When the weekend weather is good, and when travelling, I love to visit gardens and historic houses. It’s difficult to nominate favourites, but there are two gardens that have particularly stayed in my mind.
The first is Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire. Begun by Lord Cobham around 1711, this is a not a garden of flowerbeds, but a landscape full of hidden secrets. While its many meanings would have been obvious to 18th-century tourists, today’s visitors need the help of the guidebook to decode the symbolism. But that is part of the fun of a visit.
Stowe was Cobham’s world view expressed in stone, and grass, and water: every statue and folly had a moral or political message. For example, the Temple of Modern Virtue was deliberately built as a ruin in a scathing piece of social commentary. There are temples and monuments that symbolise illicit and unrequited love; and the busts of writers, thinkers and politicians in the Temple of British Worthies were carefully chosen to take a swipe at the government of the day.
The most magical garden I have visited must be Isola Bella in Lake Maggiore, Italy. The palace and garden take up most of the island and the boat trip from Stresa is, in itself, memorable. Started in 1632, this is a magnificent baroque flight of fancy – ‘over the top’ by modern tastes but unforgettable all the same. The centrepiece is a towering series of great terraces, bristling with pillars, classical statues representing rivers, seasons and the winds, and a putto riding triumphantly on a unicorn’s back. There are banks of vibrant hydrangeas, roses tumbling over balustrades, ancient camphor trees and formal pools to explore. Combine these with views over the sparkling lake to the Alps and the pure white peacocks that strut the lawns, and you feel as though you have stumbled into another world entirely.