Stowe is one of those marvellous monuments to profligacy. It is a great 17th and 18th century mansion, now a school, surrounded by an exquisite landscape that nature only had a passing hand in creating. Stowe School is a public school, and therefore private. The gardens were given to the National Trust, so privately owned, but open to the public. These are not gardens in the sense of flower borders, shrubs, vegetables and the like. No, they are gardens designed to provide idyllic views of an idealised natural environment, liberally decorated with extravagant structures inspired by classical civilisations and mythology. It is, in short, a historic park constructed for the pleasure of the few, where once unwelcome peasants can now gently wander and wonder at will, admire the scenery, have a picnic, take photographs – and even hire bits of for celebrations.
The place is, of course, the product of very rich men. It was they who commissioned the architects, landscape designers and gardeners of their day, including John Vanbrugh, Charles Bridgeman, William Kent and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who began his career at Stowe), to realise their built fantasies. So let us look, very briefly, at Stowe’s history.
An (incredibly brief) history of Stowe
The manor of Stowe was an ancient pre-Conquest property whose old English name suggests a place of assembly, or holiness. In 1589, the estate was purchased by a John Temple, whose family morphed into the Temple-Grenvilles, and the property stayed with his descendants until 1921. In 1713, the fifth Temple-owner, soldier and politician Richard Temple, became Baron, then four years later, Viscount, Cobham. The house and garden is largely his doing. On Cobham’s death in 1749, the estate passed to his nephew, Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, who added more than a touch of his own. As Simon Jenkins amusingly remarks, the “Temples of Stowe built temples at Stowe” – and then ran out of money. During the course of the costly development of the estate, by the way, the villages of Stowe, Lamport and Boycott disappeared – though their names can still be found on the map and, apparently, there are lumps in the ground where homes once stood. The only visible remains of Stowe village is the 800-year-old parish church. The Earl Temples of Stowe eventually became the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, by which time their family name had grown to Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville. Please do not ask me to unravel the complexities of British aristocratic titles, or explain why anyone needs more than a couple of names.
The second Duke, a particularly notorious spender, reputedly entertained Queen Victoria at Stowe in 1845, whilst his creditors kicked their heels outside. In 1847, he was declared bankrupt and in 1848, the contents of Stowe were sold at auction. Somehow, the family managed to hang on to the estate for another 70-plus years, but the entire property was sold in 1921.
Stowe is a relative newcomer to the register of famous English public schools. Winchester was founded in 1382, Eton in 1440 and Harrow in 1572. Stowe opened its doors just over a century ago, in May 1923, to 99 pupils. More arrived in the following term. Among the new intake was future actor David Niven, who deliciously describes his impressions and experiences in the autobiographical ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’. Among his recollections was the affection and respect, shared with many, for the first headmaster, JF Roxburgh, who sought to implant a very different, more liberal, ethos to those of other, more traditional, public schools. Niven recalls Roxburgh’s welcoming speech in which he declared, “Every boy who goes out from Stowe will know beauty when he sees it for the rest of his life.” (I should say that Stowe is now co-educational.) Niven describes Stowe as surely ‘the most beautiful school in England’ with its ‘sweeping lawns, huge lakes, long green valleys, glorious avenues, a Corinthian arch, a Palladian bridge and scores of assorted grottoes and temples d’amour.’ If we believe the stories, this is where the adolescent David entertained the apocryphal Nessie, his gorgeous tart with a heart. According to the National Trust, the school ‘gifted’ the gardens to them in 1989.
Other famous old Stoics include Richard Branson, George Melly, Roger Hodgson (founder of ‘Supertramp’) and an array of very brave service personnel. Former teachers include TH White (author of ‘The Once and Future King’) and Peter Farquhar – sadly probably best known now not for the inspiration he gave his pupils, but as a murder victim. The school’s first architect was Clough Williams-Ellis, creator of the fantasy village Portmeirion.
Stowe’s fees for the 2023-24 academic year are £14,686 for boarders.
A visit to Stowe Gardens
The visitor experience at Stow Gardens begins when driving through the aforementioned Corinthian Arch at the end of a long straight road, the Grand Avenue, designed to be the majestic entrance to the estate. The arch is modelled on a Roman triumphal arch – like Marble Arch in London. It is a walk from the car park to the ticket area and visitor centre and then a further, longer but pleasant, stroll of half a mile or so along a tree-lined lane past meadows to the current pedestrian entrance. For the benefit of anyone rash enough to rely on A Bit About Britain as a guide, be warned that the main visitor facilities, including toilets, are at the visitor centre. This incorporates the New Inn, built in 1717 to provide visitor accommodation. There are toilets just before you enter the garden, but after that you’re on your own; so plan accordingly.
The first view through the gate is a wide vista over Octagon Lake with Stowe House on a slight crest in the distance, reflected in the water (see above, a couple of photos ago). The place is vast – 400 acres – situated within a 750 acre park, which is freely accessible. The ABAB visit to Stowe Gardens was a brief two-hour stopover to stretch legs and eat a sandwich on a journey north-south. Trust me, the map produced by the National Trust is helpful, informative and necessary. There are at least 50 notable features to see in the Gardens at Stowe and you need to plot your route. Due to limited time, ours took in just a few of the sights.
The Palladian Bridge
The Palladian Bridge lies beyond the charming Pebble Alcove and Temple of Friendship (built by Lord Cobham to entertain his friends). The bridge was based on a pedestrian bridge at Wilton House in Wiltshire, except Stowe’s version was originally designed to accommodate carriages. It is incredibly photogenic from any angle. If you don’t want any people in your shot, you may have to be very patient.
The Gothic Temple
The Gothic Temple is apparently inspired by the roots of the Anglo-Saxon English and our freedoms. It was provisionally known as the Temple of Liberties and built in 1748. Personally, I think it is an ugly building – but you can stay there if you like, courtesy of the Landmark Trust. More information on the Landmark Trust’s website.
Lord Cobham’s Pillar
Lord Cobham’s Pillar is Lady Cobham’s memorial to her husband. Clearly, he must have made quite an impression on her. At 104 feet (31.7 metres) it is the tallest monument at Stowe. The views from the top must be stunning. What you’re looking at is a replica of his column, completed in 2001. The 18th century original was destroyed by lightening in 1957.
The Saxon Deities
The Saxon Deities, statues of the gods and heavenly bodies that give us our days of the week – Mona, Tiw, Woden (Odin), Thunor (Thor), Friga (Frigg), Saetern and Sunna – occupy a suitably Teutonic-feeling grove. Stowe School’s website actually says that the gods were named after the days of the week, which just goes to show that an expensive education is not everything. The deities are replicas of those that commissioned in 1727 to represent the English race’s Germanic roots, part of the heritage shared with the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty, which had ruled the country since 1714.
The Queen’s Temple
The Queen’s Temple was built by Lord Cobham for his wife. The sort of gift every woman dreams of. Lady Cobham and her friends could enjoy summer days looking south over the countryside to the Temple of Friendship, where the men were.
Elysian Fields is an area in the gardens named for the mythical Elysian afterlife paradise of ancient Greece, occupied by gods and heroes. Pictured at the start of the article is the Temple of Ancient Virtue (can anyone remember what that is?), but the Elysian Fields at Stowe is a large area that includes various monuments as well as two lakes.
The Temple of British Worthies
The Temple of British Worthies – is a curved structure resembling a wall, with niches on one side. In the niches are busts portraying those whom Cobham considered ‘worthy’. They are: Alfred the Great, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir John Barnard, The Black Prince, Sir Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, Sir Thomas Gresham, John Hampden, Inigo Jones, John Locke, John Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare and William III.
It is impossible to take in all that Stowe Gardens has to offer in a couple of hours. You probably need at least a day and, even then, my guess is that you wouldn’t do it all justice. I suppose we will simply have to visit again; what a bore.
For more information on visiting Stowe Gardens, look at the National Trust’s website.
If you want to visit Stowe House, look at the Stowe Group’s website.