Rousham - A journey back in time - Part 2
At Rousham he found the house standing on level ground, beyond which the land dropped away to the north and the banks of the river Cherwell, which meandered in a natural serpentine movement along the north-eastern boundary. At the most northerly point of the section of river visible from Rousham, stood Heyford Bridge, a medieval stone-arched structure built in 1255, which provided Kent with a natural stop to the vista in that direction. Beyond the river, the Cherwell valley sloped gently upwards to the skyline about a mile away. Bridgeman's previous work within the garden included a series of interlinked pools, running down the slope to the River and placed within a woodland setting. However, none of this was visually linked to the house or to the landscape which lay beyond the River; it was in essence isolated from the whole.
Kent's task was to bring the whole together, effectively linking the level lawn and terrace close to the House, with the pools and the wider landscape beyond. In the process, he planned to create a garden in which to promenade, on a relatively short circular walk (which needed to be followed in one direction for maximum effect) whilst enjoying a continual series of changing scenery.
So, did he succeed? Well, the following is a description of Rousham, written in a letter by Horace Walpole in 1760 and, as far as I'm concerned, it still rings true. 'This is the most engaging of Kent's works. It is Kentissimo. It has reinstated Kent with me; he has no where shown so much taste. The house was old and was bad. He has improved it…..and the whole is comfortable. The garden is Daphne in little, the sweetest little groves, streams, glades, porticos, cascades and river imaginable; all the scenes are perfectly classic'.
Visitors to Rousham today are encouraged to enjoy the garden in the way that Kent planned, by following his original route. This is sensible and allows the garden to unfold before you, just as he intended. Once the garden has been circumnavigated, that is the time to return to favoured glades or re-visit certain features or vistas.
The route begins by the house, on its level lawns, where there are stunning views across the river and valley to the 'Temple of the Mill', which is situated beyond Heyford bridge and to the 'Eyecatcher' a three arched sham 'ruin' on the skyline. The view to both features is bordered by woodland, which rolls down the slope from either side of the main lawn and was purposely planted by Kent to train the eye in that direction. The trees are a mix of deciduous and evergreen with dominate species of English oak Quercus robur, Sweet chestnut Castanea sativa, Evergreen oak Quercus Ilex and cedar, including a particularly striking specimen of the Blue Atlas cedar Cedrus atlantica, which originates from the Atlas Mountains of Algeria and Morocco in North Africa.
From here the path closes in on Bridgeman's ha-ha, which separates the garden from a magnificent herd of Longhorn Cattle grazing in the pastureland beyond and leads directly past a stone Dying Gladiator to the Praeneste. This is an arcade, designed in classical style and formed against the hill. The clever thing is, Kent's approach prevents you seeing any of it. From this direction you are aware simply of a viewing terrace from which the gardens below become evident. It is only when you are down in the gardens on the return leg of your circumnavigation, that you look up to see a superb seven-arched arcade and become aware you were actually standing directly above it.
Beyond the Praeneste the path descends into the Vale of Venus, an open glade cut from the trees, where a statue of Venus guarded by two swans, looks down upon tranquil lily-clad pools and an Octagon Pond all linked by a cascade. Sadly, diminishing water levels, particularly in summers like the one we have just experienced, means the cascade seldom flows, but such is the strength of the architecture, it takes minimal imagination to hear the water splashing across the stonework. To the fringes of the glade are positioned other statues; fashioned from almost white stone they bring pockets of light to their background foil of dark green box and yew foliage.
From the Octagon Pond a delightful shallow stone serpentine rill, entices you back into the shadows of the woodland, and once inside you will become aware of immaculately clipped laurel hedging bordering the path and mimicking the meanders of the rill until it falls into a circular plunge pool of crystal clear water. On Kent's Plan it was called the Cold Bath and no truer word was spoken, for even on the hottest summer day, the suns' warmth seldom penetrates beneath the dense canopy of evergreen foliage overhead. Not content with resting here, the little stone rill heads on out the other side of the pool, almost teasing you to follow its progress and before too long you will emerge into another glade, where a Doric Temple offers you a chance to rest awhile and admire the view down to the river Cherwell. The temple, known as the Temple of Echo, was built by the Oxford mason Townsend in 1838 to a design by Kent. Immediately behind and positively dwarfing the Temple, is one of the finest Lebanon cedars I have ever seen, its mighty trunk, all of three metres (10 feet) across, seems to soar ever skyward. From here you will be drawn to the river walk, where, if you look carefully, you will find the remains of Kent's boathouse. But be sure to look back at the statue of Apollo, which is placed at the northern end of the Long Walk. An avenue of lime trees then leads round to the other end of the Walk, where the vista, through a tunnel of foliage to Apollo in the distance, is one of the most mysterious and evocative in the whole garden.
You are now directly below the Praeneste Arcade, with its seven arches, and you cannot fail to be drawn back up the slope in its direction before entering a further glade known as the 'Theatre'. This is one of very few Bridgeman features that survived Kent's re-design of the garden and is reputed to have once contained a water fountain 12 metres (40ft) high. By now you are almost at journeys end and the path climbs back up towards the walled garden, which lies to the east of the house, passing an Egyptian-styled pyramid building along the way.
It would be very easy to overlook the walled garden, given the splendour of the landscape you have just passed through, but this would be a mistake. For here, within walls which pre-date both Kent and Bridgeman - and in complete contrast to the wider gardens beyond - is a garden of true beauty and tranquillity. Entry is through a magnificent old yew hedge, which has grown out to almost 4 metres (12ft) wide, creating a tunnel-like effect in the process. Beyond the hedge, an old wrought iron gate leads into the garden proper and to a magnificent herbaceous border which runs along the entire length of the north-facing wall. Half way along its length a pergola, dripping with old fashioned roses, vines and wisteria, encourages you in the direction of a circular pool with fountain, which marks the very centre of the walled garden. All three other walls are taken up with fruit, mainly espalier and cordon apples, pears, plums and, on the warm south-facing wall, peaches and figs.
A small door in the south wall leads into a further walled garden, which contains a box parterre, rose garden and a marvellous (if rather well inhabited and smelly) pigeon-cote, built in 1685 and still with its original revolving ladder. Beyond is a delightful old orchard full of knarled and characterful trees, some over seven metres (20ft) tall and heavy with the remains of this seasons fruit. Several white painted bee hives lie scattered beneath completing this rural idyll.
Rousham is a place that exudes a sense of contentment, a feeling that it is at peace with itself and has come to an understanding with the outside world. Let our 21st Century lives become ever more frenetic, more electronic and more transitory as we race around the globe, Rousham care's not a jot. It will continue to exist at the pace of life it was born into, giving those of us who visit, just a glimpse of a past world, a very different world and perhaps even a better world.
The gardens at Rousham are open every day of the year from 10.00am until 4.30pm. Admission is £6.00 per person. Rousham is located approximately 11miles north of Oxford and can be reached from both the A4260 and the B4030. www.rousham.org