The weather was holding off on the downpour that had been promised in the forecast, and, not quite believing our luck, we decided that we needed to take advantage of this situation.
It was Mother’s Day, so we bundled into the car and headed off to a place I had only read about. Painshill Park is sometimes included in those lists of unreal/quirky places you can visit near London, which immediately made it intriguing to us.
But what makes this park so quirky?
As the title of this post suggests, the park is full of follies.
No, this park hasn’t been the venue for bouts of foolish behaviour, but, rather, it is home to follies. A folly is defined as an ornamental building or structure that is erected purely for show – it serves no practical purpose. These were especially popular in the grand UK estates of the past, where impressive follies were built to delight visitors… and show off about how much wealth you had! I spotted my first folly during a section of the Capital Ring Walk – the minuscule Severndroog Castle – and I’ve been very interested in seeing more of these ever since.
It could actually be argued that the project of building follies in the first place could be seen as a folly in the classic definition, but we’ll just quickly gloss over this fact.
Located in Cobham, Painshill Park is a quick drive away from London, but you can also catch a train to the nearby Cobham and Stoke d’Abernon station.
We arrived at the park, ditched the car and prepared ourselves to do a fair bit of walking. After all, Painshill Park stretches over 158 acres and you’ll need a decent amount of time to see everything.
But first, what is the story behind Painshill Park?
It all starts with a gentleman called Charles Hamilton. He began acquiring the land at Painshill from 1738, and his intention was to create a garden unlike anything anyone else had seen at that point. Using a large sum of money to do so, he eventually expanded the garden to 200 acres.
During the 1700s, there was a move away from the formal, geometric garden designs previously favoured by palaces and estates. Instead, designers were beginning to be drawn to the naturalistic trend, where gardens would resemble scenes from wilder countryside landscapes.
But this wasn’t the only driving force behind Hamilton’s gardens. In the years before buying Painshill, he had gone on not one, but two Grand Tours. His travels inspired him to recreate some of the sights and styles he had witnessed along the way, which explains the appearance of the follies you’ll see on a visit to Painshill.
Eventually, Hamilton ran out of money, and the property was sold on. The estate changed ownership over the years, and Painshill was split up and sold off. Hamilton’s house was demolished and the park, including its follies, fell into ruins. Thankfully, the park was brought back to life by the Painshill Park Trust. Using 18th-Century drawings and paintings, the Trust has been restoring Painshill Park to its former glory.
Which brings us to our visit. There is an entry fee to the park and, upon admission, you’ll get a map. Even in Hamilton’s day, the garden was seen by a recommended route, and the same is true for modern-day visits. The historic route, which is signposted from the entrance, is a 2.5-mile trail that takes you past all of the garden’s features.
When I start reading off some of the things we saw along the way, it sounds more and more unlikely as the list goes on: Gothic towers and temples, a waterwheel, the ruins of an abbey, a Turkish tent and even a cave. But this incredulity is an emotion that Hamilton seemingly wanted to encourage.
In fact, mood is another factor that was considered in the park’s original designs, with some sights encouraging wonder, wistfulness, a curiosity for the exotic and others appealing to the Romantic tradition.
Enjoying the sight of spring’s first daffodils and snowdrops, it wasn’t long before we stumbled upon the first of Hamilton’s fantastical follies. A Gothic temple – the style of which strongly reminded me of Twickenham’s Strawberry Hill House – appeared on the crest of the hill we were climbing, and afforded us with gorgeous views over the rest of the park.
Eager to see more, we rounded a bend in the path and saw the ruins of an abbey on the banks of a lake. Throughout our day there, I kept reminding myself that all of these structures had been placed here. The ruins were created as ruins, presenting an early nod towards the Romantic movement.
The most famous part of the park is also pretending to be something that it’s not. The Crystal Grotto is one of the most surreal spots in Painshill, and it’ll be the feature that draws the crowds. This is the latest folly to be restored at Painshill Park, and the original dated back to 1760. Walking into the grotto, which is made to look like a crumbling natural wonder, the scenery inside changes to hundreds of thousands of crystals.
The cavern has been painstakingly recreated; to give you an idea of the scale of the job, each shard of crystal has been placed by hand. There was a volunteer here, who told us that the grotto is really a brick tunnel and that the crystals included quartz, fluorite, gypsum and calcite. The Crystal Grotto may not be an exact replica of what a cave might look like, but I loved the fact that this seemed to be the literal translation of a place that someone may have once day-dreamed about and then decided to recapture it in reality.
Plus, if you’re prepared to crouch down on the ‘cave’ floor, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best views of the park.
Although the trees, some of which are the originals planted by Hamilton, are very real, other ‘natural’ features of the park, just like the cave, are also manmade, with the lakes being created by redirecting water. The Trust has worked hard to recreate other features that faded away, including the vineyard that Hamilton had once planted.
Walking along the paths, some of which turn into nothing more than grassy fields, it felt like we were somewhere far into the countryside, with no major city nearby. It was only when we reached the furthest point that we remembered we were just a short way from London life, with cars zooming by loudly on the nearby highway.
Still, the park is definitely an escape in every definition of the word, especially as it’s unlike any other garden I’ve ever visited before – in the UK or anywhere else. And the follies simply continued, with these buildings inspired by faraway places all contrasting with the English countryside garden scenes in which they’ve been set.
There are the graceful bridges, one inspired by China, the other a symmetrical five-arch crossing over the lake. There’s a water wheel, which remains one of the largest working wheels in the entire country. Then there’s a lonely Hermitage, where Hamilton hired a chap to live in religious isolation. The hermit in question was dismissed, however, when he was spotted having a merry drink in one of the village’s inns!
At the end of the park, there’s a tall Gothic tower, complete with an observation point. As impressive as this is, the most exotic attraction of the park has to be the Turkish tent, which was designed as a place for garden’s visitors to rest and take refreshment. While so many of Hamilton’s follies have been rebuilt, there are some that still await their resurrection.
The Temple of Bacchus was a Roman-inspired structure and, judging by the drawings, it was an awe-inspiring sight. The foundations are the only remnants and Hamilton’s temple once contained a statue of Bacchus which he had purchased. Since much of the park and the old house had been sold, this statue was considered lost for many years but has since been tracked down. It’s fragile, so a cast was made, which you can see near the entrance to the park. It’s hoped that when the temple is finally rebuilt, the statue of Bacchus will return to its rightful place.
With the weather gods on our side, we spent hours and hours exploring Painshill Park. I can say that, unequivocally, the park lived up to all expectations. A park driven by a man’s imagination and creativity, and inspired by travel, Painshill is one of the most magical places I’ve visited since moving to the UK.
In the run up to spring and summer, this is a place to add to your list of spots to enjoy the much-awaited sunshine. Remember to bring a picnic along, and you’ll be able to make a proper day of it.
Hamilton created a landscape garden that would wow and inspire, and thanks to the Painshill Park Trust, the park can continue to do so even more than 250 years after it was first conjured into being.
Have you been to Painshill Park? Do you have a favourite outdoors spot in the UK? Let me know in the comments below!
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