WILTSHIRE: Stourhead

The Pantheon at Stourhead National Trust ImagesJames Dobson lr

Photograph: The Pantheon at Stourhead ©National Trust Images, James Dobson
By Tim Saunders

Until my family and I visit Stourhead, the National Trust property in Wiltshire, I am unaware that it was just as popular to visit grand country houses in the eighteenth century as it is today. In fact, breathtaking Stourhead was often frequented by those travelling to Bath. They would stay the night in the nearby Spread Eagle Inn; what a humorous name for a pub. However, sometimes there was no room and one disgruntled traveller at that time wrote about how she was sent to the village of Mere, which she considered to be very much beneath her. I recall how the novelist Jane Austen would travel by carriage to Bath from her Hampshire home and I wonder whether she ever stopped off at Stourhead. It is certainly an imposing and elegantly designed stately home, surrounded by over 2,500 acres of luscious green pastures and extensive parkland.

It’s not the original house built on the site and there are plans afoot using the latest technology to try to find out where the foundations of that property lie. The existing house, built by Henry Hoare, opened in 1740. Designed by Colen Campbell it is a neo-classical masterpiece. The Hoare family are the banking dynasty and today C. Hoare & Co. claims to be the only remaining independent bank in the United Kingdom. Accounts here are held exclusively by millionaires.

On visiting the library, created by Sir Richard Colt Hoare during his ownership in the 1800s, we discover that there are 6,000 books. He was a learned man, who enjoyed collecting relics and recording them. It is his pursuit of this passion that established archaeology as a subject. In common with much of the landed gentry at this time he was an art lover, too and the house is full of family portraits, many by Royal Academicians.

We love our brief time in the music room where there is a pianist playing Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies on a beautiful old Steinway.

There is only so much that little Henry (7) can tolerate of a tour of a grand house and he is eager to get out and dribble his football. Over time we have learnt that this is the only way that we can actually get him to go for a family walk. So we head outside, and after a quick bite of lunch, we proceed to stroll around the grounds with him carefully controlling his ball. He wants to be a footballer so this is great practice for him.

It is a perfect summer’s day, not too hot and the sun is kind to us. There are plenty of trees to admire as we stroll along various paths, making our way to the massive lake. “This is such a privilege,” I say to Caroline as the children take it all in. They find a large tree that has a really smooth curved trunk that they enjoy climbing and sitting on.

We head for the grotto. The garden design is inspired by art and there are layers of trees at different heights and a low bed of lush green laurels, which guide your eye from up high to low down with the sun shimmering on the dome of the Temple of Apollo. It’s quite a view and must have taken much planning. Was the land like this already or was it dug out? I wonder. The volunteers who look after the gardens do a splendid job. It’s so relaxing to walk through these grounds, to see the ducks, the Canada Geese, swifts and a plethora of dragonflies and butterflies.

Now, even Henry is happy to walk, which makes such a difference. Not so long ago he would have moaned from the outset and required a piggyback. Now that back breaking piggyback comes much later in the walk. But it comes.

We manage a quick look at St Peter’s Church where there are war graves. I love the smell of churches and the overwhelming peace that envelops you as you enter.

We make our way to the Play Meadow where we are met with plenty of entertainment to while away the rest of the afternoon. Henry is instantly drawn to a large marble run type structure made from wood and guttering that can be changed and adapted. So that’s what he does with some help from me. We end up making a steep drop and extending the run considerably with lots of wood gathered from around the site. Henry gets great satisfaction from watching the balls run the entire length. (In fact this inspires him so much that when we return home he makes his very own one.) Meanwhile the girls are playing with hoops and every now and again Caroline and I get to sit in lovely traditional deckchairs, which are pleasingly comfortable. Ah, shut your eyes and let that sun work its magic. Yes, life is good and moments like this are so special. We enjoy ourselves so much that we actually outstay our welcome! The gardens shut at 430pm and we rush out at 5pm worried that we might be locked in. Thankfully we’re not and enjoy looking round the shop, which has lots of unique gifts.

For more information:


Tim Saunders on Facebook
Tim Saunders on Twitter
Tim Saunders on LinkedIn