Stowe House dates from the 1670s, but its major development took place after it was inherited by Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham in 1711. Architects John Vanbrugh, James Kent and William Gibbs worked on the neo-classical house and its park, and from 1741 to 1751 Capability Brown, then at the start of his career, was Head Gardener. The result is one of the earliest and finest English landscape gardens.
In 1822 one of Cobham's descendants (the wonderfully named Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville) was made the first Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. This era seems to have marked the high point of both the family and the house, for the second duke, Richard Plantagenet T-N-B-C-G, ran up astronomic debts which ultimately led to the house being sold to become Stowe School in 1922. The landscaped garden was acquired by the National Trust in 1989 and has since been subject to a sustained programme of restoration.
Stowe is about midway between our respective homes and made an ideal place to meet our friends Sally and Malcolm.
You approach from Buckingham up the long, straight Stowe Avenue, passing through gilded gate-pillars to soon see the magnificent Corinthian Arch on the ridge ahead - you know immediately that this is going to be something special.
You walk down from the car park and visitor centre to enter the park through Bell Gate. A plan of the garden is available from the National Trust website and a bigger version can be collected at the ticket office. The most informative website - which I happened on while writing this post - is by John D Tatter, Professor of English at Birmingham-Southern College (Birmingham, Alabama, that is). It is a simply phenomenal resource and is the source of many of the details included in this post.
We decided on a broadly clockwise route so we turned left past two temple-like pavilions to get our first glimpse of the house across the Octagon Lake (see above). It is a wonderfully imposing sight, with an obvious Palladian influence. The algae on the lake surface is the only discordant note.
Across the lake we saw the first of many sudden views of the various monuments: in this case the extraordinary Gothic Temple of 1741, one of the earliest Gothic Revival buildings. These dramatic, even theatrical, glimpses are surely the greatest charm of the gardens.
Carrying on along the same path (Pegg's Terrrace), now with Eleven Acre Lake to the right, you soon reach the Temple of Venus, also seemingly influenced by Palladio. It was the work of William Kent and dates from 1731.
Just after this, across to the right, is a perfect view of the Rotonda. We discovered later that it is actually surrounded by a golf course, and closer up is somewhat spoiled by people teeing off nearby. From this vantage point however it is magical.
In the top corner of the gardens you come to the two Boycott Pavilions. They are named after a village which used to exist nearby and they once framed an entrance to the estate. Capability Brown apparently lived in one. It took us a few moments to notice that the further pavilion has a little tempieto on the top, which completes its design, while the nearer one does not. We then noticed that it was hidden behind the bushes on the left of the photo, fenced off and presumably awaiting the arrival of a giant crane to return it to its home.
We now doubled back and quickly turned left to pass the statue of Queen Caroline, wife of George II. It was in fact built in 1726 when she was Princess of Wales, and renamed later when her husband became king.
We followed the northern side of Eleven Acre Lake to reach the cascade which links the two lakes. The wonderful Paladian bridge which stands at the far end of the Octagon Lake offered a great view, although the algae was even worse here. We enjoyed the apparently choreographed movements of teh Canada geese.
We now headed towards the House, passing the Temple of British Worthies below us to the right. The busts are of great men such as Shakespeare, Raleigh and Newton. I couldn't avoid a shot with some modern British worthies.
More or less opposite is the Temple of Ancient Virtue. Inside are statues of Homer, Socrates, Lycurgus, and Epaminondas. The two last were respectively the greatest law-giver, and general of ancient Greece.
Just behind the Temple is the 13th-14th century church of St Mary (which the plan studiously tells us in not National Trust). It is interesting and spacious inside, but frankly ugly from outside and further spoiled by being coated in pebbledash.
We continued on our clockwise arc to the Queen's Temple and from the plateau behind it enjoyed a lovely view of the Greek Temple of Concord and Victory. I learned from John Tatter that it was originally known as the Grecian Temple but was renamed at the end of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) to celebrate British peace at home and victory in the field.
Looking in the other direction from the plateau there is the fine view of Lord Cobham's Pillar.
Built to commemorate his death, it also functions as a viewing tower. It is 35m high (compare Nelson's Column at 52m).
We headed on the come beneath the wonderful Gothic Temple. It had gradually become clear that it is triangular, with square towers on each corner. Two corners have a cupola, while the other has a church-like tower. The ochre colour gives it great added charm. A sign idicated that it is now owened by the Landmark Trust and so presumably you can stay there. I had to Photoshop a parked car out of my picture.
We then walked down the slope to cross the Palladian Bridge and enjoy this fantastic view back up the hill. The bridge was apparently inspired by the Palladian Bridge at Wilton House near Salisbury.
There followed a little side trip to see the Chinese House. It was apparently the first building in England constructed in the Chinese style and has been relocated to its present position by the National Trust.
Finally, we paused in front of the genuinely ruined Temple of Friendship, to admire a very picturesque collection of monuments (the one on the left is the Queen's Temple).
It was a fitting end (apart from walking back to the car) to a truly wonderful walk.
Conditions: cloudy, but quite warm.
Distance: about 4 miles.
Rating: five stars. Just fantastic.