The Garden Guide

Book: Gardening tours by J.C. Loudon 1831-1842
Chapter: London to Manchester in the Spring of 1831

Alton Towers landscape garden in 1831

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Alton Towers is a very singular place, both in its geology, which is peculiarly adapted for grand and picturesque effects, and in what has been done to it by the late Earl of Shrewsbury. The house, or abbey, stands on a piece of table land, of 50 or 60 acres in extent; and this table land is bounded on three sides by two valleys, which commence in a gentle hollow near the abbey, and lose themselves in a third broad and deep valley in an opposite direction. The surrounding country is composed of similar valleys, among portions of table land or hills. The surface of both hills and valleys is generally in pasture, with very few human dwellings, or in plantations of pines, and large firs, from ten to thirty years' growth. The rock is every where red sandstone, often protruding from the sides of the valleys in immense stratified masses, the exposed parts occasionally worn by the weather into anomalous shapes, but at a little depth under ground affording excellent stone for building. The natural character of this part of the country is grand and picturesque, with a solitary and wild air, approaching to the savage. The remains of a very old castle, belonging to the Shrewsbury family, exist on a rock protruding into one of these valleys; but the site of the present abbey was, twenty years ago, nothing more than a farm house. Here the late Earl of Shrewsbury commenced his operations, and employed hundreds of labourers, mechanics, and artisans, from 1814 till his death in 1827. This nobleman, abounding in wealth, always fond of architecture and gardening, but with much more fancy than sound judgment, seems to have wished to produce something different from everything else. Though he consulted almost every artist, ourselves among the rest, he seems only to have done so for the purpose of avoiding whatever an artist might recommend. After passing in review before him a great number of ideas, that which he adopted was always different from every thing that had been proposed to him. His own ideas, or his variations of a plan that he had procured, were transferred to paper by an artist, or clerk of the works, whom he kept on purpose; and often, as we have been informed by Mr. Lunn, the late gardener, were marked out on the grounds with his own hands. The result, speaking of Alton as it was at the time of the late earl's death in 1827, and as we saw it shortly before, viz. in October, 1826, was one of the most singular anomalies to be met with among the country residences of England. An immense pile of building in the way of house, with a magnificent conservatory and chapel, but with scarcely a habitable room; a lofty prospect tower, not built on the highest part of the grounds; a bridge and an embankment over a valley, without water underneath; ponds and lakes on the tops of hills; a quadrangular pile of stabling in the midst of the pleasure ground; and, what may be said to have eclipsed, and still to eclipse, every thing else, a valley, naturally in a high degree romantic with wood, water, and rocks, filled with works of the highest degree of art in architecture and gardening. The private approach roads to Alton, on every side, are several miles in length; they are conducted along the bottoms and sides of winding rocky valleys, with a stream in the bottom, and the sides more or less wooded. It is difficult to decide whether the best approach be that from Uttoxeter or that from Cheadle. We arrived from the former town in 1826, and from the latter this year. By the road leading from Uttoxeter we came unexpectedly close to the house, and near the head of the north side of the valley, which contains the chief wonders of the place. The first objects that met our eye were the dry Gothic bridge and embankment leading to it, with a huge imitation of Stonehenge beyond, and a pond above the level of the bridge alongside of it, backed by a mass of castellated stabling. Farther along the side of the valley, to the right of the bridge, is a range of architectural conservatories, with seven elegant glass domes, richly gilt. Farther on still, to the right, and placed on a high and bold naked rock, is a lofty Gothic tower or temple, consisting of several tiers of balconies round a central staircase and rooms; the exterior ornaments numerous, and resplendent with gilding. Near the base of the rock is a fountain, of a peculiar construction, which is amply supplied from an adjoining pond. Behind, above, and beyond the range of conservatories, is a lake, and, beyond the lake, another conservatory with curious wings and statues; below the main range of conservatories are a paved terrace walk with a Grecian temple at one end, and a second terrace containing a second range of conservatories. The remainder of the valley, to the bottom and on the opposite side, displays such a labyrinth of terraces, curious architectural walls, trellis-work arbours, vases, statues, stairs, pavements, gravel and grass walks, ornamental buildings, bridges, porticoes, temples, pagodas, gates, iron railings, parterres, jets, ponds, streams, seats, fountains, caves, flower baskets, waterfalls, rocks, cottages, trees, shrubs, beds of flowers, ivied walls, rock-work, shell-work, root-work, moss houses, old trunks of trees, entire dead trees, &c., that it is utterly impossible for words to give any idea of the effect (Through the kindness of the present earl, and the obliging disposition of his artist and clerk of the works, Mr. Fradgley, we have received a general plan of this valley and the grounds for upwards of a mile in diameter, with plans and elevations of many of the principal objects. Mr. Fradgley has also engaged to take several sketches for us from points of view which we pointed out, all of which will appear, with the details of our tour, in a future Number.). There is one stair of 100 steps; a cottage for a blind harper, as large as a farm house; an imitation cottage roof, formed by sticking dormar windows, accompanied by patches of heath to imitate thatch, and two chimneys, on a large mass of solid rock, which, seen at a distance, on a steep bank embosomed in wood, bore naturally some resemblance to the sloping roof of a cottage grey with lichens. As the sandstone rock protrudes from the sides of the valley in immense masses, abundance of use has been made of it to form caves, caverns, and covered seats; it has even been carved into figures, and we have Indian temples excavated in it, covered with hieroglyphics, and in one place a projecting rock is formed into a huge serpent, with a spear-shaped iron tongue and glass eyes. There is a rustic prospect tower over an Indian temple, cut out of solid rock on the highest point of the north bank; and, in the lowest part of the valley, there are the foundation and two stories (executed before the death of the late earl) of an octagon pagoda, which is to be 100 ft. high, and to spout water from the mouths of 100 dragons. This pagoda, the Gothic temple, the range of gilt conservatories, and the imitation of Stonehenge, of all which we have been furnished with elevations, form the leading artificial features of the valley. The valley itself is upwards of a mile in length; it gradually widens from its commencement at the stone bridge with the pond above it, till it terminates by opening into a very wide valley, containing a considerable stream and a navigable canal. This last immense valley, it is said, the late earl intended to cover entirely with water; and, as it would have saved the Canal Company a mile or two of canal, they offered to form the dam or head at their own expense. In approaching from Cheadle, we arrive in front of the castellated stables, and see the abbey across the pond above the level of the bridge. Proceeding a little farther towards the dry bridge, Stonehenge appears in the foreground, and the seven gilt glass domes of the main range of conservatories below. Raising the eyes, the lofty Gothic temple appears on the left of the picture; and on the right, across the valley, the harper's cottage. In the centre of the picture, over the domes in the foreground, the valley loses itself in a winding bank of wood, in a style of great grandeur and seclusion. None of the details of the valley here obtrude themselves; and the stranger, coming from a wild country with no marks of refinement, on this view so unexpectedly, must feel it to be singularly impressive. It strikes him with surprise, and fills him with astonishment and delight, to find so much of the magnificence of art amidst so much of the wildness and grandeur of nature. The imitation of Stonehenge, too, is a feature in artificial landscape which we have not elsewhere seen, and a stranger is puzzled and confounded by finding a stream and a small waterfall, supplying a lake on what he conceives to be the highest point of high ground. Thus far as to the first impressions. We shall not here go into details. It is evident that the contents of the valley defy all criticism; and that, perhaps, is paying the author a compliment after his own heart. If his object were originality, and that of a kind which should puzzle and confound, he has certainly succeeded; and having attained the end which he proposed, as far as it respects himself, he is to be considered a successful artist. How far it may be commendable for a man of wealth to gratify a peculiar taste, rather than one which is generally approved by the intelligence of the country in which he lives, is not in these days, perhaps, a question of much consequence. The present earl has wisely considered it his duty to continue employing as many hands as were employed by his predecessor; and his works, on the whole, are in a taste that will be more generally approved. In the gardens, he has obliterated a number of the walks, stairs, and shell-works; which we almost regret, because no trifling alteration can ever improve what is so far out of the reach of reason. To the house, the present earl has made, and is making, extensive additions, and, among other things, a picture gallery, which will he one of the largest in the kingdom. Exclusive of the valley, which we would not meddle with, the great faults of the place are, the number of roads in front of the house, and the manner in which the house is approached. There is not one of the approach roads that forms a good line, either in regard to direction or slope; and yet there never was a situation which afforded so many opportunities for displaying that greatest of all beauties in road-making, viz. the art of conducting roads on the sides of hills, so as to attain any given height on any given surface, by an almost imperceptible and uniform ascent. Great errors in all the approaches are, their passing through the garden so as to destroy its seclusion, and their giving an imperfect view of the valley before arriving at the house. The approach ought to ascend by a different line to the level of the table land, and enter by a hall connected with the sculpture tower, so as to give no idea of the garden scenery till it was first seen from the windows, or from the terrace. The stables ought to be removed, and also the various cart and carriage roads in front of the house. Unless something of this kind be done, Alton Towers, notwithstanding the extent of its architecture, its picture gallery, and its entrance through a long, lofty, richly planted, and selectly decorated conservatory of surpassing beauty, will always be an unsatisfactory place. We have great hopes, however, from the present earl, who is open to reason, and, we believe, desirous of doing that which will permanently improve the place. It gives us pleasure to observe that the valley is kept in excellent order by Mr. Miller, a reading and scientific gardener (Mr. Miller showed us in his dwelling, which, by the by, is unworthy of Alton Towers, or of a good upper servant any where, an excellent plan for a kitchen-garden, in which the walks are flag-stones, as suggested by us in a former Number. We may here mention, as a curious fact, that his predecessor, Mr. Lunn, before he left Alton, abjured the Protestant religion, and became a Catholic. We before mentioned the Duke of Norfolk's gardener, as the only Scotch Catholic gardener we had ever heard of: Mr. Lunn is the only Protestant gardener we ever heard of who turned Catholic.). For this purpose, a number of women are constantly employed in weeding, sweeping, picking up dead leaves and insects, cutting off decayed flowers, and tying up straggling shoots, &c.; a practice which we cannot but highly commend. On certain occasions, these women are put into Swiss dresses, which must add to the singularity of effect. The plants in the conservatories are in their utmost beauty, chiefly through frequent removal. The conservatory at the house, with its plants, trays of choice flowers, sculptures, candelabras, vases of alabaster, stained glass windows at the extreme ends, chandeliers with coloured burners, exotic birds in magnificent cages, &c., surpasses any thing of the kind we have ever seen, and forms a suitable approach to the splendidly furnished gallery into which it opens. During the life of the late Earl of Shrewsbury, and for some time after the present earl came into possession, the grounds were shown to all persons who put down their names at the inn at Farley, and there were certain public days when the gardens were open to every body. In consequence of injuries committed, the public are now entirely excluded, with the exception of such as come with their own carriage and livery servant. We submit to the present earl, that this is being by far too aristocratic. It is impossible to be five minutes in his company without feeling that he is a rational kind-hearted man; and we are sure it was not a movement of his heart which dictated the resolutions alluded to, and which we do not believe can be matched in the kingdom. We recommend for his imitation the practice at Chatsworth, which, at an average of the season, would only require an extra-labourer or two, who might be invalids unfit for any thing else, to walk round with each party, and would prevent all possibility of injury.