Stourhead is a prominent British stately home set in the Wiltshire countryside which is now run by the National Trust. Stourhead is famous for its impressive 2,650-acre estate and gardens, which attract tens of thousands of visitors every year.
History of Stourhead
Though much of the house dates back to the early eighteenth century, a devastating fire caused serious damage to the central block of the house in 1902 and therefore what you see today is a mixture of original and restored construction – albeit designed to entirely reflect the original design.
The Stourhead estate was originally the property of the Stourton family: in 1714, they sold it to Sir Thomas Meres, and a few years later, it was sold to Henry Hoare.
Hoare demolished the original manor house and had a new one constructed, designed in a Palladian style by the architect Colen Campbell and built by Nathaniel Ireson, it was completed in 1725. Henry died before it was complete, but his son Henry II Hoare made further alterations and collected paintings and sculpture voraciously.
Much of the decoration and layout reflects the life of Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838), grandson of the estate’s original owner, Henry Hoare II. Visitors glimpse into the life of a man burdened by grief after the loss of his wife and second child, he was a worldly man and scholar who poured his life and soul into his Wiltshire home – adding impressively to its stature. Highlights of the property include a spectacular library and picture gallery, all set overlooking a striking artificial lake.
An agricultural depression in the 19th century meant the family had to organise a major estate sale to raise funds in 1883, and much of the collection was sold off. A fire in 1902 gutted much of the house, and destroyed the collections kept on the upper floors.
The house was eventually given to the National Trust in 1946, who have operated it ever since.
The true gem of Stourhead does not, however, lay hidden in its lavish interior but rather it is outside in the garden where the site truly comes into its own. The gardens, completed over decades, demonstrate the evolving aesthetic attitudes that bore so many great British gardens throughout the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, inviting guests not just to look but to arrive and experience.
The classical gardens, born out of enlightenment inspiration, hark back to the perceived dignity of ancient Rome, evoking images of Vergil’s Aneid at every turn, boasting temples to Apollo and Flora, a Romanesque Pantheon and several grottos. Moreover, historians have often commented on the gardens’ biblical implications, suggesting that the ‘pilgrims’ who walk this path see it as a modern day Eden: A paradise given, lost and regained.
Stourhead’s gardens remain extremely popular year round, although autumn is particularly beautiful as the leaves turn a rich golden brown. There’s a loop around the lake which takes about an hour to complete and is relatively even underfoot – you’ll be spy several temples, a grotto and the Gothic Cottage scattered around the lake, which can be accessed most of the time. The Temple of Apollo was used as a filming location for the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice.
The house makes for a pleasant visit, and whilst the building is lovely much of the collections have been imported from elsewhere. Keep an eye out for the kitchen garden, which is stuffed full of familiar herbs, vegetables and fruit.
The village of Stourhead is at the bottom of the hill, and there’s a pub, cafe, plant shop, and small art gallery on site. King Alfred’s Tower, built to celebrate the accession of George III to the throne after the end of the Seven Years’ War, is a 3 mile walk through forest, and a great place to explore if you’re planning on spending the day or have energy to burn!
Getting to Stourhead
Stourhead is really only accessible by car: it’s clearly signed from the A303 (London – Exeter) and B3092 (Frome). Car parking is available on site but somewhat limited – it’s worth going early in autumn half term or the summer to beat the crowds.
The nearest bus stop is at Zeals, just over a mile away, on a route which goes between Salisbury and Mere. The nearest train stations are Bruton and Gillingham, both around 7 miles away.
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