‘Rousham’, near Oxford in England, exudes history, yet has a contemporary feel. It is a place of quiet discovery. The Dormer family (now Cottrell-Dormer) acquired the property almost 500 years ago, and still owns it. The great designer William Kent put his stamp on the house – and on the garden, whose initial designer was Charles Bridgeman – a century later, from 1738-41. Horace Walpole wrote of ‘Rousham’ in 1760: ‘It reinstated Kent with me; he has no where shewn so much taste’.
‘Taste’ is what struck me on arriving there on a warm summer’s day. The beautifully maintained grounds are minimalist, yet rich. There are stunning long views, and inviting smaller spaces. Everything is orchestrated just right.
Stretching away in front of the two-storey stone house – which dates from 1635, just before the Civil War – is a broad expanse of grassed open space, which gives onto grazing land and is rimmed with towering trees and massive undulating clipped hedges. It looks across to patches of forest where you immediately notice, opposite on the facing hill, a William Kent-designed sham ruin known as ‘the Eyecatcher’. How well-named is that!
Nearby, among the trees, there are formal pools, statuary and a narrow waterway, all virtually unaltered since Kent’s era, as are most of the grounds. Time was limited so I didn’t manage to uncover all of this, and I also missed out on his grotto, and the measured curve of the River Cherwell alongside. But I loved wandering through an avenue of apple trees, some young and others massively ancient, exuding beauty and productivity.
On the other side of the house the enclosed garden spaces are smaller and more defined, with planting that’s rich and carefree, yet careful. You can’t wait to uncover those spaces!
Old walls embellished with rambling roses divide expanses where tall trees provide scale, and shade on the grass. Vegetables thrive, compost matures in stone-walled timber enclosures, gardening tools are neatly stored in a long shed.
A tall dovecote houses happy pigeons. Chickens nest in individual timber hutches; rare long-horned cattle graze nearby. Peacocks pace purposefully along gravelled paths in an enclosure where low clipped hedges outline geometric beds richly planted – when I was there – with pink and white foxgloves and poppies. Everywhere, beautifully controlled colours (especially in the herbaceous borders) are set off by different shades of green. In the distance, behind another undulating hedge, is a stone chapel.
And then I went inside, to be dazzled by nothing less than William Kent’s original plans for garden and grounds, framed and hanging quietly in the living room. Graphically, they outline The River, The Elm Walk, The Serpentine Grand Walk (rimmed by trees of 3 differing heights, which are labelled with names like ‘tall Forrest trees’ and ‘Underwood’, in 18th century spellings). I didn’t like to ask our guide, Angela Cottrell-Dormer, if I could photograph these plans – the long-running family connection imparts a special kind of ‘feel’ to the place, and it just wouldn’t have seemed right.
But to know the plans had been hanging in this house for almost four centuries took my breath away. They were worth crossing the world to see!
Rousham garden is open daily all year (but not to children under 15, or dogs). Its website says: ‘When you visit Rousham you will find it uncommercial and unspoilt, with no tea room and no shop. Bring a picnic, wear comfortable shoes and it is yours for the day’. Admission is more than reasonable, at £5. (Note: visits to the house cost extra, must be pre-arranged and are in groups only).