Painshill Park: a magnificent landscape garden in Cobham

The Ruined Abbey

The Ruined Abbey - Credit: Archant

A magnificent landscape garden dating back to the 18th century, Painshill Park in Cobham suffered years of neglect before being taken over by a charitable trust. Now well on the way to being restored to its former glory, MATTHEW WILLIAMS finds out what comes next

The Chinese bridge

The Chinese bridge - Credit: Archant

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2010




Having taken as many twists and turns through history as visitors do through its follies and plantings today, Painshill Park near Cobham has risen like a phoenix from the ashes and is now approaching something close to its former glory.

Once considered to be among the most beautiful and intriguing landscape gardens in Europe, World War Two put an end to the previously tranquil existence of Charles Hamilton’s visionary 18th century park, and it quickly fell into neglect.

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But then, in 1981, the Painshill Park Trust was formed, with a view to restoring the park, and following almost two decades of hard work, and the awarding of a rare Europa Nostra Medal in 1998, they have gone some way to achieving that goal. Indeed, they now have the long-term aim of achieving world heritage site status but it could all have been so very different.

“I think if the park hadn’t been rescued when it was, it would have become a housing estate,” says Mike Gove, chief executive of the trust.

“We can certainly look at what we’ve already achieved with pride, but with two more major follies still to complete, there is plenty more to do.”

Cultural melting pot Inspired by Hamilton’s two Grand Tours of Europe, the park is a cultural melting pot of architecture and horticulture, designed to lead visitors by sight alone from one folly to the next, each framed with awe-inspiring precision.

The next pieces in the Painshill puzzle will be the impressive Temple of Bacchus a columned structure drawing inspiration from Ancient Rome and the Five Arch Bridge. Though work has yet to start on the temple, it will dominate its particular corner of the park when complete. As with most of Hamilton’s follies, however, all is not quite as it seems.

Illusions of grandeur “We have to remember that he was on a limited budget,” says Mike. “So while it may have looked like the real thing, this was primarily a timber structure covered in lime render to look like stone.”

Budgets remain all important today and, as a charity, funding is a key driving force in the timescale of everything done at Painshill.

“We have to make sure that the funding is already in place,” explains Mike. “We can’t go about starting things off with the hope that the money will come in later. That would be suicide.

“It’s been a gradual process and I think that has given what we do an authenticity – we’re not trying to make a Disney Land out of something in a year or two. It’s an evolving piece of research.”

Their funding comes via all sorts of sources, from fundraising and events to filming and donations. In addition, the Heritage Lottery Fund has just granted Painshill first-round approval for development funding, which would go towards the completion of the Grotto and other associated landscape works.

Overseeing it all, Mike knows more than most the pleasures of these gardens: he lived in the park’s tower for ten years after being driven from Kingston by neighbours from hell.

“Well, I knew I wasn’t going to get too many nasty neighbours round here,” he laughs. “One of the good things actually about Painshill is that, until the war, despite changing hands 13 times since Hamilton, it was never really in any one person’s hands long enough for them to change it - so while things were neglected and much obscured, the basics were still here for us to find.

“We’re also fortunate that the Surrey countryside around us hasn’t changed too much, so the views are still largely over open land rather than housing developments. It’s all green belt now. One day, I would love some acoustic fencing along the A3, though, as the traffic noise does affect the adjoining corner of the park. One day.”

New surprises With so much already done in the relatively short time the Trust has been managing the gardens, are there likely to be any further twists in the tale?

“I hope there are more surprises to be uncovered, but with the depth of research we’ve done, I really can’t imagine there are any more follies to be found,” says Mike. “However, our gardeners are always discovering new things about the plants of that era."

The genius of Painshill Park is all in the design of its creator. The mood changes as you move from the Chinese bridge peninsular with its colourful plantings to the seemingly rocky outcrop of the Grotto and on to the yew trees down to the Mausoleum. At the Amphitheatre, the Rape of the Sabine Woman a copy of a statue in Florence captures visitors’ attention before passing them on to a gap in the trees to the next folly the Gothic Temple. The lake, central to the theatrics, offers the illusion of a major river at no one point in the park can you see the whole expanse.

Everything remains pretty much exactly as Hamilton intended, and you only see as much as you’re allowed. But then that’s half of the enjoyment.

• Painshill Park, Portsmouth Road, Cobham KT11 1JE. Tel: 01932 868113.


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5 things to look out for at Painshill Park


• Situated on an island, the grotto is an unusual folly. Visitors can wander through a tunnel covered in crystal stalactites into a large cavern with rock pools.

• Painshill produces its own wine from its on site vineyards. From this, they produce their own Painshill Wine, which is available in the shop.

• The park offers fantastic views which, on a clear day, allow visitors to see all across Surrey. The gothic tower is one of our great Surrey towers. It is an imitation of a medieval watch tower, and was sometimes referred to by Hamilton as his castle. If you climb the 99 steps, you can see right over to Canary Wharf, Windsor Castle and the Surrey downs.

• For those looking to propose in a beautiful, serene location, the park has some idyllic situations to fall down on one knee and say those magic words. One of the last additions to Hamilton’s follies is the romantic ruined abbey, which was built to conceal the remains of his commercial brick and tile works.

• The American Roots Exhibition is open all year long to visitors but is at its finest between May to September. The display tells the story of the 18th century craze for new and exciting plants from outside the British Isles, and shows how they were used to transform British garden design at Painshill Park and other 18th century landscape gardens.