Archive for the Gardens Category

The Grotto, Stourhead

Posted in Caves, Fountain, Gardens, Grotto, History, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2016 by mysearchformagic

In the autumn I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire. With its pretty lake surrounded by wooded hillsides dotted with follies of all shapes and sizes, Stourhead has a dream-like quality about it, an eighteenth-century recreation of an ancient Roman paradise. It’s got its own version of the Pantheon, complete with grand portico, dome and marble sculptures, a medieval cross, and a even a quaint ‘Gothic’ cottage with rustic windows and a thatched roof.

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The beautiful Georgian landscape of Stourhead, Wiltshire

But surely the most atmospheric spot at Stourhead is the Grotto, constructed in 1748 for then owner Henry Hoare, and designed by Henry Flitcroft. Wealthy Georgian gardeners, it seems, had something of a taste for magic, and a dark and creepy underground cavern was an important element in any grand garden of this period.

From a distance the Grotto at Stourhead, which sits right of the shore of the lake, looks like nothing more than a huge pile of mossy rocks. On closer inspection, however, a set of twisting steps can be seen leading down to a shadowy doorway.

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The twisting staircase down to the Grotto at Stourhead

Beyond lies a dark – very dark – underground passageway, the only light coming from small apertures in the roof and the side, the latter offering wonderful views over the lake outside.

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Looking out onto the Stourhead Lake

Lined with flint, pebbles and tufa, the interior of the Grotto is constructed to resemble a rough natural cave. Since Henry Hoare was rather taken with ancient Rome, the grotto is inspired by the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, both of whom wrote numerous tales of magical, poolside caverns, which were often home to nymphs, monsters or even gods and goddesses. Neo-classical sculptures in the Stourhead Grotto add to the atmosphere of ancient mystery, with a gushing spring and pool decorated with a water nymph and some poetry inscribed into the floor:

Nymph of the Grot these sacred springs I keep,
And to the murmur of these waters sleep;
Ah! Spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave,
And drink in silence, or in silence lave.

Further along, hiding out in a gloomy, water-filled cavern, sits a dramatic bearded river god, a spring from the River Stour pouring noisily from his urn.

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The river god in the Grotto at Stourhead

I may have visited the gardens at Stourhead a little to late to see the amazing autumn leaves which attract thousands of visitors every year, but in a way I was glad to catch it at a quieter moment. Wandering alone through the tunnels of the Grotto, the weak November sun setting over the damp Wiltshire hills, it really was possible to experience the sublime wonder of this magical place, and feel the thrill that has been enjoyed by visitors to this place for over three and a half centuries.

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The magical Grotto at Stourhead

Mavisbank House, Loanhead

Posted in Edinburgh, Gardens, History, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , on October 9, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My last post featured a return visit to the lost gardens of Penicuik, a wonderfully wild park designed in the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. On the same day that I visited Penicuik, I also took the opporturnity to explore nearby Mavisbank, another house and garden created by Sir John which now lies in ruins. Just like Penicuik, Mavisbank is currently emerging from years of ruin and neglect, but still retains a remarkably magical atmosphere.

The easiest route to Mavisbank is along the river Esk, where a footpath has been created which leads from  the outskirts of the village of Polton along to the house and estate. The approach to the house itself leads up an old, overgrown driveway which is rather magical itself, giving just a hint of the faded grandeur to come.

The magical overgrown driveway leading to Mavisbank House

The magical overgrown driveway leading to Mavisbank House, Loanhead

Built (and largely designed) by Sir John during the 1720s, Mavisbank was once a beautiful country retreat, with one eighteenth-century visitor exclaiming that it was more like Tivoli in Italy than Scotland. Since the nineteenth century, however, the house’s fate has been less happy – sold by the Clerks in 1815, it later became an asylum. By the 1950s the land around it had become a scrap yard, and in the 1970s the house was gutted by fire. Now it is a sad and fragile, but undeniably picturesque, ruin.

The sad but picturesque ruins of Mavisbank House

The sad but picturesque ruins of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

You don’t have to be a structural engineer to see that the ruins of Mavisbank are in a pretty bad way. Subsidence caused by mining in the area has taken its tool, which huge cracks snaking across the house’s buckling walls. In fact, parts of the building looks like they are only being held up by the network of scaffolding that pokes out from its windows and roof. On the rather damp afternoon that I visited, the place felt lonely and abandonded, empty apart from me and the flock of noisy rooks that seem to have taken up residence in Mavisbank’s shattered shell.

A fragile wing of ruined Mavisbank House, Loanhead

A fragile wing of ruined Mavisbank House, Loanhead

A trust has been set up to rescue Mavisbank, however, and work has already been done to clear the land around it of bushes and trees and allow more public access. High on the hill behind the house can be seen the earthworks of what enthusiastic antiquarian Sir John believed to be a Roman camp, but is more probably some sort of medieval fortification. Out in front are the swampy remains of an ornamental pond that once sat at the centre of a carefully landscaped garden, and in the distance is a pretty pigeon house.

My favourite part of the house was the south side, which I suspect contained the service quarters. Featuing a deep basement, now filled with undergrowth but still retaining its wooden window frames, this wing was tantalisingly shadowy and eerie.

The gloomy south wing of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

The gloomy south wing of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

At one point it looked like Mavisbank would be lost forever, its ownership contested for years as it slowly crumbled. Now the Mavisbank Trust are working with Scottish Heritage and the local council to secure the future of the house and grounds, and preserve it for future generations.

In the meantime, it remains a marvellously evocative ruin with a uniquely magical aura.

For more details of the Mavisbank Trust and their work, click here.

Return to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik

Posted in Castle, Caves, Gardens, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by mysearchformagic

It’s been well over a year since I made my first trip to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik, but I have thought a lot about this wild and wonderful place since that visit. Last week I was able to visit again, and explore more of its magical corners.

First on my list of things to see was Knightslaw Tower. Although it may look medieval, the tower was actually built in the middle of the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, an enthusiastic antiquarian with a taste for the ancient. When first constructed the tower could be seen from miles around, and dominated the rest of the Penicuik estate. Since its heyday, however, the tower has fallen into disrepair, and the high trees which have grown up around it hide it from the outside world. The result is a rather melancholy, but definitely quite magical ruin.

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

Next I walked on past the majestic ruins of the huge mansion of Penicuik House, built by Sir John’s son James in the 1760s, and into the valley below. Here I found the river Esk, which babbles its way down from here to nearby Roslin Glen, another of my favourite spots. Once over the river I crossed a field, heading uphill until I reached the Hurley Ponds.

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds are another of Sir John Clerk’s creations, part of his ambitious plans to landscape his park at Penicuik. Once used as fishing ponds, they have now largely returned to nature, spookily quiet apart from the odd quack from the resident flock of ducks.

Sir John was obviously rather partial to a magical experience himself, and evidence of this can be found in his construction of the Hurley Cave, a rock-cut underground passage which leads from the side of the hills closest to the house into this secluded valley. The original entrance to the cave was over a bridge across the Esk, where a cascade waterfall was constructed to add to the sense of drama. Visitors would presumably have been guided through the cave with candles or burning torches, and half way down would have found a carved Latin inscription Tenebrosa occultaque cave, beware dark and hidden things. The other end of the cave emerges from a rusticated stone doorway in the hill, and can still be seen today.

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Unfortunately vandalism and structural problems mean that the Hurley Cave has had to be locked up. Its heavy metal door does, however, have a large gap at the top which allows a glimpse of the dark depths beyond. I couldn’t resist sticking my camera into the gap and taking a picture. It offers an enticing hint of what lies beneath.

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Much work has been done to consolidate and preserve Penicuik House and its estate in recent years, largely thanks to the hard work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust. Apparently both the cave and the tower are on their list of works for the future, but restoring both will be an expensive job, and fundraising is ongoing. In the meantime I was happy to enjoy the overgrown, rather sombre mood of the lost gardens, and imagine the dingy depth of the Hurley Cave. I like to think Sir John would have approved!

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

For details on how you can support the sterling work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust, click here.

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Castle, Fountain, Gardens, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Nestling in a quiet valley in the middle of rural Brittany can be found the romantic ruins of the chateau of Quinipily, an ancient fortress now reduced to just a few sturdy walls and terraces. Today the remains of the castle have been transformed into pretty gardens which are open to visitors throughout the year.

The colourful gardens of Quinipily, Brittany

The colourful gardens of Quinipily, Brittany

It’s not the flowers that attract visitors to this place, however, because it is far better known for its strange statue, a monumental figure of indefinite age now known as the Venus of Quinipily. The 2.2 metre tall Venus stands at the centre of the terraced garden, staring out at the surrounding landscape from her position atop a huge fountain.

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

Until the seventeenth century both the Venus and the huge stone trough that is now situated below her stood in the Breton village of Bieuzy-les-Eaux, on the site of an ancient Gaulish city. Also known by the villagers as Ar Groareg Houar (the Iron Lady) and Groah Hoart (The Old Guardian), the statue was worshipped by the locals, who believed it to have magical curative powers. Pregnant women would visit the Venus, and later bathe in the trough (which can apparently hold up to 3600 litres of water) after giving birth. It was also thought that the figure could help boost fertility, and it is said that some couple indulged in some rather naughty practises beneath the statue. Finally the bishop of nearby Vannes decided to bring an end to such pagan rituals, and in 1661 he had the Venus thrown into the river. Before long, the locals fished her out, and resumed their old religious rites.

The huge stone water trough at Quinipily

The huge stone water trough at Quinipily

In 1670 the statue was attacked and thrown once again into the watery depths. At this point local gentleman Pierre de Lannion stepped in to save the Venus, and shipped her off to his castle at Quinipily, where she has stood ever since. He faced opposition from the Duke of Rohan, who claimed ownership of the statue, but after a long legal battle Lannion won the case and was allowed to keep her.

The monumental form of the Venus of Quinipily

The monumental form of the Venus of Quinipily

The true age and purpose of the Venus of Quinipily have stirred up debate for centuries. Some have suggested that she may be a representation of Isis first erected by Romans who had settled in the region. Another theory is that she is in fact a Gallic goddess, or perhaps Roman mother goddess Cybele. Some sceptics have proposed that this statue is not ancient at all, but a later copy made when the original statue was destroyed in the seventeenth century.

After such a checkered past, the Venus must relieved to have finally found a safe home in the beautiful gardens of Quinipily. Here she is surrounded by huge old trees which have grown up amongst the fragments of castle wall, and althought the spring which fed her fountain has now dried up, the former ponds and cascades are now a mass of foliage and flowers, a bit wild and overgrown, but wonderfully atmospheric. I said earlier that she attracts visitors to Quinipily, but on the day that I visited there was noone else around, and I was able to enjoy the magical ambience of this intriguing place in peace and quiet, a unique experience in an unforgettable place.

The overgrown ponds in the gardens at Quinipily

The overgrown ponds in the gardens at Quinipily

A Magical Gateway, Vannes

Posted in Brittany, Door, Gardens, History with tags , , , , , on January 2, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Vannes is a lovely town in the Morbihan district of Brittany, with lots of beautiful old buildings and windy alleyways in its medieval centre. It was while walking down one of these alleyways that I came across this magical old gateway.

A magical doorway, Vannes

A magical doorway, Vannes

I had a peek through some of the cracks in the old gate itself, but couldn’t see much apart from a rather overgrown garden. The tall trunk you can see sticking out the top of the gateway is a palm tree, which certainly suggests this wonderful gate hides something rather more exotic than your usual back garden. We can only imagine what magic lies behind…!

The Gardens of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Posted in Cotswolds, Gardens, House, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Following my last post on the slightly faded but rather magical Chastleton House, this time I am going to take a closer look at the intriguing gardens that surround it. As the fine Jacobean house fell into decay during the twentieth century, its extensive grounds also became overgrown and wild, nature sneaking back in after centuries of careful planting and landscaping. Since the National Trust took over the property in the 1990s, they have been carefully tidying up the gardens, making them accessible once again, but still retaining their magical atmosphere.

The grand exterior of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The grand exterior of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The gardens at Chastleton are filled with ancient trees and pretty flowerbeds. A kitchen garden has been re-established, and long-overgrown sections are gradually re-emerging following decades of neglect. Undoubtedly the most striking aspects is the formal topiary garden, a circular area filled with weird and wonderfully shaped bushes. Each bush was once carefully trimmed into a recognisable form, but now they are shadows of their former selves, their original designs hard to decipher.

The entrance to the topiary garden at Chastelton House, Oxfordshire

The entrance to the topiary garden at Chastelton House, Oxfordshire

One bush apparently represented a galleon in full sail, another a Greek vase, and yet another a teapot. Time has worn away the edges of the bushes, and now most of them are amorphous lumps giving only the tiniest hints of their past grandeur. Wandering around the topiary garden at Chastleon House, it is hard not to think of the surreal setting of Alice in Wonderland with all of its crazy characters and dreamlike locations.

The weird and wonderful topiary shapes in the gardens of Chaslteton House

The weird and wonderful topiary shapes in the gardens of Chaslteton House

A plan is available which identifies each and every bush in the garden, although guessing which was which is much more fun. It’s amazing how your mind can imagine just about anything once you get going. Just like the interior of the house, the gardens of Chastleton House were on the verge of rack and ruin when they were rescued just over twenty years ago, but while they have been preserved for future generations, their wonderful sense of faded opulence and intriguing mystery has also been retained.

Can you decipher the strange topiary shapes in the garden of Chastleton House?

Can you decipher the strange topiary shapes in the garden of Chastleton House?

Exploring Chastleton House and gardens is a wonderful experience, and the property offers a great example of how a place can be conserved and maintained without losing its unique magic. Let’s hope this approach is taken elsewhere, and more of that magic, hidden in quiet, dusty rooms and shadowy, overgrown corners, can be retained and enjoyed for years to come.

The Magical Corners of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Posted in Cotswolds, Gardens, History, House, Oxfordshire with tags , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by mysearchformagic

My recent trip to the Cotswold’s included a return visit to one of my favourite country houses, Chastleton House in Oxfordshire. Built between 1607 and 1612, Chastleton House remained in the same family until it was handed over to the National Trust in 1991. The fact that the family’s initial wealth quickly evaporated meant that little was done to the house, and the interior remained largely unaltered as it sank into a state of faded grandeur over a period of four centuries.

The faded grandeur of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The faded grandeur of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Realising what a rare opportunity Chastleton House presented, the National Trust decided not to restore it, but rather to conserve it just as it was. As a result, that faded grandeur has been preserved, and a unique atmosphere survives. Instead of the usual glitz and glamour you may associate with a stately home, Chastleton’s historic rooms have cracked ceilings, tatty furniture and creaky floorboards. Here and there are wonderful little corners, where the most mundane objects suddenly taken on an aura of magic.

A magical corner of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

A magical corner of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

There’s no teashop here, although you can buy home-made refreshments in the church next door, and no gift shop to speak of. Although I often have mixed feelings about the work of the National Trust and their apparently incessant drive to increase visitor numbers, in this case they have got it spot on. Only a limited number of people are allowed into Chastleton at any one time, so it is still possible to find yourself alone in this wonderful house, even if it is just for a moment. And it is in these rare moments that magic can happen.

A quiet, magical moment in Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

A quiet, magical moment in Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

There’s endless fun to be had poking about the nooks and crannies of Chastleton House, peering down the long, draughty corridors and into murky anterooms. It’s not many places that can truly be described as a time capsule, but Chastleton is definitely one of those places. As you wander around its dusty rooms, it is easy to forget the modern world outside, and imagine yourself almost anywhere in time. As you can see below, the gardens are rather wonderful too, but they definitely deserve a post all of their own, so I will save that magical treat for next time…

Looking out into the magical garden of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Looking out into the magical garden of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire