Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Bowood, again (and again)
On Sunday I fled from London and book proofs to visit one of the most glorious gardens in England, just in time to see its famous rhododendrons in full flower. Bowood is a magical place, where history seems alive within its walls, and the gardens have been tended over centuries. The 18th century house is full of extraordinary treasures: from Napoleon's death mask to Byron's Albanian robes; from a spray of orange blossom in Queen Victoria's wedding bouquet to the records of Dr Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen gas while working in his laboratory at Bowood in 1774. There are angels and centaurs, lions and stags, and an elephant in an Orangery. It's the kind of house that I imagined as a child, reading C.S Lewis's Narnia stories; rather as he described in the opening pages of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe': 'the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of... full of unexpected places... and then a whole series of rooms that led into each other... lined with books -- most of them very old books and some bigger than a Bible in a church.'
I didn't take myself off to sit in a wardrobe in an empty bedroom, although I might have been tempted to do so several decades ago; but I did wander through a glade of rhododendrons, some of which were first planted over 150 years ago, having been brought back to Bowood by intrepid Victorian plant collectors, who discovered them in the Himalayas. Amidst these exotic specimens are equally luscious azaleas and magnolias; and then there are the wisterias, waterfalls of lilac and white flowers, cascading down walls and over pergolas, forming doorways to yet more garden landscapes, like the 17th century Dutch paintings that seem to miraculously reveal rooms beyond rooms beyond rooms.
The flowering season of the rhododendrons is brief -- just a few more weeks, perhaps, through the high summer days of June -- so if you happen to be in Wiltshire, or thereabouts, I do hope you find yourself in this English Arcadia, discovering more of its famous glories, hidden corners and secret hideaways, where time seems to stand still, even as the blossom blazes and fades.