Stourhead Gardens are hidden away in the Wiltshire countryside. Close to the A303 a village of grandeur and tranquility is ready as a retreat from the bustle of modern life. Perfect for visiting at any time of the year in the spring snowdrops and bluebells cover the woodlands while in autumn it becomes spectacular with every shade of red and orange showing on the leaves.
This article contains links to products and services that I think you will find useful. I may earn a commission on any purchases you make at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Read more HERE
The Design and Development of Stourhead
Stourhead was designed between 1741 and 1780 by Henry Hoare. A banker who had help from an architect by the name of Henry Flitcroft. This was a massive break from other similar English gardens that were designed by ‘Capability’ Brown or William Kent – the go to garden designers of the 18th Century. It opened in 1740 and was described as ‘a living work of art’.
In the mid 18th Century many English gents went on the Grand Tour, a visit to key places in Europe. The owner of the Stourhead Estate, Henry Hoare II went on this tour to Italy and returned inspired by a painting by Claude Lorrain. Upon his return he dammed a stream on the estate to form the lake and then built structures around the edge of the lake further inspired by the journey of Aeneas from Aeneid by Virgil. The source of inspiration can be clearly seen in the Pantheon on the shore of the lake with the Pantheon in Rome in Lorrain’s painting.
The first structure to be built was the Temple of Flora, dedicated to the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. There is a Palladian Bridge, inspired by the 16th Century architect Palladio. Totally ornamental, it is designed to give the illusion that the stream runs under the bridge from the village. In the grounds there are grottos, waterfalls, an ice house, bridges and arches and a mediaeval cross relocated from Bristol using ox and cart for transport.
The gardens change with the seasons, bluebells coating the woodland in spring. Cool grottos in the summer and come the autumn the colours change to deep russet and ochre. In winter the landscape is open and bare, sometimes coated in snow but still beautiful even in the deep brown and green of deep winter.
Exploring Stourhead Gardens
The gardens are stunning in autumn, but are beautiful for a visit at any time of the year. The grounds are wonderful for children to explore with lots of space to run and variations in scenery depending on what you fancy.
During the winter months the gardens are bare, only being transformed when snow turns it into a magical winter wonderland. By the spring, daffodils, snowdrops and beautiful magnolias bring a stunning colour to the landscape, especially on the gently sloping banks of the valley. Summer is probably the most non-photographic time of the year at Stourhead. The leaves are uniform green and obscure the buildings and smaller details.
Woodlands, streams as well as the lake provide more than enough to fill a day. Beyond the grounds the village is a typical English village with cottages, a church and the Spread Eagle pub. The whole estate is managed by the National Trust and the cottages can be rented through their website. This allows you to explore the gardens at dawn and dusk once it has closed for the day.
King Alfred’s tower
A circular walk from the visitors centre at Stourhead takes you through the woodland to King Alfred’s Tower. This 49m high folly was designed in 1772 to commemorate the end of the Seven Years War and the accession of George III to the throne in 1760. It is thought to be built on the site where King Alfred the Great gathered his troops in 878 and is on the boundary between Wiltshire and Somerset.
From the top of the tower there are views all the way across Wiltshire and Somerset including Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset coast.
From the tower the trail takes you through Park Hill Camp Iron Age Hill Fort and down through Turner’s Paddock with its lake and waterwheel before returning past St Peter’s Church into the village.
Photographing Stourhead Gardens
The gardens are extensive and there are a range of options for photography whatever your interest. From sweeping landscapes to intimate details it is the perfect location. As with many other National trust properties photographs taken at Stourhead cannot be sold on stock sites or as prints. The lake is in a sheltered valley and in the early morning or evening when the winds are calm the lake is perfect for reflections. Any ripples that remain can be smoothed by using a ten-stop neutral density filter that allows the shutter to stay open for much longer, gets rid of the ripples and enhances the reflection.
Palladian Bridge and Mediaeval Cross
As you first enter the gardens from the visitors centre the large mediaeval cross and bridge will be directly in front of you with the Pantheon on the far side of the lake. The Palladian Bridge can be used as a foreground interest for the lake or walking around to the left of the lake will show the arches and the stream running into the lake from the village. In the spring the slope above the bridge is carpeted in daffodils which gives a beautiful point of interest. This is best photographed in the morning when the lake has a small amount of mist or there is frost on the ground.
The pantheon is the largest building in the gardens at Stourhead and has some beautiful details in the stonework. However it is best viewed from a distance across the lake, surrounded by the trees. This is especially appealing in the autumn when the trees are deep reds and golds. It is best seen from the Palladian Bridge and the path that leads around the lake. There is no need to go off the main paths to take these photographs. This view from the bridge is the classic Stourhead view with the Pantheon in the upper right third.
It is also possible to get down low and photograph the Pantheon through the arches of the bridge. This may involve a paddle so come prepared.
While Stourhead is known for its trees, the Tulip trees are stunning. Two trees stand on an island with a third on the shore. During the 19th Century many exotic trees and shrubs were introduced to the garden and these North American giants are some of the most impressive. They are the last to change colour in the autumn and are a deep golden colour in early November. Time this week of colour with a calm morning and beautiful reflections will be seen. Behind the island is the Temple of Flora which can add interest to the image
Other Buildings and Details
The photography options here are endless. Look in hidden corners for little surprises, vast landscapes as well as intimate details of the trees and plants. The spring and autumn flowers and plants are fantastic and frame many of the structures if you look beyond the classic views. The Grotto is built around a spring that supplies the lake and an arch allows just enough light to enter to find your way to the small window out over the lake. This can be used to frame the view using multiple exposures.
Amongst colourful maples, magnolias and rhododendrons is the Gothic Cottage. This is one of the best photography locations over the summer months when the trees make other places less interesting.
King Alfred’s Tower can be photographed from the avenue of trees that surround it. This is in the right light in the morning or evening due to its orientation but is best in the late afternoon in the autumn months. During opening hours the spiral staircase to the top o the tower is open giving views from the top of the tower over Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire.
Visiting Stourhead Gardens
Where is Stourhead?
Stourhead Gardens are located in Wiltshire 8 miles south of Frome on the A361 and just three miles from the A303 at Mere where it is clearly signposted.
Do I have to pay to Visit Stourhead Gardens
You do have to pay to visit the gardens and house and whilst it isn’t cheap it is worth it for the time you can spend exploring these historic and beautiful gardens.
Visits can be booked in advance and this can be done online on the National Trust website. If you don’t want to go into the main gardens and the house then it is possible to walk on the local trails and visit the church and pub but you will still need to book in advance.
If you prefer to be taken to Stourhead then it is possible to do it as a day trip from London with this private transfer.
How Long Does it take to Walk Around Stourhead Gardens
Stourhead Gardens can be explored in just a few hours, but if you really want to make the most of your time here, bring a picnic and your walking boots. There is more than enough to fill the whole day including walks around the estate and into the surrounding countryside.
Staying at Stourhead
The small village of Stourton is perfect for a weekend escape and staying in the village means you can view the gardens at sunrise and sunset. This means you can see the local wildlife as well as the misty surreal haze that rises from the lake in the early morning.
Places Near to Stourhead Gardens
- Longleat House – While this is probably best known for its wildlife park, Longleat House is a stately home that can be visited with extensive grounds
- Nunney Castle – This small castle is located in a village just outside Frome. Close to the castle is a woodland walk through the old iron works with the remains of machinery. If this is of interest then there are more substantial remains at Mells
- Gold Hill, Shaftesbury – Anyone of a certain age will know the Hovis Hill and this town is home to the hill as well as pretty shops and Abbey
- Glastonbury – Small town with Abbey and the Tor with its church tower
INFORMATION AT A GLANCE
Name | Stourhead
Website | Stourhead National Trust
Price | Adults £19.80 – Children £9.90 – Family £49.50 – One parent family £29.70 – Parking £4
Opening Times | Garden and parking 09.30 – 16.00
Time Needed to Explore | At least 2 hours, but easy to fill a whole day
Location | Near Mere off A303
Postcode for SatNav | BS12 6QD
What3Words for Parking | ///jiffy.dorm.ringers
Suggested Map | OS Explorer 142: Shepton Mallet & Mendip Hills East