If someone were to ask you the question, ‘What is the most influential garden in Britain?’, you would probably answer, correctly: Sissinghurst, with Hidcote a close second, and perhaps Great Dixter in the mix as well. But in recent years another name has loomed large in the minds of professionals and amateurs alike. That garden is Rousham. The name comes up constantly in any discussion of meaning in gardens and usually elicits a wistful little sigh from those familiar with it. More than any garden I know, it inspires in people the feeling that one has a personal relationship with the place – that it is yours, somehow. This arises from the fact that a visit to Rousham can be an intensely intimate experience. Below you’ll find quotes from leading garden designers, sharing their favourite elements of the garden, plus, stunning photographs from Andrew Lawson for inspiration.
History of the garden
Rousham is an early 18th-century landscape garden that is in no way dependent on its horticultural glories. The garden was made for General James Dormer, a superannuated soldier who had fought with the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim (where he was badly injured). He appears to have poured all his efforts into the garden, asking William Kent to redesign it.
The garden sits poised above a relatively flat landscape, with the River Cherwell snaking its way obligingly through the scene, as the visitor experiences a sequence of glades and sculptural set-pieces of pulsating strangeness – one moment Gothic gloom, the next sun-dappled Arcady. Longhorn cattle animate the scene, much as they might in a Cuyp, Ruisdael or Constable painting, while architectural ‘eyecatchers’ in the distance do not so much give an impression of a demesne of great extent, but rather haul the landscape into the garden scene so that the Oxfordshire countryside takes on a quasi-mythical air, incorporating elements of the Roman campagna, olde England and even Arcadia itself.
The key at Rousham is the palpable sense of magic, the idea that this garden really is peopled, somehow, with nymphs and presided over by the spirit of Pan and the other immortals, who pop up as statues in the corners of glades or along tree-shaded walks. The tone arises from Kent’s own mythic sensibility and his ability to impart it. Here was a man steeped in classical history, as so many were in the 18th century, but his learning was not dry or academic – he had received little formal education, being the son of a Bridlington coach painter. For Kent, the nymphs, swains, gods and goddesses of the classical world of myth were a living cast of characters whom he ‘met’ during his decade working in Italy. He went on to deploy them in the theatrical experiences that were his landscape gardens.
It is open to visitors every day of the year and costs just £5 per person, which charmed visitors put into an honesty box. Children under 15 are not allowed, but picnicking is, which has in the past made me contemplate dressing my boys in livery as picnic-servants. There is no gift shop or tea room and the lavatories are pleasingly old-fashioned. I have never met anyone who does not simply adore the way Rousham is presented to visitors.
Rousham House and Garden,
Bicester, Oxfordshire OX25 4QU
Tel 01869 347110
Please note: children under 15 will not be admitted unless by prior arrangement. No dogs.