Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The Famous Gardens of Stowe

Stowe, once the great seat of the Dukes of Buckinghamshire, is near Buckingham and Milton Keynes. It is renowned in the gardening world for its influence in natural landscaping. The main house is still occupied by the prestigious Stowe School, which boasts amongst its pupils Richard Branson, that great Imam of modern Britain.

Stowe has only been in the hands of the National Trust since about 1990. As such, it isn't the plantsman's garden that you can expect at some of the more established National Trust sites. It is indeed more landscape than garden, but is so packed with architectural monuments that it must have been considered vulgar in its day. The site is hilly, and amidst the rather open aspect, temples seem to have been built on every possible mound.

Easter Sunday is perhaps not the best day to enjoy Stowe: young families flock there for a civilized day out, but even the children of today's finest families are raucous compared to those of yesteryear. The scattered mature trees and grass cannot without shrubbery soak up all the Twenty-first Century whining that echoes between the sand coloured buildings.

The monuments were erected as political statements, and are interesting as such, but in their time were sadly impotent, in much the same way as blogs are today. The family lost political influence by not keeping apace with the Industrial Age, and the house and garden declined in the early 1800's.

Away from the big political follies, it is by the lakes that Stowe truly becomes magical. The view from the Palladian bridge is one of those fine marriages of water, sky, trees, grass and waterfowl that is forever England. The view of the Palladian bridge is a young lover's dream. The water falls from one lake to the next, with just enough height to be impressive, but not so much that it is overbearing. The walk around the lake is tranquil, and the different vistas reassure from every angle of the richness of this country's land and water.

Similarly enormous water gardening achievements can also be seen here in East London in Wanstead Park, only 15 minutes walk north of Manor Park Station. Wanstead was once also a great house, whose downfall sounds like the template for East End culture and the first ever episode of Eastenders. Its wealth was squandered by the wrong kind of husband and the building was demolished for its stone. The gardens and the four enormous man-made lakes survive today to demonstrate the influence of the fashion started at Stowe.

One notable feature of the day's visitors to Stowe was the absence of any visible British "minorities" other than myself. There were some foreigners, but by their conversation they were clearly tourists. Does nobody else worry how ghettoised this country has become? How will the National Trust, and indeed Britain's heritage, survive without the endorsement of its newest citizens?

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