A couple of weeks after my return from France, we visited Painshill Park. A grade I listed 18th-century landscape garden envisioned by the Honourable Charles Hamilton, 9th and 14th child of the 6th Earl of Abercorn. The gardens boast 158 acres of woodland, shrubberies and a vast lake, as well as a large Vineyard.
Inspired by his exploration of Italy and his Grand Tours of Europe, the gardens were one of the first designed in the naturalistic style brought about by the Landscape Movement. There are hints of this influence everywhere, from the Renaissance-style Crystal Grotto to the Chinese Bridge.
It was lunchtime by the time we arrived, so our first stop was the café next to the entrance. We enjoyed fresh sandwiches and a delicious lemon drizzle cake before exploring the walled garden. Teaming with vegetables and a lovely potting shed, it was very quaint, fully allowing us to immerse ourselves in the past.
There are a number of routes around the park, but we chose the historical route. Naturally, this path led us to most of the main features of Painshill Park – other than a slight detour to the ruined abbey. Almost immediately, we found ourselves looking down upon the Vineyard. Hamilton planted the two and a half acres with Pinot Noir cultivar, as well as Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc hybrids, to produce Hamilton’s Painshill Sparkling Wine. Stretching down the steep hill to the River Mole, the vineyard looked magical in the summer sun. You could easily imagine yourself in the Italian countryside.
Our first time around, we completely missed the Amphitheatre as we wandered through woodland to the Gothic Temple. The temple stands atop the hill presenting us with beautiful views down towards the Serpent Lake and its bridges. Later in the day, we saw a couple having their wedding photos taken there and I can completely understand why!
Making our way slightly off the trail, we came across the Ruined Abbey. The abbey looked surprisingly new for a ruin and later research revealed that it is, in fact, a mock representation. Nevertheless, the accompaniment of a couple of swans made for some idyllic pictures through the abbey’s arched windows. Not wishing to disturb a group having a picnic too much, we continued along our route.
Walking through the woodland and carefully planted gardens, we came out into the open to find the Chinese Bridge. A couple of people were feeding the birds from the bridge meaning the area was teeming with ducks, geese and swans. Making our way through and over to one of the islands, we were faced with the Crystal Grotto. Unfortunately, due to lack of staff, the Grotto was closed on this particular day. All the more reason to come back again!
Undeterred, we got as close as we could in order to see the unbelievable structure. Completely man-made, the crystals were intricately placed to form the cavern by celebrated grotto maker Joseph Lane in 1760. However, during a period when the park fell into disrepair, the grotto roof collapsed meaning a full restoration was required.
In 2013, Heritage Lottery funding enabled Cliveden Conservation to restore the folly, which historically has been recognised as the finest stalactite Grotto in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of crystals – calcite, gypsum, quartz and fluorite – including originals recovered from archaeological works, were skilfully embedded with lime mortar onto a framework of inverted wooden cones, to recreate the incredible stalactite effect of Joseph Lane’s original folly.
I have never seen anything so unusually beautiful. Stunning in its strangeness, the grotto almost looks like skulls eroded together with shimmering chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Wishing we could have gone inside, we continued along the historical route passing along the edge of the lake and back into woodland. It wasn’t long before we came across the Waterwheel. Still operative today, the Waterwheel was built by Bramah & Sons in the 1830s to replace the original and is one of the largest working wheels in the UK. It was restored in 1987 and continues to pump water from the river Mole into the Serpentine Lake.
Conscious of time, we decided not to visit the Hermitage but instead carry on towards the Gothic Tower through the Alpine Valley. Positioned upon a high-point in the park, the tower’s red brick stands out against the landscape. The tower is accessible to the public and there is a quaint café on the first floor where we stopped for a drink. We then trekked up the many steps, stopping on the various floors to find out more about the history of the park. Upon reaching the top, we were treated to picturesque views of the Surrey countryside – even despite the power lines!
Clambering back down the spiral staircase, we started the loop back towards the entrance passing through the Elysian Plain, which surrounds the Temple of Bacchus. Presumably inspired by Greek mythology, which can interpret the Elysian Plain as a place where heroes were sent when granted immortality, the area is full of colour. Hamilton’s Temple of Bacchus was originally home to a collection of antiques collected during his Grand Tours to Europe. It featured a seven-foot marble centrepiece statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, as well as 12 marble busts of Caesars. However, these pieces were sold in 1797 and the current foundations of the temple are currently undergoing restoration.
Unable to enter the temple, we continued on to the Turkish Tent: another feature of the park that has been recreated. There were no standing remains of the original 18th-century tent, so it was from drawings that the conservationists were able to reconstruct what might have been. With its beautiful blue edges and a fantastic view of the park, we spent a long time taking in the scene.
Making our way back to the café, we realised we had some time before the site closed. So we headed back to find the Amphitheatre where Hamilton would have entertained his guests. A cast of Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines is the main feature which we admired whilst enjoying the late afternoon sun.