ISSUE 104  |  Best of 2013

An Insider’s Favorite: The Bliss of Visiting Rousham in the Cotswolds

December 26, 2013 4:00 PM

BY Kendra Wilson

The sound of peacocks crowing in the English countryside is a sign that a parallel world exists nearby. Those who keep peacocks have no regard for the sleep quality of their neighbors, or better still, they have no neighbors.

Peacocks roam freely at Rousham, in Oxfordshire. It is a mini republic with its cottages, farm, and church, still lived in by the family who built it almost 400 years ago. The intensely individual atmosphere of the garden has made it a favorite with garden designers such as Arne Maynard, for whom it is a touchstone for inspiration. At the beginning of a landscaping commission he will organize a visit and gauge the response to this special place:

“It’s a good way to gather information about your clients,” says Maynard.

Photographs by Kendra Wilson.

Above: Designed by William Kent in the mid 1700s, the gardens at Rousham have not been altered or changed noticeably, escaping the general upheaval caused by Capability Brown a generation later.

“Kent didn’t fiddle with the landscape,” says Arne Maynard. “He created a true sense of place.”

(Get an insider’s tour Arne Maynard’s private garden in Arne Maynard at Home in Wales.)

Above: Rousham is not a flowery garden. It is green and wooded, with the River Cherwell running through it. Primroses sprout from the rough grass because they are happy there. Narrow tracks, resembling those made by sheep, lead you onward, without telling you where to go. There are no signs and no crowds. It’s bliss.

On entering the stable block at Rousham (built by the multi-talented Kent, who also added wings to the house), one is greeted by a ticket machine and a notice: “This is a private garden. No children under 15.” You are not encouraged to enter the garden via the gift shop because there isn’t one.

Above: Primroses hanging on to the edge of the Octagon Pond. According to Arne Maynard, William Kent saw the whole landscape as part of the garden, both sharing the same palette. There are many viewing points of the Cherwell meandering through the lower part of the garden; Kent’s Arcade overlooks the scene and is punctuated with carved benches under a series of domes, for gazing on a landscape in which it is not always obvious where the garden ends and the fields begin.

Above: Much is made of the contrast between bright light and deep shade at Rousham. With no arrows or signs, shady walks and tunnels draw you around, with their pockets of light. The Long Walk, with a statue of Apollo silhouetted at the end, is over-arched by beech and yew, with the proportions of a cathedral nave. Somehow it is cut that way, or are the trees just cooperating?

Above: The Watery Walk follows a rill, meandering through a wood and linking the Octagonal Pool to the Cold Bath. The pools could not be more plain, in modern geometric shapes.

Above: The Gothic follies and mock temples in the garden at Rousham somehow lack pomposity. They completely sidestep the grandeur and hubris expected from a mock temple. “There is nothing ornamental in this garden,” says Arne Maynard. “It’s very simple and pure.”

Above: The striped bowling green in front of the house is separated from the walled kitchen garden by a wall of yew. The tunnel through the yew wall, shown here, is 20 feet deep. Everywhere in this area the house and stables are visible: the working parts of the garden are closer to the house than the pleasure gardens. Later architects preferred to place the kitchen garden as far away from the house as possible.

Above: Rousham is full of difficult choices. Should one turn right, toward the Pigeon House from 1685 and its “small parterre,” or should one turn left?

Above: Here the vast walled garden beckons with its gnarled espaliers and the only flower borders you will find at Rousham. One will lead you to the other if you don’t lose your head.

Above: Rousham is proud to be different and a huge part of its appeal is an absolute refusal to pander to anybody. The owners describe the garden as “uncommercial and unspoilt,” but it is clear through the atmosphere of the place that they are not curmudgeonly and might even enjoy sharing. As they state in the leaflet: “Bring a picnic, wear comfortable shoes and it is yours for the day.”

For more atmosphere, see The Walled Garden at Kelmarsh Hall.

N.B.: This is an update of a post published April 23, 2013 as part of our Spring Cleaning week.