Blenheim.
Which, come to think of it, is likely one of the reasons we had never come across it. Blenheim, with its imposing English Baroque architecture, enormous park, formal gardens, and connection with Winston Churchill is the grand house black hole that sucks in the tourists. Purely by chance we had previously stumbled across another Oxfordshire gem, Buscot Park, so we knew such properties were out there, and it was intriguing to learn of another.
Our decision to visit it was simple. Mr. Don was clearly delighted with Rousham on his television programme, we had some free time, and it seemed worth exploring. So off we went on a gorgeous spring day into the rolling fields of the Oxfordshire countryside.
When we pulled in, there were approximately 8 cars there before us. With the gorgeous weather and the promise of a beautiful property to explore, that number would have been at least 80 at a National Trust property. But Rousham has two rules that keep away the punters: no dogs, no children under 15. And, perhaps more shocking, no tea room or gift shop.
Indeed, it was a very low-key affair. You pay for your ticket yourself (£6.00 a head) and chickens roam the entryway. The house itself is lovely, but closed to the public. What attracts people is the 18th century gardens designed by William Kent, originator of the style that became known as the English landscape garden, later popularised by the wonderfully named Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
This saw the fashion for formal gardens give way to a desire to represent the natural world … if the natural world was carefully thought out with meandering paths, charming views, and the occasional ruined temple or classical sculpture. This idealised view of nature swept through grand gardens across the country—and the continent—but as times changed and fashions altered, many gardens changed with them. Indeed, some have gone full circle and have been restored to their formal roots.
And that’s what makes Rousham so special. Kent’s design has been left more or less as it was, except the intervening centuries have graced it with established maturity: full-sized trees, authentically weathered follies, and an atmosphere of history hang about it. As we spent the day there, this sense of the past and Kent’s lovely design worked its magic. It became easy to see why Monty Don picked it as a favourite. The blue skies and sun didn’t hurt either.
Despite not having a tea room, Rousham possesses more than enough land to find a quiet spot for a picnic, which was the first thing we did upon arrival. We went a bit off track, quite literally. Kent designed the garden to be seen in a particular order, but we chose to go right instead of left so we could eat our sandwiches in the beauty of the walled garden.
For us this proved to be a good choice. We were able to spend time photographing the flowers and other sights while we had the light and energy, and there was an amazing amount to explore in just this area itself. Such as the pond with great crested newts that held me in raptures. I have lived in England for 13 years, have had a newt in my own pond for 2 of those, and yet in the time we were in Rousham I saw far more of the little amphibians than I ever thought possible. Then there was the pigeonhouse, a beautiful piece of architecture but also incredibly atmospheric with the gentle coos of its inhabitants. And of course there were the flowers: tulips, bluebells, and cherry trees were all in bloom, and there were many more that I couldn’t identify. Perfectly clipped box hedges completed the scene, and to be honest I would have been happy if that was all the property had to offer.
But of course it wasn’t. We returned to the proper track and proceeded around the garden in the way William Kent intended. From the castle-like folly to the Temple of Echo, he designed the landscape to delight those walked about it, using the manmade to enhance nature, and vice versa. The hours spent reading about Greek and Roman mythology as a child, and minoring in Classics as an undergraduate, was more than rewarded as we came across gods, nymphs and satyrs around every corner. Water was used to great effect, with a natural stream forced into a cultivated track that gently ran into the Vale of Venus, and the river Cherwell itself becomes part of the scene.
You finish the tour where we inadvertently started, in the formal garden, and you realise that Kent’s design deliberately takes you from the wild of nature (at least a sanitised version of it) into civilisation. I had to admit Monty was right: Rousham manages to blend the two in such a way that it forms a perfect whole and is certainly one of England’s top gardens.
This large statue on Rousham’s main green may seem gruesome to modern eyes, but Kent–and the Dormer family who built Rousham–were showing off their classical education by mimicking a well known Hellenistic sculpture found on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. This iconography, of a lion attacking a horse (or, occasionally a cow), is a common classical motif representing victory and defeat.
What is a walled garden without a suitable gate?
By a stroke of luck we managed to time our visit to Rousham to see their gorgeous tulips.
The box hedges were really this green, and maintained incredibly well.
Looking back at Rousham House from the garden.
The charming exterior and interior of the pigeonhouse.
The Temple of Echo; most of the follies dotted around the garden had benches where you could imagine visitors taking a moment to enjoy the view, much as we did, or using it to escape from prying eyes.
Apollo guards one of the paths down to the Vale of Venus.
The arched arcade provides a place to sit and watch the world go by.
Kent seemed to like arches, and they do a great job at framing the landscape.
After hearing the call of a peacock throughout much of the visit it was great to finally spot this last part of a traditional English garden.