The most wonderful and unique garden awaits in Oxfordshire, as long as you are not looking for a tea room, ‘visitor experience’, or adventure playground! Rousham, built in 1635 by Sir Robert Dormer sits squarely within its garden and grounds, designed by William Kent (an early pioneer of ‘The New English Style’ of landscaping) in the 1700s, although the early bones of the garden can be attributed to then royal gardener, Charles Bridgeman, who saw the garden as a stage, with each vista drawing the eye to a sculpture or building. Here at Rousham, you will find tranquility amongst the mature trees and hidden dells, where water flows through a narrow rill towards dappled pools and an over-riding sense of calm pervades.
As you approach Rousham through landscaped grounds and past a herd of longhorn cattle, you arrive at the small car-park (I would imagine the former stable yard) through a rather grand archway. With an ‘honesty box’ payment system and a sign stating ‘no children under 15, no dogs, no pushchairs’ beside a collection of contented bantams, you get the impression that this is very much a private estate and indeed, that you are expected to enjoy a leisurely visit since picnicking is encouraged.
Rousham was designed to be enjoyed by taking a certain route, past the main house towards a slightly alarming sculpture of a lion attacking a horse. A wooded path leads you to ‘Venus’s Vale’ – an open glade with dark pools and statues of Pan and Hercules. A narrow rill flows into the upper pool and if followed, leads you through sculpted laurel beneath mature trees soaring from the depths of the boxy laurel. A clear and shallow bathing pool comes an unexpected surprise and onwards we walk towards an open glade beside the Palladian style Townesend’s Temple and back along the river Cherwell, winding through another woodland path, before suddenly we seem to be back in the dell with the pools; this time the lower pool comes into view and beyond, a rich honey coloured stone Arcade.
The Praeneste Arcade (top photo) enjoys an easterly view and was designed as a quiet place from which to view dawn rising over the river. Its design was based on the ruins at Palestrina in Italy and within, elegant wooden benches are painted a restrained grey upon which you can sit to enjoy the view across the river meadows.
A gap in the undulating and ancient yew hedge beside the house leads you to the walled garden, where gnarled apple trees have been trained along the brick path and then beyond, a productive vegetable potager leads you through to the much photographed pigeonnier (or is it a dovecote?) which photographs so well with its espallier fruit trees trained around the rounded girth and the parterre in the foreground.
I encourage you to visit Rousham, to enjoy the serenity and to absorb the history and charm. It is utterly unique and very, very special.