Rousham – A Winter’s Visit

The Landscaped garden of Rousham in Oxfordshire is a delightful surprise and magical place to visit. The garden surrounds a Jacobean Cotswold house built for the Dormer family, dating back to the 1630’s. As we drove along the drive to the almost empty stable yard car park in the chill winter sun with a flask of coffee and optimistic picnic our hopes were high for an undisturbed afternoon’s first encounter with Rousham.

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Sweeping drive to front elevation showing Kent’s crenelated roof top and Stable blocks to right

In 1737, William Kent was hired by General Dormer to remodel the house and gardens. In the Garden, Kent deliberately included vistas beyond the boundaries, the first time very English rural views were included in design, he envisioned the landscape as a classical painting and is famous as the father of “picturesque”.  Kent worked on Bridgeman’s previous Rousham 1720’s garden design, changing the formality and straight lines with light, shape and colour, predominantly green, for the new naturalistic layout and design. The garden today is virtually as William Kent and the gardener, John Clary, responsible for setting out Kent’s vision as they left it, except of course the garden is now fully mature.

Rear house elevation and rear Bowling Green lawn, bordered by historic yew hedge to left and out of view meadows and Long Horn cattle to right

After paying the £5.00 entrance fee we followed a path around the side of the house to the rear Bowling Green lawns. The house sits on a terrace, with large rear flat lawn, then slopes down towards the River Cherwell and views beyond onto the Oxfordshire country side. The views can be seen from the house and garden and in the far distance Kent placed an “Eye Catcher” a sham ruin and false structure with no sides or back – its the tiny ‘building’, almost in the top centre of my photograph below, with the winding river in the foreground.

View over the River Cherwell to the "Eye Catcher" one mile away

View over the River Cherwell to the “Eye Catcher” one mile away

There are no sign posted paths nor labels, tea shops, gift shops or folk collecting ticket money, instead an automated machine to pay the entrance fee. No dogs or children under 15 are not allowed, which not so long ago would have stopped me visiting but now my own children have cleared off to their own adventures, it was rather lovely not be amongst a game of chase or whooping and hollering. We walked down past the seven arched stone arcade, the Praeneste designed as a place to sit and admire the view above and onwards to Venus’ Vale.

Vale of Venus

Venus’ Vale and the Octagonal pool

The ground underneath was quite soggy from the seemingly endless rain we have here but not churned up as so few people visit. We walked carefully around the Octagonal pool to the the start of the Serpentine Rill. The only sound was birdsong, the mature trees and under storey providing lots of foraging and habitat opportunities.

Serpentine Rill and Cold Bath

Serpentine Rill and Cold Bath

The very modern but now nearly 280 year old Rill reminded us of our visit to Moorish Alhambra last year. Originally Bridgeman in 1720 had designed a natural stream through here and Kent redesigned and created the beautiful Rill with shallow Cold Bath presumably not for folk to bathe in, but had it been a summers day, I can imagine the temptation. Kent designed a route so that vistas and statuary were discovered by the visitor, alluring to ancient allegories and references from his Grand Tour of Italy.

Lower Cascade

Lower Cascade

The ground was ever more sodden as we made our way down towards the River Cherwell, we tried to follow the route Kent intended but veered off and back tracked several times trying to take everything in. The garden seemed more beautiful within than looking out onto the views beyond, the enclosure, maturity and green stillness were quite breathtaking. Truthfully, the Statues were a little lost on me, I much prefer the planting, light and contours of the land. We headed to the walled garden, which looking back the house is to the left and divided into two parts.

Walled Garden Fruit Trees

Beautifully pruned Walled Garden Veteran Fruit Trees, with c 1200 Church in background

The thrilling long avenue of Apple trees were immaculately pruned and cared for, leading to a vegetable garden beyond. To the right of the avenue of fruit trees is a second line of beautifully pruned fruit trees and a long herbaceous border, seed heads intact.

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Walled Garden herbaceous border with house in background

Beyond the Walled Garden is the area known as the Pigeon House Garden, but this is no ordinary Pigeon House!

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Pigeon House Garden

The small white door at the bottom left was ajar so we tentatively peered in and wondered if the resulting manure was used on the borders. One half of this garden has a box parterre enclosing roses with a summer promise, one of the many reasons for wanting to visit again in the Spring, Summer and Autumn.

Pigeon House

Pigeon House with espaliered Pear and Parish Church beyond

Rousham is open daily from 10.00a.m. Last admission is at 4.30p.m. Situated 12 miles north of Oxford and with Blenheim nearby. There is no Tea Room but our own coffee was pretty good and the picnic we took to balance on the top of our car was enjoyed in blissful solitude. Far from the maddening crowds our day was pretty much perfect.

66 thoughts on “Rousham – A Winter’s Visit

  1. Lovely photos of a beautiful-looking place. When I saw your first photo, my heart did a bit of a flip though! The house looks very much like Gayhurst House, near Newport Pagnell, where I lived for a while. I guess that was the Jacobean architectural style, but I’ve never seen another house like that.

    • I’ve just looked Gayhurst House up as I had not heard of it before, the architecture is very similar. There was only one modification apparently after Kent’s remodelling at Rousham but much later in in Victorian 1876, and I’ve just read Tudor, Elizabethan and Queen Anne, with Victorian additions for Gayhurst too. I wonder if in some way Kent’s remodelling at Rousham was influenced by a visit to Gayhurst? Maybe a bright history boffin will know the answer!

      • Wouldn’t that be interesting to know! I wrote a post about Gayhurst ages ago and still get people with a connection to the place commenting. It was as school at one stage and a couple of former students have shared really fascinating information about tunnels under the buildings. It was a wonderful place to live (although very difficult with a newborn, which is why we moved).

      • Su, I have just found and read your post about Gayhurst, you have a great gift with words. I really enjoyed reading about your time there. Olney is a beautiful place to live too.

      • Thank you so much Julie 🙂 Olney is lovely. We were back there last March and had lunch in the little deli. I got chatting to the staff and mentioned that my very first solo outing with my new baby was to buy lunch at that deli. She asked how long ago and then went off and got the owner, who had bought the business not long before that time. We figured out that she had served me then. My son (17) couldn’t quite decide whether to be amazed — or just embarrassed at the attention he was getting. 🙂

    • We’ve had so much rain here Laurin, that just getting out and about is a treat but Rousham is very beautiful and very much worth the trip, even in the winter, although wet underfoot we were blessed with some winter sun too.

  2. Hello Julie,
    A great piece on a garden I’ve read about a few times, but never visited. What a good time to visit as well, under clear blue skies (dream on), and with few other visitors. But what an inspirational design – particularly the rill, created all those years ago. A bit early for any flowers I suppose?
    I gather you lucky folk might even have another frost tonight, so do appreciate it!
    Best wishes
    Julian

    • Hi Julian, there is talk of a frost tonight forecast down to 2c here, but thats really only the second or third time this winter, I expect you have a lot of rain, we’ve had a small share of it here too, but not half as much as elsewhere. Last night the top river broke its banks and came across the road, but all subsided now. No flowers at Rousham to speak of, but the beautifully pruned apple trees were spectacular, I had real pruning envy!

  3. It seems strange that children aren’t allowed if accompanied by an adult – would certainly put me off visiting a place, though the wall garden and veteran fruit trees looked very interesting.

    • It would have put me off visiting too, we took ours to every garden possible when they were younger even Hampton Court flower show and largely ignored any tut tutting. Rousham has no staff to moderate behaviour or do health and safety stuff so maybe thats why. But both our girls have grown up to appreciate and really love nature and gardens so very glad we took them at every opportunity. This time it was just our dog we left at home.

      • We takes ours with us too and they usually love it. They especially liked the Welsh Botanic Gardens which we visited two years ago now!

  4. Hi Julie. I really enjoyed seeing pictures of your visit as I have never been there myself, although I have been in that area so often! (One day I will go!) I saw this on the Monty Don series recently and was taken by the beautiful simpicity of it all. The box parterre in the pigeon house garden is quite lovely, and I bet the borders look good in summer and autumn too. You picked a good time to visit with no one else around to disturb you. 🙂

    • I wish I could show the story of Rousham as well as Monty Don, he has a wonderful way with emotive, enticing words and the video photography was really lovely. He had included Rousham and Sissinghurst as his top gardens in England for his European Garden series a couple of years ago, but it took to this year to finally visit. I hope we get to visit again to see the borders in their full glory.

    • Not NT but its on the Gardeners World Magazine 2 for 1 card, So a visit to Rousham was effectively £2.50 each for us. I’m sure you would like it very much indeed. There are tours booked by prior appointment to the house too.

    • I was very surprised on close inspection to see how modern looking the rill really was, my photo does not do the atmosphere of that area justice, its quite beautiful.

    • Its so unusual to visit a garden over here thats uncommercial and was wonderful to have virtually to ourselves. The Serpentine Rill was more beautiful in real life, I forgot to pace it out but maybe 500 yards long too and the light filtering through the trees here made it a really exciting space.

  5. Great write up Jules. This is one of my favourite garden places. The atmosphere is unique, as if set in aspic, no where else I have visited is so uncommercial.
    I understand that under 15s were excluded as earlier visitors had allowed kids to romp around, as they inevitably do and had climbed and damaged one of the statues. What vision Kent had.

    • Oh no, how dreadful, there is such a fine line with opening any house and garden and potential damage from visitors. That must of been really upsetting for the owners and gardeners too. It felt like such a privilege to be in the garden, especially as we were virtually alone and with that comes a lack of inhibition, I can imagine the freedom children would feel in such an environment. It was exciting to visit without being dragged down by other folk and commercial stuff. I can see why its one of your favourites and hoping we get to visit again in Spring.

  6. Lovely photos of a beautiful place, Julie. I am getting serious withdrawal symptoms because we haven’t been to visit a house and/or garden for simply ages. Your wonderful tour will allay the pangs for just a while longer.

    • Its harder in winter Clare and this winters rain and sodden ground seems worse than usual. This week, we have been looking for converted railway tracks now paths to walk on, just to have some relief from sliding around in the mud. I am hoping the forecast colder weather will freeze the ground, so we can get back to some of our usual walks. I hope you are able to get back out again soon Clare.

    • Its unusual Eliza to visit anywhere thats uncommercial these days and the gardens we are told have not been altered since Kent’s days, finding we had the place virtually to ourselves was a real treat. The Pigeon house and Serpentine Rill were our favourites too

  7. What beautiful grounds and garden, Julie. Despite the sodden ground, you took some really lovely photos, every one a storytelling shot that intrigues the mind’s eye. I wish I were with you on that tour – wet ground and all – but this is the next best thing!
    Thanks very much for sharing. Delightful.

  8. Lovely description of your visit, I almost felt I was with you so thank you for that; I do miss being able to just go out and find a beautiful garden to visit. I’m very lucky to have Villa Lante close by (so I know I am lucky) but it isn’t the same.

  9. It looks such a perfect place to visit that I would even forgive it not providing the super tea and cakes I used to get in the Scottish castle gardens. I must admit to being surprised with the no under fifteen year olds rule. Nowadays I would find this very attractive, for much as I love children of all ages, I think that there are many more attractions specially designed for children than there are for adults to enjoy on their own. The design has made it a garden to be enjoyed in all seasons but it is very tempting to imagine it in the other seasons. Amelia

    • Another blogger explained that a child had climbed onto one of the statues and sadly the statue was damaged. Hence the policy now for no under 15’s. Rousham has a naturalistic uplifting and freeing atmosphere, I think you’d like it very much Amelia, just bring a picnic!

  10. A lovely tour thank you Julie. A rill has been on my wish list for some time ( I don’t have room here!) Have you seen the one at the Botanic Garden of Wales, wonderful.
    I think Monty Don, in his last gardening programme had Rousham as his favourite garden in the UK.

  11. A delightful tour thank you Julie, your words and descriptions bring the garden to life, almost as good as being there. How wonderful to have the place to yourselves to explore, no doubt due in no small part to the ‘no children or dogs’ rule! Most people that venture out to anywhere with grass and open space are usually exercising one or the other.

    • Thats very true, our children have left home now but we have a dog who was left at home that day. When the girls were young they went to lots of gardens long before it became as acceptable as it is now and they were often the only ones. Rousham was a treat to visit without children and dogs, the peace and quiet was blissful. 🙂

    • Sadly no, I would have loved to know who they are or meet one of the current gardeners there. When I was researching for my post I came across the Garden History Society’s post from 2011, http://www.gardenhistorysociety.org/post/agenda/‘turn-your-faces-towards-rousham’/
      Which talks a little about John Clary the Head gardener who transformed Kent’s vision into reality. They report Clary was eventually dismissed in a way that suggests he spoke out of turn for urging the owners to love the Rousham garden more. I’d really like to know more about Clary, he sounded a passionate gardener who put his heart and soul into the project.

  12. This was such a lovely tour Julie and you really captured the peaceful atmosphere there so beautifully in your description. It really looks wonderful and it was so nice to see a garden in mid-winter too, because without the distraction of beautiful plantings you can really see the gardens structure and lay out. How lovely too that it seemed as if no-one was there. It’s such a treat these days to go on a garden visit and find it quiet! I particularly loved the beautifully tended apple trees along the walk and the walled garden. The pigeon house is gorgeous too. Thank you so much for sharing this. Beautiful photos and beautifully written.

    • Thank you so much for your lovely response Kate, we were thrilled only a handful of people were there too, the peaceful atmosphere was uplifting and quite restorative.

  13. What a marvelous garden to visit. I love the walled garden and the rill. Makes me think wistfully if we will ever get back to the UK to see some of the gardens we missed the first time.

    • This is a garden wrapped up in its history Jason, I think you would enjoy it very much. I am still hoping for an opportunity to visit the states and some of your wonderful gardens over there.

    • Hi Tammy, thats an insightful comment, Rousham was certainly serene, I understand some gardens need the visiting revenue but it can be quite miserable with too many folk at the same time.

    • Hi Donna, Rousham is a fabulous garden – Actually I had to be ruthless with my photo choices and just pick a few as I did not want to overstep my welcome with anyone reading. I am glad you liked the photos I did choose though! 🙂

  14. Thank you for this great tour. The garden is so well designed structurally–so much interest during the quieter winter season. I love all of your photos, but the one of the Lower Cascade–beautiful!

  15. I very much enjoyed your virtual tour of Rousham! I particularly liked the meandering rill and remebered the time (quite long ago now) when in the landscape architecture course we were taught about the use of adjacent landscape views into the English ‘picturesque’ gardens 😉

  16. What a beautiful place to visit, and the vistas are wonderful! My real love are the fruit trees though, amazing how large and well tended they are as well as the box and pear espalier. It looks as if it’s a pruner’s garden and one which has been well tended for decades. Nice to have the whole place to yourselves, quite a treat when visiting in the off season.

    • I am a sucker for anything beautifully pruned and especially fruit trees, sadly I did not get to meet the gardener on this visit but they certainly did a beautiful job!

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