Painshill Park: the weirdness of landscape gardens

Hot on the heels of my trip to Eltham Palace to check out the 1930s planting, yesterday saw me visiting Painshill Park in Surrey, this time to visit an 18th century landscape garden.

Painshill Park | Wolves in London
The lake at Painshill Park

A bit of potted garden history for anyone interested. The “landscape” style of gardening became popular in the UK around the 1700s; its best known designer Capability Brown.

It’s a style of gardening that essentially aims to “improve” the natural landscape, intending the results to look like a beautiful spot of English countryside (though, in fact, huge chunks of money were likely spent on creating these effects, and vast swathes of land dug up and moved around to make “natural” lakes and hills and woodland areas…)

Painshill Park | Wolves in London
View of the estate

Nestled within the bucolic scenery were (in my opinion) completely lunatic buildings, designed to become a focal point and draw your eye to the horizon, across the sweeping vistas. Gothic follies, “ruined” abbeys, temples, towers, arches, bridges… …nothing was considered too grand or too weird for the aristocrats who owned and built these gardens.

At Painshill, close to Cobham in Surrey, all these features are apparent. Designed by its owner, the Honorable Charles Hamilton, an aristocrat with good connections but little actual money, the park was extensively re-designed and re-built to adhere to the 18th century ideas of a beautiful landscape.

Among other great ventures, the oxbow lake was re-dug to form a more appealing shape; a tumble-down ruined abbey was built to hide some actual modern-day brickworks; a grotto was bejeweled inside with crystals; and, most bizarrely, a Turkish tent was erected on the top of a hill at one side of the estate.

Grotto at Painshill Park
The outside of the crystal grotto. Think this looks weird, then take a look…
Crystal grotto at Painshill Park
…at this! Every single crystal was stuck onto the ceiling by hand.
Crystal grotto at Painshill Park
And this was one of the views from the grotto’s many peepholes
Gothic temple ceiling at Painshill Park
This is the ceiling of the gothic temple
Hermitage at Painshill Park
Naturally, there was a hermitage (!) – this was the rather beautiful view from its window

I’ve got to admit, it’s not my favourite era of garden styles. A little bit too much effort and artifice to create something “natural” – and a serious lack of things that, to a modern eye, are desirable. Such as, you know, flowers or non-evergreen trees and shrubs.

But a morning wandering around (in rather cold May drizzle) was a good way to blow away the cobwebs of the week. And I did very much enjoy the (non-original) watermill and the glorious walled kitchen garden on the way in.

Kitchen garden at Painshill Park
The walled kitchen garden
Water wheel at Painshill Park
The waterwheel building was gorgeous
Waterwheel at Painshill Park
As were the views behind

Incidentally, if you’re thinking of visiting a landscape garden close to London, I would recommend, instead, a trip to Stowe (where I was lucky enough to spend two years in the sixth form at the school there). Designed by Capability Brown himself, this is landscape gardening at its absolute finest.

Next week, we’re off on holiday to Somerset and I’m hoping to visit Hestercombe while we’re there. With a garden designed by Lutyens and Jekyll, I’ve got high hopes of some serious inspiration there…

9 thoughts on “Painshill Park: the weirdness of landscape gardens

  1. A crystal grotto! I must have one. Doesn’t everyone. While in London I snapped a pic of a plant that I can’t identify. How could I send it to you for ID? I could put it on my blog and direct you to it, I suppose.

  2. I think you need a trip to Devon to see my dads garden complete with grotto and turkish tent. I kid you not. I also have all sorts of stories about Capability Brown for you.

  3. Ah Hestercombe is great you’ll love it!
    I like seeing the lettuce planted around the trees, just like we have it here at home. That grotto is a bit different isn’t it? Harmless enough but reminiscent of numerous hour films watched in my youth of caves of skulls…

    1. I loved the lettuce around the trees too! They had quite a few things like that: proper shrubs with little labels giving their Latin names surrounded by a load of veg. It’s absolutely my kind of style…

      And yes, the skull thing is intentional apparently. It was all meant to make you “reflect in a pleasant way” on your own mortality. They had all these wonderful vistas, and then you kept having to follow a path through some deep coniferous planting in the shade, where you couldn’t see the open spaces at all — again, just to set a sombre mood. Odd bunch those 18th century aristos!

  4. Very grand and sweeping, and the grotto is amazing. I love the kitchen garden. How unusual to have two standard bay trees in the middle of the raised bed. I have raised beds that size, I’m trying to imagine it here. I hope you have a lovely time in beautiful Somerset. CJ xx

  5. Huh, never thought I’d dislike a style of gardening but landscape seems to really disappoint. There is such a lack spontaneity here, I can imagine a rouge dandelion being ripped from the manicured lawns quick smart.
    Lovely photos, the place just sadly seems lacking in something.

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