Historic & Botanic gardens - Stowe renovation

Visitors to Stowe Gardens can now view its stunning vistas thanks to ongoing work to restore its former glory, Hannah Jordan reports.

Snowdrops feature among 10,000 bulbs planted - image: HW
Snowdrops feature among 10,000 bulbs planted - image: HW

This spring, visitors to the National Trust's 500ha parkland and gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire will be among the first in around 150 years to view the landscape as its designers first intended.

Marking a 20-year milestone in the restoration of its landscaped gardens, 40 temples and many monuments, the original Georgian Bell Gate entrance has been reinstated once more, affording visitors a breathtaking first sight of the grounds' southern vista.

Added to the completion last month of the six-year, £9m restoration of the New Inn - the site's original, purpose-built visitor entrance - and Stowe is well on its way to reclaiming its crown as one of the most magnificent landscape gardens in Britain and, some might argue, in Europe.

Acquired by the trust in 1989, Stowe's 100ha of landscape gardens have since undergone a programme of restoration works to the tune of £10m. And the work goes on. Over the past five years alone, the gardening team has planted more than 10,000 bulbs, including snowdrops, bluebells, crown imperials, tulips, daffodils, cyclamen and snakehead fritillaries.

The site is also home to around 2,000 trees, some of which predate the creation of this 18th century gem, while many others remain as they stood in the originally formal gardens designed by Charles Bridgeman. Among the species to be found along the site's network of pathways, as well as many exotic varieties from around the world, are beech, oak, walnut, laurel, Scots pine, maple, lime, plane and horse chestnut.

Restoration vision

But despite the number still standing, says head gardener Barry Smith, many that were planted in the 1950s and 1960s have had to be felled due to lack of maintenance. "We had to cut most of them down and most of the yew and holly trees that were a significant part of the structure of the garden had to have major surgery," he adds.

Smith has lived and breathed the gardens since 1980, when he was employed as a gardener for Stowe School, which took over Stowe House and its grounds in 1923. So embedded is Smith in the landscape that he even lives in one of the site's most prestigious monuments - the Corinthian Arch.

He maintains that to restore and manage a site on Stowe's scale it is imperative to truly understand its history and meaning. "You have to have a clear vision of what it looked like through the ages and what the conservation plans illustrate. Then you have to educate your staff - they have to be fully committed because this is gardening on a mammoth scale," he explains.

With a team of seven professional gardeners and a 60-strong team of trained volunteers, Smith is following a restoration programme carefully compiled with a team of conservation experts and garden advisers.

Some of the plantings in the early stages of the restoration scheme were shown to be "incorrect", says Smith, when documents such as 18th century nursery bills and drawings were discovered that revealed much more colourful plantings than were being put in. Similarly, he adds, their discovery of a network of pathways created in the 18th century threw new light on the meaning of the site.

Gravel pathways led directly between monuments and temples, while grass paths took visitors on a more intimate journey past plantings and points of horticultural interest. Leading in three directions, the pathways reveal gardens of vice, virtue or liberty depending on which direction visitors walk. All have now been reinstated.

"The pathways are a major part of the garden structure and through them we can see what the trees actually do. They were positioned to screen the monuments until a certain point and then, bang, you get a big-hitting view," Smith explains.

The documents also reveal a shift in gardening fashion from the formal lines of Charles Bridgeman to the more intimate and naturalistic landscapes of William Kent, Capability Brown and other horticultural pioneers of the time.

"It all became more serpentine with flower beds and shrubberies working alongside and becoming more informal rather than a very organised set of plants," adds Smith.

The accuracy and detail of planting guides dating back as far as 1845 have allowed the team to carry out a number of overlays sticking as close as possible to original designs. "Of course it will always be our own interpretation of these but using as much evidence as we can," he points out.

Restoring the gardens to their former glory is a process Smith feels is still only halfway there. But thanks in part to a private donation of nearly £1m seven years ago, the work goes on.

Landscape priorities

The five gardens that make up Stowe's landscape - Grecian Valley, Elysian Fields, Western Gardens, South Vista and Eastern Gardens - were the early focus of most landscaping work because they were the most visited areas, says Smith. But when the decision was taken to move the site's entrance back to the Bell Gate, the areas surrounding and directly visible from the gate became the priority.

With the new entrance and its surrounds now complete and expected to attract more visitors than ever - 140,000 last year alone - Smith is relishing the prospect of embarking on the next projects on his list.

"The coming three years will see us working on Hawkwell Fields," he explains. "Then, as long as plans are accepted, we will restore the area that is now a golf course as a garden and inner park decorated with trees. That will take four-to-five years."

And after that? It's back to the start, says Smith. "I plan to revisit the areas we planted 20 years ago. It's a living, evolving landscape so it will never be finished."

Stowe: A history of the estate

Stowe's expansive landscape was originally opened to the public in the 1730s by its then owner, Viscount Cobham, who had inherited the site in 1697.

Under three generations of this politically ambitious and wealthy family, who resided in Stowe House - the estate's imposing manor - no expense was spared in creating and expanding its already impressive gardens. Only the highest-calibre garden designers and architects, including such names as royal gardener Charles Bridgeman, Sir John Vanbrugh, William Kent, James Gibbs and Capability Brown, were trusted with its guardianship.

The early 1700s saw the creation of a French-style parterre to the south of Stowe House as well as gardens and buildings designed by Vanbrugh. And in 1717 came the addition of the New Inn, perhaps England's first tourist hotel, built to accommodate some of the many visitors who had started to flock to Stowe to admire its grandeur.

The gardens continued to be extended and landscaped through the 1720s, 1730s and 1740s with the addition of character areas such as the Elysian Fields, Hawkwell Field and Grecian Valley, each furnished with elaborate garden buildings, monuments and temples.

Its heyday came in the late 18th and early 19th century but it was brought to an abrupt end in 1848 when then resident, the second Duke of Buckingham, was declared bankrupt, resulting in the sale of Stowe's contents.

The site was essentially saved by the foundation of Stowe School in 1923 and from 1989, under the National Trust's ownership, the landscape again began to blossom.

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