We headed down to Surrey for a family wedding, and as I don’t like to leave an area without seeing at least something of where we were staying, I googled “things to do near Cobham”. Painshill Park, and more specifically the Crystal Grotto, came up in every search I did, and so we headed there on Sunday to see what all the fuss was about.
Painshill Park Cobham.
Based on the information leaflet we chose to do the Historic Route, a marked 2.5 mile walk that would mean we could see most of the features and follies of this interesting landscaped garden. (Note that while the route on the leaflet is marked in yellow, the arrows to point you in the right direction are actually red.) The leaflet promised us some surprises, which was the intention of the creator back in the 18th century – a walk back in time and the perfect way to get outside on a Sunday.
On our way around we learnt from the various information boards that Painshill is a Grade 1 listed 18th century landscape garden, created in the naturalistic style between 1738 and 1773. It was the artistic vision of the Honourable Charles Hamilton, who was inspired by Renaissance and contemporary art and visits to Italy on the Grand Tour. Hamilton wanted to create a tranquil landscape setting enriched by follies, water, trees, shrubberies and a vineyard. As a painter, plantsman and imaginative designer, he created a garden of ‘moods’ which change from one part to another, and with the seasons, providing a romantic landscape to stimulate the senses and emotions. It was intended as a ‘living work of art’ and was, at the time, in the forefront of the picturesque movement. The landscape was among the earliest to reflect the changing fashion from geometric formality to the naturalistic style.
View from the Gothic Temple.
The follies were my favourite. Defined as “costly ornamental buildings with no practical purpose”, they are the epitome of showmanship here at Painshill. Nothing here, other than the undulating ground, is natural – it has all been purposefully designed with good views and scenery in mind. There is a Ruined Abbey, Turkish tent, Gothic Temple and Gothic Tower – all fake but all beautiful in their construction and detail.
The Gothic Tower. Unfortunately closed when we visited.
Even the lake is fake. I mean, it’s real water of course, but it was manmade to help create the natural paintings Hamilton was so keen on. Called “The Serpentine Lake”, it is a central feature and a great place for ducks, geese and swans, toads and frogs, and apparently fish including carp, bream, roach and pike. It’s such a great creation that it is a designated site for the release of rescued birds, not bad for something that was designed by someone wanting to show off to his friends!
The most impressive folly for me is the Crystal Grotto. It really is special and is the reason we headed to the park in the first place. I admit I was a little worried when I heard a lady ahead of me say “if you wait here a moment to allow your eyes to adjust you won’t feel so claustrophobic in here”. Say what now? I wasn’t planning on going into a cave… I was expecting a little cavern covered in sparkly crystals. I’m not sure where the lady ahead got her information from, but thankfully I was right – we headed through the corridor in the rock and into the most beautiful grotto that sparkled with all kinds of white crystals from floor to ceiling. I find the fact that someone created this rather than it being natural a little hard to take in, it really does look like it’s been formed over thousands of years, but I like the fact that this guy hired a “grotto maker” to build him something that would be a real talking point.
The Crystal Grotto, Painshill.
There was lots more to see on our walk around the grounds, including the rather impressive waterwheel, which is one of the largest working wheels in the UK, and still feeds the manmade lake today. There’s also a Hermitage, which is a tiny thatched hut on the top of a hill. The story goes that Hamilton hired a hermit to live in the hut who was found drinking in a local inn within three weeks of his employment; I like to think I’d make a better hermit than that!
The walk really was lovely and we were blessed with warm weather which is always a bonus when exploring somewhere outside. It is worth noting that the Historic Route is not fully accessible, there are some natural and grassy trails that form part of it, and is quite undulating to match the landscape. There are other, flatter and more maintained routes that you can take if you want something a little less strenuous.
Bluebells in the wood.
After our walk we sat on one of the many picnic tables and enjoyed some tea and cake from the tearoom. It was a little disorganised in the cafe, but a nice way to relax before we got back in the cars for the long drive back home – and the Victoria sponge was very yummy!
It cost us £8 per adult to get into Painshill, which includes both the Crystal Grotto and Gothic Tower when they are open (on this particular day the Crystal Grotto was open but the Gothic Tower was not – there were apparently not enough volunteers to have both). The park is independently run so no getting in for free with your National Trust or English Heritage membership, but if you are local you can join to make the most of the grounds all year round.
For more information on Painshill, visit their website. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.