Travel UK Activities: Et in arcadia ego, just a few miles off the A303

Stourhead's gardens may be famous, but the surrounding parkland is much more tantalising for nature lovers.
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The Independent Culture
WHILE TOURISTS flock to Stourhead in Wiltshire to see one of England's finest landscape gardens, few seem to take advantage of the delightful surrounding woodland and parkland that form part of the extensive Stourhead estate. In recent years, the National Trust has opened footpaths across the park allowing visitors to explore for themselves, and this gentle walk takes in rolling pastures, lakes, waterfalls, deep forest, wide glades and a number of interesting follies along the way.

The Palladian mansion and the surrounding gardens are the creation of a banking family, the Hoares. Henry Hoare I and his son Henry II were responsible for building the house in the 1720s. The latter made initial plans for landscaping the garden. The garden plan finally reached fruition under the auspices of the antiquarian and scholar Richard Colt Hoare, who inherited the property in 1783.

The walk starts outside the entrance to Stourhead gardens and offers some unusual views of them for much of the way. The gardens themselves are a wonderfully eclectic mix of exotic plants, mature trees, classical temples, caves, statues and follies set around a lake. It all epitomises 18th-century taste, exhibiting Europe's intellectual flirtation with nature before the Romantics' passionate affair. The main plan for the garden was carried out around 1780, and the little village and church were included in the scheme.

Start at the main visitor car park and follow the paths to the village and the main gate for Stourhead gardens. On your left is the delightful castellated medieval church of St Peter; on your right the elegant pinnacle of the Bristol Cross rises above the garden wall. This ornate 14th-century cross was brought here from its original site in the centre of Bristol. Beyond, fine views across the lake culminate in the Pantheon, a massive classical temple.

Continue down the road under a heavy stone bridge and turn right down a farm track, leaving the gardens on your right and a lovely lake on your left. Follow the track across attractive parkland scattered with magnificent oaks. Passing Beech Cottage on your right, continue along the track, taking the right-hand fork through a gate signposted "Alfred's Tower". You may see the tip of the tower peeping out of the trees at the top of the hill. Continue across the pasture to the woods. It is not long before the mixed ash, oak and rowan give way to a dense conifer wood. It is a fairly long uphill stretch at this point with no obvious target to aim for. However, the wood is stiff with rabbits and deer and many varieties of plants.

When you finally emerge at the top of the wood, turn left along a lush green ride that sweeps up to the strange triangular red-brick edifice that is Alfred's Tower. The tower commemorates the victory of 879 that established the boundaries of the Saxons and Britons. It was built in 1772 as a patriotic monument to embellish Colt Hoare's estate. It is well worth the 160-ft climb to the top to see the spectacular views across Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset.

Leaving the tower, retrace your steps and take the last path on your right which skirts along the edge of the wood, then follow the blue arrow through the trees down to a huge swath of open grass. Going through the gate in the centre of the grass is St Peter's Pump, a confection made up of a 15th-century pinnacle perching on ogee arches set on round, statue- filled niches, all heaped on a grotto base. The pump was moved from Bristol to its damp valley at Stourhead in 1765.

Continue right along the valley known as Six Well's Bottom towards the gardens themselves. This valley, flanked on either side by mature woodland, is a peaceful avenue back to humanity. Cows amble; buzzards call to each other across the valley. Head towards the left-hand side of the valley and follow the markers up a path to your left, which joins the park again at an obelisk commemorating Henry Hoare I.

Looking east you will see the west facade of Stourhead House. The central part of the house was built by the master of the Palladian revival, Colen Campbell, in the 1720s, with the wings, housing the library and picture gallery, being added at the end of the century. Despite being severely damaged by fire in 1902, the interior is full of treasures, including Canaletto drawings and Chippendale furniture. Follow the path around the front of the house, then join the driveway, flanked by huge oaks, back to the car park.

For food, the Spread Eagle in Stourton is a good place for meals, snacks and cream teas. The Red Lion in Kilmington is an excellent pub for real beer and local game.

Stourhead House is open from noon-5.30pm, Sat-Wed. Admission pounds 4.40 for adults, pounds 2.40 for children. Stourhead Gardens are open daily from 9am to-dusk. Entrance pounds 4.40 for adults, pounds 2.40 for children

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