Archive for the Landscape 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

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

Windover Hill, Sussex

Posted in History, Landscape, Sussex with tags , , , , , , on June 8, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I was lucky enough to enjoy a rare day of sunshine on a recent visit to one of my favourite magical places, the South Downs. A long range of hills which run along the foot of England, the South Downs offer some beautiful stretches of unspoilt countryside, as well as some incredible views across the rolling plains to the north and the sea to the south.

I began my walk in the pretty village of Alfriston, which is filled with charming thatched cottages and old timbered houses. The chalky path was shady and tree-lined to start with, but soon emerged onto open hillside. The sun was hot, and skylarks chirped and twittered above me in the clear blue sky.

The chalk path up to Windover Hill, Sussex

The chalk path up to Windover Hill, Sussex

As I climbed the steep path, I caught sight of the mysterious Longman of Wilmington, a huge chalk figure cut into the hillside. Once thought to be prehistoric, this carving is now dated to more recent times, and was probably created in the 16th or 17th centuries. The Longman, also known as the Wilmington Giant, carries two staves, and although there are various theories about who or what he represents, the truth behind his creation will probably never be known. Today, pagan ceremonies are conducted next to him on important days of the year, and morris men celebrate the dawn of every May Day by dancing at his feet.

The Longman of Wilmington, Sussex

The Longman of Wilmington, Sussex

I finally made it to the top of Windover Hill, and found there, just above the Longman, a large ancient tumulus, known as Windover-Wilmington Barrow. This ancient burial mound is surrounded by a ditch, and is of the type known called a ‘bowl’ barrow.

The Wilmington-Windover Barrow, Sussex

The Wilmington-Windover Barrow, Sussex

The views from here are incredible, with historic Wilmington Priory not far below, the soft ridge of the Downs stretching into the distance and green fields as far as the eye can see. The top of this ridge is dotted with burial sites and prehistoric remains, suggesting that our ancestors thought of it as somewhere special, magical even. Standing there, with the lark song cutting through the warm summer breeze and the world spread out at my feet, I could definitely see why.

The stunning views from Windover Hill, Sussex

The stunning views from Windover Hill, Sussex

The Lost Gardens of Penicuik

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, Gardens, History, House, Landscape, Ruins with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Nestled at the feet of the Pentland Hills not far from Edinburgh, Penicuik is a fairly quiet, unexceptional town, not the kind of place you would expect to find magic. But on its outskirts lies the estate of Penicuik House, a grand mansion which is now a stately ruin. The huge gardens which surround it were once some of the most impressive in Scotland, but since the house was gutted by fire in 1899 they have been slowly returning to nature. The result is a wonderfully wild and picturesque landscape now known as the “Lost Gardens of Penicuik”.

The stately ruins of Penicuik House

The stately ruins of Penicuik House

Penicuik House has long been the home of the Clerk family, and indeed they still live in the imposing stable block near the ruins of the late 18th Century house. Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, the famous antiquarian and politician who lived here until 1755, was responsible for much of what we see in the gardens today. A huge fan of ancient Rome, he littered the grounds with picturesque neoclassical fountains, and even built a dramatic cave leading to a lake based on the famous grotto at Pausillipo near Naples.

The view from Penicuik House towards the Low Pond

The view from Penicuik House towards the Low Pond

In the 18th Century the gardens at Penicuik were compared to the romantic landscape of Tivoli near Rome, famous for its huge waterfalls and rugged cliffs. Nowadays the place is rather overgrown, and on the day I visited the Pentlands were cloaked in heavy grey clouds, but this sense of brooding neglect only added to the magical atmosphere.

A picturesque gorge in the grounds of Penicuik House

A picturesque gorge in the grounds of Penicuik House

Some areas of the garden, including that ‘Roman’ cave, are still off limits to visitors, and in need of restoration. The opulent terraces are hidden in the overgrowth, the once proud gates are rusted and its crumbling walls covered in moss. The impressive ruins of Penicuik House itself are currently being consolidated, and a new project has also recently been launched to revive the large walled gardens which sit close by. It’s good to see the gardens of Penicuik being brought back to life, but I hope they still retain their wild, overgrown magic.

A neoclassical fountain with Latin inscription in the gardens of Penicuik House

A neoclassical fountain with Latin inscription in the gardens of Penicuik House

The inclement weather on the day of my visit prevented me from fully exploring the “Lost Gardens of Penicuik”, but you can be sure that I will be back there soon to soak up its unique, enchanting atmosphere of elegant, magical decay.

A lichen-covered gate in the grounds of Penicuik House

A lichen-covered gate in the grounds of Penicuik House

Dream No Small Dreams, Ronchini Gallery

Posted in Art, Landscape, London, Photography, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by mysearchformagic

This week I stumbled across a rather intriguing exhibition at London’s Ronchini Gallery, entitled Dream No Small Dreams. The show features the work of three artist; Adrien Broom, Thomas Doyle and Patrick Jacobs. All three share an obsession with small-scale fantastical worlds, each using different techniques to create their own miniature, magical alternative realities.

An installation view of Dream No Small Dream, Ronchini Gallery

An installation view of Dream No Small Dream: The Miniature Worlds of Adrien Broom, Thomas Doyle and Patrick Jacobs, Courtesy of Ronchini Gallery

Broom’s Frame of Mind photographs portray imagined landscapes inhabited by tiny ‘Borrowers’ style figures. They are cinematic in their scope, if teeny-tiny in their execution.

Left Over Things, Adrien Broom, 2010

Left Over Things, Adrien Broom, 2010, digital C-type print, 60 x 40 in, courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery

Thomas Doyle’s sculptural scenes of destruction, disaster and mayhem are intricately detailed and beautifully executed, all of them housed in elegant glass domes. They present a bizarre, unsettling world where typical suburban homes are swallowed up by sink holes, lifted off the ground by hurricanes or smothered in overgrown Cinderella-esque vines. Meanwhile, the pint-size protagonists who inhabit them seem blithely unconcerned by the strangeness that surrounds them.

Beset, Thomas Doyle, 2013

Beset, Thomas Doyle, 2013, mixed media, 17.5 x 14.5 x 14.5 in, Courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery

My favourite exhibits in Dream No Small Dreams were without a doubt the hyper-realistic sculptures by Patrick Jacobs. Embedded into the wall and viewed through tiny ‘fish eye’ portholes, these glowing landscapes have more than a hint of the fairytale about them. Jacobs’ teeny weeny dioramas feature sublime vistas of trees, meadows and rolling hills, and are created from an unusual selection of media, including styrene, acrylic, ash, talc and hair. The skill involved in creating these unfeasibly realistic scenes, with each leaf and blade of grass perfectly and fully formed, is astonishing. It isn’t an overstatement to say that I could almost feel with warmth of the summer sun on my face as I gazed through the tiny windows into these magical, miniscule panoramas.

Stump with Curly Dock and Wild Carrot Weed, Patrick Jacobs, 2013

Stump with Curly Dock and Wild Carrot Weed, Patrick Jacobs, 2013, Mixed Media, Courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery

Check out Patrick Jacobs’ website here for more wonderful works. It’s hard to get a true impression of their impact from photographs, so if you ever get the chance to see his sculptures in person I recommend you take it. You won’t be disappointed.

Stump with RedBanded Brackets and English Daisies (detail) , Patrick Jacobs, 2013

Stump with Red Banded Brackets and English Daisies (detail) , Patrick Jacobs, 2013, Mixed Media, 77 x 123 x 80cm, Courtesy of the artist and Ronchini Gallery

Dream No Small Dreams, curated by Bartholomew F. Bland will be at Ronchini Gallery London from 6 September to 5 October, ronchinigallery.com.

A Magical Walk in Wiltshire, Part 2

Posted in History, Landscape, Standing Stones, Wiltshire with tags , , , , , , , on September 17, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Silbury Hill is one of those fascinating mysteries that still manages to defy explanation, despite centuries of investigation and all the scientific progress of modern archaeology. It is hard to tell from photographs just how huge and impressive it is; an immense pile of chalk, the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe. Its purpose is still unknown, and historical attempts to discover burial chambers or secret tunnels were all to end in disappointment, also causing problems with the stability of the mound in modern times. But whatever it is, Silbury Hill is definitely astounding, awe-inspiring, magical.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

It’s been many years since I visited Avebury. Last time I was there I was in my late teens, and I remember it as a peaceful, wondrous place, its huge circle of stones surrounded by a strangely mystical aura. Since then it has changed dramatically. The National Trust have moved in, and brought with them a huge car park, a visitors centre, a gift shop, and of course hordes of day trippers.

A rare moment of peace amongst the stones of Avebury, Wiltshire

A rare moment of peace amongst the stones of Avebury, Wiltshire

The drizzle began just as I entered the village, but that wasn’t the reason that I didn’t stay long. It is hard to get a sense of magic in a place like this, surrounded by crowds, traffic and silly souvenirs. Perhaps an early afternoon in August was not the best time to visit. I decided to head on, and as I walked out of Avebury along the Wessex Ridgeway the rain thankfully petered out.

Walking up to Fyfield Down, Wiltshire

Walking up to Fyfield Down, Wiltshire

Fyfield Down is a landscape like no other I have seen. Thanks to unique geological conditions, the ground here is littered with huge boulders, or sarsens, which now provide a home to many rare types of lichen.

The stone-studded landscape of Fyfield Down

The stone-studded landscape of Fyfield Down

Looking out across the Down, it is hard not to imagine that there was some human involvement in the placing of these bizarre boulders – from a distance it looks like an immense, decimated stone circle – but apparently it is all natural, despite signs that humans have lived here for thousands of years. In fact these sarsens were sometimes moved elsewhere, and used in the construction of prehistoric monuments both near and far, rather like a quarry for ready-made standing stones.

One of the huge sarsens of Fyfield Down

One of the huge sarsens of Fyfield Down

The final leg of my long walk was all downhill as I descended gradually from Fyfield into the Kennet Valley and back towards Marlborough. I was tired but happy, ready for a nap and a decent hot dinner. My walk had taken me through diverse but always beautiful landscapes filled with history, flora and fauna. It also confirmed what I have always suspected, namely that nothing dulls the atmosphere of magic like a car park full of cars and coaches. Instead I had found magic in the lesser-known places, the spots away from the beaten track. They weren’t quiet places as such, in fact they were often filled with noise; the twitter and screech of birds, the rustle of leaves, the scrabbling of something unseen in the undergrowth, the rush of the wind. But they were places where I could truly connect with the landscape, just as walkers before me have done for thousands of years on these ancient, magical paths.

A Magical Walk in Wiltshire, Part 1

Posted in History, Landscape, Standing Stones, Wiltshire, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I set off from Marlborough later than I had intended, delayed by a huge, deliciously lardy fried breakfast. By the time I had left the town and set off along the White Horse Trail the sun was already high and bright in a blue sky flecked with fluffy white clouds. Following the trail wasn’t always easy, with marker posts few and far between, but with the help of my trusty map I managed to stay mostly on the right path.

Setting off along the White Horse Trail

Setting off along the White Horse Trail, Wiltshire

The trail led me up out of the Kennet Valley, along the edges of dusty, stubbled fields, where a flock of nervous pheasants toddled anxiously in front of me before awkwardly taking flight in a flurry of angry croaks. I scrambled through overgrown hedgerows where my legs were stung by nettles and my clothes grabbed by brambles, then down again into the West Woods.

Looking across the valley towards the West Woods, Wiltshire

Looking across the valley towards the West Woods, Wiltshire

Here I came across the ancient Wansdyke, a long, meandering earthwork consisting of a high bank and deep ditch which stretches for miles across the Wiltshire countryside. The date or purpose of the dyke are not certain, although it seems to have been constructed sometime around the Saxon period, and may well have been defensive, its name apparently a derivation of ‘Woden’s Dyke’.

The bank and ditch of the Wansdyke, Wiltshire

The bank and ditch of the Wansdyke, Wiltshire

Despite a couple of wrong turns along the network of trails in the shady forest, I eventually found the path again and soon ended up on a high ridge, looking south across the Vale of Pewsey. The views here were stunning, the low green hills fading to grey as they rolled gently into the distance.

It was obvious by now that I was nearing the magical landscape of Avebury. My map was dotted with little stars marked as Tumuli in that distinctive gothic script used by the Ordnance Survey to denote ‘sites of antiquity’. As I arrived at Knapp Hill I spotted the charmingly named Adam’s Grave, a long, low ancient burial place on the crest of a nearby hill.

Adam's Grave, Wiltshire

Adam’s Grave, Wiltshire

The next stretch of my journey was uphill again, along the ancient Ridgeway which leads northwards from this spot toward the famous White Horse of Uffington. I was now walking in the footsteps of our ancestors going back centuries, maybe even millenia, as I puffed my way to the top of the ridge.

Walking the ancient Ridgeway, Wiltshire

Walking the ancient Ridgeway, Wiltshire

Towards the summit I walked back across the Wansdyke, larger here but more overgrown with trees and scrub. The vista from the other side was magnificent, facing north now towards my destination. As I scuttled down the chalky, flint-flecked path two birds of prey, buzzards perhaps, or maybe red kites, wheeled and swooped playfully above me, their sharp cries cutting through the soft sigh of the breeze. The sun was hidden now, and I could see an ominous bank of grey cloud moving in speedily from the north.

I knew I was nearing my destination when I spotted the distinctive shape of Silbury Hill in the valley below. Soon I was in the pretty village of East Kennet, with its quiet lanes and thatched cottages, the wooded mound of East Kennet Long Barrow looming on the rise to my left. Not much later I took a short detour to see the impressive remains of West Kennet Long Barrow, now extensively excavated and open to curious visitors. Inside I noticed the strong scent of incense, and in one of the burial chambers I found a lit candle sitting next to a strange corn dolly, a pagan offering of some sort I suppose.

Huge stones around the entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire

Huge stones around the entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire

Sitting on top of the barrow offered more wonderful views of the surrounding fields, and also the opportunity to take of my heavy boots and grab something to eat. But before long I was up again, and walking down towards the main road, past an old oak tree hung with colourful ribbons and offerings, and on towards the village and prehistoric henge of Avebury.