Painshill Park – Cobham, Surrey
I had seen the sign for Painshill Park and heard about it for about 30 years before I actually visited. I remember driving past it as a child, and I worked about 5 minutes away for nearly 10 years. I have no idea why I hadn’t been before and once I had been it has now become a firm favourite on our list of local places to visit. Situated in Cobham, Surrey just off the A3, Painshill is a fantastic Grade 1 listed 18th century parkland estate, with 158 acres of peace and tranquillity in the Surrey Countryside.
The estate was designed by Charles Hamilton and was built between 1738 and 1773 and is one of the finest examples of the English Landscape Movement. It is a haven of peace, follies, beautiful views, a mill, a tower, a grotto – it changes with the seasons, it moves from kitchen garden, to parkland, to woodland walks, to riverside shade along the River Mole and is a truly wonderful place to escape the world.
Every seasons brings something new and whilst we might be missing the early Spring displays at the moment, hopefully life will enable us to enjoy the summer performance. As well as the gardens there is a great natural play area for children as well as wildlife spotting trails and wildflower meadows to run around in. The benefits of fresh air and nature on mental health and our well being cannot be underestimated, especially now as our world becomes more frenetic.
The land was acquired by the Hon. Charles Hamilton following his two Grand Tours in Europe in the 18th century. His tour has sent him all across Europe and he returned to the peaceful British countryside with artefacts and a knowledge of Italian romance. On his return he wanted to create a landscape which created what he considered to be a ‘living painting’. He was heavily inspired by Renaissance art and he created a series of beautiful and surprising vistas in the park. He complimented these with follies which he used for great dramatic effect. The Grand Tour was usual for men to finish their education, and was not just about seeing grand European cities and ancient buildings but was also about developing an appreciation of art and beauty.
Hamilton acquired the land in 1738. This was a time when there was a change in the style of gardening from the architectural designs which can be seen in the Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace to a more natural beauty and landscape. The fashion caught on quickly and spread across Europe and even into Russia. Hamilton had a passion for art and using his memories from the things he had scene he created this wonderful parkland.
One of the things I love about this place is the calm and the different areas within the gardens. Moving from shaded woodlands with bluebells in late Spring, to bright lawns and sunshine sparkling on the lake, to cooling breeze and magic within the grotto to riverside walks. You can spend a whole day here the family, as there is plenty to see. We often take our books and my little boy likes to take his paints and so we can sit and enjoy the landscape as well as exploring. There is plenty to do for the whole family and the majority of the paths are accessible as well.
As well as lakes and vistas he also created a Vineyard. he would have seen many in Europe and he planted the vines here on the banks leading down to the River Mole to make wine, which he sold for 7s 6d a bottle. he employed a specialist vine grower for a number of years although his wines had mixed reviews! The French Ambassador apparently thought his white wine was champagne and his red wine tasted like Vinegar!
At this time, there was a increasing interest in the ancient world and antiquities as well as Gothic architecture. Hamilton would have marvelled at the stunning buildings and Gothic architecture whilst in Italy, especially Rome. he therefore included The Gothic Temple in his design.
The Crystal Grotto
Near the lake is something truly magical – The Crystal Grotto. This is not always open and has limited opening hours so you must check when you arrive or before you go, as you do not want to miss this! It is a magical and naturalistic cave which is covered in shimmering crystals. The water from the lake, reflects on sparkles on the walls, creating a truly magical and ethereal effect. You feel like you’ve been transported in these caves. On a hot summers day they provide some shade and a cooling breeze. It is likely that Hamilton would have been influenced by the grotto’s in European gardens and the natural caves along the coastlines in Italy.
If you walk along the banks of the river away from the grotto you come to the Mausoleum. There is a change of mood here from the lakeside and the grotto and you find yourself in the shade of the trees. It is reminiscent of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. this archway was the only place in the gardens which had inscriptions and urns – some of these might have been brought back by Hamilton from his European tour.
In order for the stunning Lake to be created, water had to be lifted from the River Mole for the 14 acre lake. The waterwheel was designed by Hamilton and lifted water from the river which then ran underground to the cascade. From here it ran into the lake. You can see the waterwheel is action and is in a shaded spot at the end of the lake. there are often cows grazing in the fields opposite which are rather lovely to watch.
The Temple of Bacchus
Up on the hill overlooking the lake and with spectacular views over the Surrey countryside is the temple of Bacchus. This has recently been rebuilt and sparkles white in the summer sunshine. This is classical architecture at its best and was built to house the statue of Bacchus that Hamilton had brought back with him from Italy. It should be noted that this came back secretly! The temple contains copies of statues which Hamilton had seen in Rome such as those of Apollo, Venus and Mercury.
The Turkish Tent
The Turkish tent is also situated on a hill overlooking the lake and appears to be an oddity compared to the other follies. Hamilton did not travel to Turkey but it is likely he would have seen Turkish influences on his travels across Europe. The tent was highly decorated and would have had armchairs inside for people to sit and rest a while after their explorations of the landscape. It is a fun folly and reminiscent of a medieval knights tent which pleased my little boy very much. From here you can walk back down the hill towards the lake.
Near the entrance to the park is a well stocked vegetable garden, which is fantastic for getting ideas for your own patch or, if you’re lucky enough to have one, your allotment. A walled garden full of varying fruits, vegetables and herbs.
At the very far end of the estate is the Tower which was built in the parks highest point. The tower is 27 metres tall and has 99 steps up to the top. From here there are far reaching views, although I suspect when Hamilton built in in the late 1750’s you would have seen much further and you wouldn’t be troubled by the constant hum and drone of traffic on the A3 and M25 right beside it. It has Gothic revival windows and once u[on a time it would have been limed washed rather than the red brick we see today. Hamilton often called this tower The Castle and he often used this tower as a gallery to exhibit his own collections. In the late 19th century it became a residence but by the 1970’s it had been damaged by storms and gales. It had become semi derelict and vandals set fire to it in 1973. Sadly this fire left onto the brick shell and some charred windows. Fully restored today and well worth a visit. There is a small cafe in there for a drink and snack before returning back through the estate.
As you wanted around see if you have find the Hermit huts, hidden amongst the trees and also look out for the ice house in the side of the hillside as well.
The park is closed at the moment due to COVID-19, but once it is open again I thoroughly recommend a visit. Check the website for opening times and prices. In summer it is usually open from 10am – 6pm. There is free parking, a lovely little tea room, a shop and dogs are allowed in on short leads.
Entrance fees are reasonable with adults at £9.00, Concessions £8 and Children £5.00
Parking is free and dogs are allowed on short leads.
Painshill is also available to hire as a wedding venue and throughout the area they run a number of events for adults and children such as Bushcraft and Easter trails and craft making.
Sadly, like many places at the moment the Park are suffering the effects of not being open to make much needed money due to Coronavirus. If you can help please visit https://www.painshill.co.uk/help-painshill-survive-coronavirus-crisis/ to make a donation or to buy an entrance ticket for the future. Every little helps.