Painshill Park in Cobham Surrey, only eighteen miles from Central London, is Europe’s most important 18th century garden and is a popular day out for all ages. Between 1738 and 1773, the Honourable Charles Hamilton created, over a period of thirty five years, the romantic landscape which can be seen today, following a remarkable period of restoration. Hamilton used nature to stimulate the senses and emotions of his visitors. Painshill is only 158 acres, but appears to be much larger. The mixture of spectacular views, surreal follies, a serpentine lake, a vineyard and a crystal grotto, created what could almost be regarded as a forerunner of today’s amusement parks.
After undertaking two Grand European Tours, Charles Hamilton returned to England in 1738, after two years in Rome. Having enhanced his classical education and stimulated by the natural beauty he had seen, he began to acquire land at Painshill. Here he designed a garden in a wild natural style, using new and rare species, many from North America. At the side of the Lake, there is an ancient Cedar of Lebanon tree over 250 years old and forty metres tall. Hamilton changed the face of the English landscape garden forever. Painshill was one of the first English gardens to delight visitors with the brilliant autumn colours produced by species obtained from North America. In 1786, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Second and Third Presidents of the United States, came to Painshill. Their diaries record how they were captivated by the beauty of Painshill. John Adams, in his diary dated 26th June 1786, wrote, “Paines Hill is the most striking piece of art, that I have yet seen.”
Painshill fell into disrepair and the Park was split up and sold in parts in the 1940s. By 1981, Painshill had become a jungle of vegetation. The Lake was silted up and Hamilton’s follies were dilapidated or had collapsed. Thankfully, in 1981, Painshill Park Trust was established with the aim of restoring Hamilton’s masterpiece to its original state. Many considered this to be an impossible target, but after rebuilding or refurbishing many of the follies and replanting tens of thousands of trees and shrubs, in 1998, the restoration was awarded the prestigious Europa Nostra Medal. This award was in recognition of “the exemplary restoration from a state of extreme neglect”. Restoration continues and the most spectacular of Charles Hamilton’s follies, The Temple of Bacchus, has been rebuilt. It was originally completed in 1762 and measured 14 metres by 9 metres. It had a portico at each end, with six Doric columns.
Hamilton created a walk, now known as the Historic Route, which, over two and a half miles, lead his visitors round the ornamental pleasure grounds. The Route finished at the Turkish Tent, which provides a high viewpoint over the Lake, the Gothic Temple, the Five Arch Bridge and the Grotto. It is believed to be Hamilton’s favourite view. The Turkish Tent had been built by 1760 and was a place where visitors could rest and take refreshment. By the 1980s, little remained of the original structure, but in 1995, a replica was “opened” by the Trust’s sponsor, HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales.
The Grotto at Painshill is quite fascinating. Charles Hamilton designed it himself, obviously inspired by the grottos he had seen in Italy. The entrance is from the edge of the Lake, beneath Grotto Bridge. Opening times are restricted and entrance is only with a guide. On a sunny day, shafts of light dance off crystals on stalactites. The walls are lined with calcite, gypsum, quartz and fluorite. The main chamber has water cascading into pools. The exterior of the Grotto was designed to appear to be a cave. The Rockwork Arch is constructed of oolitic limestone, which has distinctive holes created by burrowing molluscs when it was formed on the seabed millions of years ago.
At the western end of the Park, is the Gothic Tower, which was built in the late 1750s from Painshill red brick. This square tower is 27 metres tall on Painshill’s highest point. Hamilton called it his castle and used it to exhibit his collection of marble statues. Unfortunately, vandals set fire to it in 1973, leaving only a brick shell. The restored Gothic Tower was reopened in 1989. It is open at weekends and is well worth the climb up ninety nine steps to the roof. There are lovely views over Painshill and across four counties. On a day with good visibility, Windsor Castle and even Canary Wharf can be seen.
An unusual feature of the Park is the Painshill Vineyard. The original vineyard was probably planted on the south facing slopes, between 1740 and 1743. Hamilton recorded in 1775, that two cultivars had been planted – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which produced excellent sparkling wine. The Vineyard was restored in 1992 and the first full crop was harvested in 1998. Wines produced here are on sale in the Painshill Shop.
Painshill Park has been used as a film location. The 2009 feature film, Dorian Gray, starring Colin Firth, Ben Barnes and Rebecca Hall, was filmed here. The 2015 film, Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan, was also filmed at Painshill Park. The 2018 ITV television production of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Victorian novel, Vanity Fair, involved filming at thirty different locations. Painshill Park, especially the Lake, Five Arch Bridge and the Gothic Temple, featured in more than one episode.