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.


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.


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!


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.