Stowe House & Gardens on Tuesday 20th August

It was back to school for 35 members of MNTA on Tuesday, 20 August, when we alighted from our coach at the entrance to a magnificent 18th Century mansion, set in 250 acres of landscape gardens and hundreds of acres of parkland on the outskirts of Buckingham.  We had arrived at Stowe House - the largest private Neo-Classical building in Europe - since 1923, the home of Stowe School.  For now, its 830 students were on holiday.  After tea and coffee in the Music Room, we split into groups for a tour of the house.  Our guide, the flamboyant Martin, could easily have passed for an old Stoic (ex-pupil of Stowe).  In fact, he represented Stowe House Preservation Trust which, since 2000, has co-ordinated the building’s £40 million-plus restoration programme.  Many private benefactors, publicly funded bodies and charitable trusts have been, and still are, involved in this monumental project, including the National Trust, which, in 1989, took on the rescue and running of the Grade 1 listed gardens.

Our tour began in the Egyptian Hall, based on the Temple of Dendra, and was followed by a feast of fabulous interiors, each more splendid than the last.  In its heyday, this was one of Britain’s grandest houses; seat of the influential and ambitious Temple-Grenville family, who commissioned the work of celebrated architects and designers to impress their guests.  The painted ceiling in the State Dining Room is breath-taking; the Library ceiling is decorated with 30,000 leaves of 23.5 carat gold; the Marble Saloon was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and its huge domed ceiling took nine years to complete.  Most delightful are the decorative wall paintings in the State Music Room by Vincenzo Valdre, inspired by classical scenes, such as would have been seen by the Marquess of Buckingham on his Grand Tour of Europe in 1774.  

All this extravagance ended abruptly, three years after the 2nd Duke invited Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to stay for two nights, en route to Chatsworth, in January 1845.  No expense was spared to prepare the house for its royal visitors, but this couldn’t be sustained.  The bailiffs arrived and, in the Great Sale of May 1848 (administered by Christie’s), the house was cleared and its treasures dispersed.  Many have since been bought back and restored to their rightful places, or copies made of the originals, for future generations to enjoy.  

Reluctantly, we re-joined the coach for the short transfer to the garden entrance, where we were greeted by head gardener, Barry Smith, who gave us such a lively talk in June.  After lunch, we explored the gardens, artfully dotted with lakes, follies and temples (a nod to the family name); silhouetted on the skyline - and grandest of all - the mansion itself, now a Temple of Learning.  Too soon, it was time to make tracks for Marlow.  Top marks to Linda Niven for taking us to this beautiful place on a lovely summer’s day.

Kristian Perry