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The gardens at Rousham


Getting inspiration from Rousham gardens

In his ‘Around the World in 80 Gardens’ television series, Monty Don described Rousham as ‘The greatest masterpiece of English Gardening – a flawless work of genius.’ Designed by William Kent in the 18th Century, it remains virtually unspoilt, which is part of this garden’s unique charm.

William Kent – Garden Designer

William Kent was a painter, stage designer and architect who spent some time in Italy, the influence of which can clearly be seen in the gardens at Rousham. Kent was one of the pioneers of what was known as the ‘New English Style of Landscape.’ Until then gardens had been in a more formal style, but Kent in particular was keen to get away from the canalization of water, to more serpentine, as in nature. The garden today still retains that sense of Englishness and unbroken harmony between house, garden and countryside. He understood the importance of light and shade, particularly to be seen in the There are many lovely views of the Oxfordshire countryside, especially the ‘eye catcher’ mill to be seen across the river Cherwell. He was a devotee of loose clumps of trees, for framing views and the gardens he created had an air of drama.

Although only 25 acres in total, Rousham is considered as the most accomplished and significant of William Kent’s work.

The house at Rousham was built in 1635 by Robert Dormer and is still owned by the same family, now the Cotterell-Dormers. The garden was commissioned in the early 18th century,  by General James Dormer a superannuated soldier who had fought with the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim. Kent’s task was to vamp up the original design by the royal gardener, Charles Bridgeman. Kent was at the centre of the picturesque movement, that placed classical scenes  within the English countryside. He saw the garden as a stage so that every path culminates in a statue or building and gives a sense of drama. Kent turned the straight alleys into winding paths, built a gently turning stream, used the natural landscape features and slopes, and created a series of views. Including a folly, a contrived ruin on the skyline as an eyecatcher from the main house.

The approach to Rousham is through parkland grazed by Old English Longhorn cattle, with the house nestling comfortably into the landscape. There’s an atmosphere of peace, which increases as you stroll through the unfussy grounds. It’s a place of theatre in which the visitor takes centre stage. Evergreen trees are used to frame views of the river Cherwell and selected ornamental, largely gothic, features.

There are many circuits to take around the garden but the journey begins at the bowling green, flanked by enormous evergreen hedging, the first thing that catches the eye is the single statue of a lion attacking a horse by Peter Sheemakers.. What has been a satisfying view transformed to spectacular drama – with excitement. The visitor then takes an unassuming path surrounded with laurel hedges and is immediately surrounded with green of all shades, from box, lime trees, ivy and yew. Within the woodland setting, paths lead to a series of classical statues, such as the Dying Gladiator and Antonious; the cascades and pools of the Venus Vale and classical buildings the most spectacular being the seven-arched Praeneste, modelled on the ruins at Palestrina in Italy, which is set into the steep bank overlooking the river Cherwell and the Heyford bridge. After sitting and contemplating for a while, it is a short progression to the rill that snakes down the centre of a woodland path to the octagonal pool. No more than a foot wide and a few inches deep, the rill and plunge pool are minimalist and brilliant in execution.

Kent’s work was considered to be a masterpiece 300 years ago and is still admired and appreciated by 21st century visitors, it is unique.  The poet Alexander Pope who said of Kent “ He leapt the fence and saw all nature as a garden.”

The seventeenth century walled gardens at Rousham

As a perfect foil to all the drama of Kent’s creation, to the opposite side of the house, is seventeenth century walled garden. In the main stone-walled rectangular garden, deep herbaceous flower beds spill onto paths. An archway leads into the smaller pigeon house garden, where a circular dovecote with a steep, tiled  roof overlooks box parterres. This is a rare example of a seventeenth century country house garden, many of which contained dovecotes that combined being a source of food and ornament. This peaceful place is an ideal way to end a tour of Rousham.

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