Stourhead is one of those National Trust properties that I somehow knew about, despite having never previously been. Its gardens are world-famous and I instantly recognised them from photos that I had seen elsewhere. What I hadn’t realised was that it’s not actually that far from Bristol, and is an easy day trip if you have access to transport. As soon as I had twigged this, I was keen to dust of my National Trust membership card which had been languishing in my purse for a while, and explore somewhere new.
Whilst we didn’t arrive at Stourhead until lunchtime due to some prior commitments in the morning, I’d recommend spending as long as possible as you can easily fill a full day. One thing to be aware of is that you can’t access the formal gardens until an hour before closing if you have a dog with you (depending on the season), which we did. Initially this seemed quite disappointing as the gardens were the main reason for visiting, but actually this turned out to be more of a blessing than a curse.
We started our visit with lunch at the Spread Eagle Inn followed by a treat from the Ice Cream Parlour. From here, we set out towards the formal gardens and got our first glimpse looking across the lake and palladian bridge to the pantheon. As we weren’t allowed into the gardens at this stage, we decided to go for a walk in the wider estate. Dogs were allowed in the wider estate throughout the day, and with over 2000 acres to explore it seemed a waste not to. Had we been allowed in the gardens earlier, we probably wouldn’t have done this so it was nice to head out and see some more of the surrounding landscape.
We followed a path that started off passing the cascade and waterwheel, passing through some agricultural land and woodland before looping back round to the obelisk. From here we could head directly towards the house – good for giving us the opportunity to look around (taking it in turns to look after the dog outside). I probably could have spent longer wandering around the house and taking in all of the information, but I was conscious of time and it’s not the best National Trust property that I’ve been to. It had parts that were impressive, but it was quite small and easy to whizz around, particularly if you’re not too interested in paintings. However, if art work is your thing then I’d advise spending a little longer here as you can see a number of artworks collected by Henry Hoare on his grand tour. The two highlights of the property were the library and the cabinet room.
We had just enough time for the obligatory National Trust tea and cake, and a quick look around the art gallery before we headed into the formal garden. It instantly became clear whilst despite having to wait all afternoon to get in, this was the best time to see the garden. Earlier in the day it had been extremely busy with people all over the place, either walking or sitting on grass, small children running round… it was beautiful but it wasn’t exactly peaceful. However, a few hours later all of the daytrippers had packed up, leaving a much smaller number of dog walkers and keen photographers to enjoy the gardens without the crowds.
We ambled our way around slowly, taking our time and with me pausing to take plenty of pictures of our photogenic surroundings. We headed up to the Temple of Apollo, round to the pantheon and gothic cottage, before heading down through the grotto. Rather than heading up the bank for views across the lake, we stayed close to the lakeside to continue the circular walk, as otherwise we would have ended up by the house again. I find that there are some places that you visit where you feel instantly calm and at ease; for me Stourhead was one of these places. I could quite happily have spent the rest of the evening there in the fading sunlight, just enjoying my surroundings and feeling calm. Unfortunately, we knew we had to leave at some point but I know that it is somewhere that I will return.
There was still more that we didn’t have chance to fit in which we would have done if we had managed to be there for the whole day. We didn’t get to the shop, plant centre, book shop, or the rather lovely looking farm shop at the entrance as they had all closed by the time we’d done everything else we wanted to. There was also a smaller walled garden that I didn’t have chance to look around. With another couple of hours we’d probably have also attempted the longer estate walk to King Alfred’s Tower which returned through Park Hill Camp Iron Age Hill Fort and Turner’s Paddock. It’s also possible to stay at Stourhead, either in your own holiday cottage or in a B&B, both of which are set at the entrance to the garden overlook St Peter’s Church. Whilst you would have to put up with the crowds during the day, it would be really special knowing that you had the place to yourself as the sun was going down and first thing in the morning.
I visited Stourhead for the day at the beginning of September which was a great time to go as the weather was still warm and yet the leaves were just starting to turn in colour. However, I think it’s the sort of place that would wear any season well – I’d be keen to see if with vivid autumn colours, in a crisp frost or as all the buds were starting to come out.
Have you been to Stourhead? What did you think of it?