Last Saturday I was lucky enough to visit Stowe and its marvellous landscape gardens, seeing it all on a perfect afternoon of sunshine and early autumn colours. This magical place was created in the 18th century, as a sort of political and philosophical manifesto, by Viscount Cobham, member of a great Whig family and heir to the men whose opposition to the absolutist ambitions of the Stuarts had culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It later passed to the Grenville family and the Dukes of Buckingham
The vast honey-coloured house, built in the 1770s, now houses the well-known public school, whose pupils are fortunate enough to have the run of the place, but the gardens, more than 400 acres of lawns, lakes, temples, statues, grottoes, bridges, monuments, urns and rotundas, are owned by the National Trust.
Perhaps no other 18th century garden can rival the number, scale and complex iconography of the buildings at Stowe, many of them by celebrated architects such as Vanbrugh and William Kent. The gardens are laid out as a picture of idealised nature, whose elements are grass, trees and water, with buildings carefully sited to give accents to the view and allow the wandering eye a resting place. But not only are they beautiful to look at, every building has a carefully thought-out meaning, which would have been apparent to 18th century visitors, if less to our way of thinking. Its Arcadian landscape has always attracted crowds of admiring visitors, from Alexander Pope to Queen Victoria, and though it would take many visits to see and understand it all, I can think of few better ways to pass a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Stowe: The Temple of Concord