The Garden Guide

Book: Gardening tours by J.C. Loudon 1831-1842
Chapter: Middlesex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Wilshire, Dorsetshire, Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent in the Summer of 1832

Fonthill Abbey scenery

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To receive the full impression which the abbey and the scenery immediately around it are calculated to make, it is necessary to enter by what is called the Stone gate, which is situated at the end of a straight avenue, nearly a mile long, while the front of the abbey is at the opposite end. The elevated region in which the spectator finds himself, and the solemn solitary grandeur of this scene, recall the associations which we have formed of monasteries in alpine countries. The avenue forms the top of a high wooded ridge, which declines on the right and left to deep valleys, the sides of which appear to be covered with natural wood, through which are occasionally seen glimpses of water forming lakes. The trees, for the greater part, are of the spiry-topped kind, which adds to the prevailing expression of alpine scenery. This avenue is naturally of that fine close turf peculiar to elevated regions and chalky soils; and, in Mr. Beckford's time, it was kept smoothly shaven: the work being always performed during the night, in order that the prevailing character of solitariness might not be interrupted during the day. The breadth of the greater part of the avenue is about 100 ft. from tree to tree. There is a depression in it about half way from the gate to the abbey, which adds much to its effect, by giving a natural air, as compared with the broad stately avenues on level ground, which led to ancient baronial mansions; but that which completes this natural effect, and prevents us from thinking for a moment that it is a planted avenue, is, that its sides are bounded by trees and undergrowths of different sorts, not at regular distances, but just as we may suppose they would have been if the avenue had been cut out of a natural wood. The presence of undergrowth among these trees decides this question at once in the eye of the stranger. A planted avenue, with trees of the same sort at regular distances, would have spoiled the character of Fonthill. The depression in the surface of the ground adds greatly to the dignity of the abbey, by elevating its site, while it adds variety to the avenue, and preserves its natural appearance, by varying the direction of its perspective lines. Near the abbey the avenue widens so as to leave a broad area in front; and this area is so admirably broken by scattered native trees and wild bushes, as to leave no doubt, in the mind of the spectator, of its having been cleared by the founders of the abbey from the native forest. In one angle, formed by two projections of the building, there was a small flower-garden, with a sun-dial and fountain; but exterior to this there was nothing exotic. At the distance of a few yards, there was a range of humble sheds, in which workmen of different kinds were employed, hewing and carving for continuous additions of improvements; and this was also quite in character with the scene, as such was often the case with ancient monastic establishments. A little farther there were sheds for carts, a room for Mr. Beckford's carriage, and stables for ponies. There never were any regular stable offices, as poshorses were always employed when the carriage was made use of. The ponies were used, not only by Mr. Beckford, but by his principal servants and attendants. It may be proper here to state for the information of those who are unacquainted with the history of Mr. Beckford and of Fonthill, that, while these improvements were going on, from 1800 to 1820, Mr. Beckford resided almost constantly on the spot, saw scarcely any company, and seldom went from home.