Stour­head with Alan Power

The head of au­tumn’s HQ walks and talks us through its ar­rival.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - PHOTOS : TOM BAI L E Y

To build, to plant, what­ever you in­tend, To rear the col­umn, or the arch to bend, To swell the ter­race, or to sink the grot; In all, let Na­ture never be for­got.

It’s a quo­ta­tion from Alexan­der Pope’s Epis­tles, and it pretty much sums up ev­ery­thing that gov­erned the cre­ation of Stour­head and its gar­den. By all means plant things, shape the land­scape, make it beau­ti­ful, Pope says – but don’t sub­ju­gate na­ture to the will of the gar­den. Make the gar­den re­vere na­ture.

So at Stour­head the aim is to call in the land­scape that’s out­side the gar­den. And from its first plant­ing right up to to­day, we try not to let na­ture get for­got. Es­pe­cially not in the au­tumn. Stour­head has al­ways been mag­i­cal in the au­tumn, but its pro­file has in­creased a lit­tle of late, be­cause around this time of year I get a call from Ed­die Mair on Ra­dio 4’s PM pro­gramme, ask­ing me to pre­dict how good the au­tumn is go­ing to be.

The funny thing – and I al­ways say this to Ed­die – is that you can’t re­ally pre­dict a good au­tumn. There are signs, of course: if we’ve had a wet spring and a hot-but-wet sum­mer, the chances are bet­ter than av­er­age. But there are so many vari­ables. It can all change with one sharp, cold snap. Au­tumn doesn’t start at 3.30pm on a Tues­day af­ter­noon in Oc­to­ber. It comes slowly in hints and hues, and you’ll only sense it if you’re out­side ev­ery day. Oth­er­wise it’ll just sneak up on you.

I see the au­tumn in our Ja­panese maple, which turns the most vivid, vi­brant scar­let. I see it in the gold of honey fun­gus and the or­ange of a wil­lowleaved oak. And most of all I see it on the is­land in the lake. It has the two best-part­nered trees on the whole es­tate: the swamp cy­press and the tulip tree. The sun­light pen­e­trates right down through their canopies and makes it look like they are lit from within. The tulip tree turns a bril­liant but­tery yel­low and it looks like a light­house ablaze. When that’s hap­pen­ing, I know we’ve hit full-on au­tumn.

But there are au­tum­nal mo­ments ev­ery­where. You can walk for 18 miles through this es­tate with­out re­peat­ing your tracks once. We’ve ac­tu­ally had peo­ple ring us af­ter get­ting lost in the woods. I love fol­low­ing two peo­ple as they walk into the gardens chat­ter­ing away, and then hear­ing the

con­ver­sa­tion stop abruptly. They’re too blown away to keep talk­ing. That’s when I think, ‘yep – job done.’

There are 600 dif­fer­ent tree and plant species within Stour­head but the ones that fas­ci­nate me the most are the bloody great oaks. If you’re an oak fan, Stour­head is some sort of nir­vana.

We have the tallest English oak in the coun­try; 41 me­tres tall. We have red oaks, wil­low-leaved oaks, Ital­ian oaks. Oaks that stand up ram­rod­straight bolt­ing di­rectly for the canopy, and oaks that lie down like wounded di­nosaurs.

The pop­u­lar­ity of the gar­den in au­tumn warms my heart but it also scares me a bit. If it’s damp, a lot of foot­fall can start to cause prob­lems with the soil. But that’s just some­thing we have to man­age. I’m far glad­der that peo­ple want to come and en­gage with the gar­den, to touch it and smell it, than I’m wor­ried about the main­te­nance.

That was the point of Stour­head. You’re meant to feel wel­come. Henry Hoare put a road through the mid­dle to em­pha­sise that this was a place to see and en­joy, not to be sealed away. You’re not vis­it­ing some­one else’s gar­den, you’re walk­ing through some­thing you can con­nect with.


The past is hid­den in the gar­den. Some­times I come across old im­ages of it, like an en­grav­ing from the 1770s, and I can see huge dif­fer­ences. When the Tem­ple of Apollo was first built, it was in the open to catch the sun as it moved across the gar­den (Apollo be­ing the god of the sun). Now it has trees around it, which changes the way it works.

And the gar­den can still sur­prise me. We of­ten un­cover lost projects that have dis­ap­peared into the land­scap­ing. Last year we found a lost idesia tree in the un­der­growth. We cleared it up and now it’s back on what­ever course it was on be­fore.

There’s ther­apy in an au­tumn gar­den, too. Not just for big things like be­reave­ment, loneliness or anx­i­ety, which of course can be helped by en­gag­ing with a beau­ti­ful land­scape. But on the small scale too. Just be­ing here can change your sim­plest thought pro­cesses and in­flu­ence your de­ci­sion-mak­ing for the next week. You see the best op­tions, not the worst.

What I like most is ques­tions. If we’re do­ing our job right, peo­ple should want to ask us ques­tions, like ‘why was that tree planted there?’ or ‘how do you keep that thing alive?’ or ‘are rhodo­den­drons evil?’ (The an­swer is no, not all of them – pon­ticum is a bas­tard so we erad­i­cate it, but most can be left to do their own thing with­out get­ting out of con­trol. In fact we plant rhodo­den­dron au­ric­u­la­tum in dead trees to help the process of break­ing them down and re­ju­ve­nat­ing the space). An ad­mi­ra­tion of beauty should trigger ques­tions, and we’re more than happy to an­swer them.

I have three bits of ad­vice for be­ing here in au­tumn – or in fact en­joy­ing au­tumn any­where in Bri­tain. One is to walk the same foot­path ev­ery day for a week, be­cause that’s how you will see day-to­day changes. That’s when you’ll see a tree ac­tu­ally chang­ing colour, a fun­gus sprout­ing, leaf lit­ter get­ting deeper by the day. Holes in the canopy which the sun­light couldn’t pen­e­trate be­fore.

The sec­ond is to stop dead and stay still, and close your eyes. Smell the au­tumn; hear it, touch it, use ev­ery sense apart from your sight.

And fi­nally – share it with some­one. If some­thing makes your heart skip a beat, pass that mo­ment on. Bring some­one and show them. It’s too vi­tal and too pre­cious just to keep it to your­self.

And by pass­ing it on, you’re en­sur­ing that na­ture never be for­got. Old Alexan­der Pope would be very happy about that.


Alan Power has worked at Stour­head for over 20 years, 14 of them as head gar­dener. Orig­i­nally from Cork, he stud­ied in Es­sex and Sur­rey be­fore land­ing his dream job. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @alans­tour­head

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