Of all England’s great historic gardens Rousham is the one that affects me most. It was my inspiration in creating the garden at Saling Hall – more subconsciously than in any sense of imitation. I vainly hoped to recreate the seemingly casual interaction of grove and glade and stonework, of light and shade and glints of water, that apparently appealed to Georgian country families.
We were at Rousham again the other day. Its unique virtue as a garden to visit is to be open without ceremony every day. “Bring good shoes and a picnic”, say the Cottrell-Dormers, “and it’s yours for the day.” Gleaming white argosies of cloud were sailing in a sapphire sky, the sunshine just edged by a cool summer breeze. Rousham House is inscrutable, plain and prim; indifferent, it seems, to its star-struck visitors. Nor is the garden visible as you circumnavigate the building and set off across the unornamented bowling green to the first startling, even shocking, eye-catcher; a lion mauling a horse. Is this a warning that you are about to see nature untamed? If so, it is a false alarm.
When a garden is yours for the day you amble round it in your own fashion, not systematically but darting here and nipping there to inspect a statue or a plant or to see what happens round a corner. This was not the designer’s intention. He had a clear plan for your visit; the order and timing of each revelation of a new prospect.
I wish we knew more about Kent’s time at Rousham. It was Charles Bridgeman who contrived the broad layout of an Elysian garden on the steep slope 100 feet high and a mile long, leading down to the winding river Cherwell, in a process that may have lasted for fifteen years or so. When the late owner’s brother inherited he employed the über-fashionable William Kent to enlarge and embellish the house and to give the garden his magic touch. Did Kent plant the massed trees that now cast so much of it into deep shade? There are yews as tall and straight as any in England that surely must have been planted 300 years ago. Many of the oaks, beeches and limes, and a cedar of Lebanon by the Temple of Echo, look like the original planting, too.
Today the architectural set-pieces that overlook the river are in distinct glades separated and dominated by high trees, underplanted with evergreens, linked by the famous serpentine rill. I am certainly not alone in finding it a haunting, even spiritual, place where melancholy meets the ghost of glamour. Sitting in the Temple of Echo, the meadow sloping down to the Cherwell dappled with beech tree shade (concave slopes were much admired) the silence is pregnant. Three centuries ago it would have echoed to shouts and shots and hunting horns, dogs barking, the splashing of fountains and the giggling of girls. The English gentry didn’t (and still don’t) do solemn. The Praeneste, the seven arched cloister that looks over the river, has benches in Kent’s most elegant style for 28 well-dressed, and no doubt gossiping, guests.
We have a detailed description in a letter from the head gardener of 1760, John Clary, when Kent’s planting was still young. Melancholy was evidently far from the owner’s mind. Today water dribbles in mossy grottoes where Clary tells us it was flung in fountains forty feet high. The 18th century believed in bling. The woods were underplanted not with plain laurel but with every flowering shrub. Colour was introduced everywhere, and sparkling water splashed around.
Our habit of seeing the past in the sobriety of mossy patina makes it hard to take in the real meaning of the designs we so admire. The Parthenon was brightly painted, full of noise and incense; bare sun-bleached marble is a protestant taste the ancients would not have shared. Perhaps it is my own melancholy that I attribute to a landscape adrift in time.