The Pleasure Grounds at Wotton

The House (1)

Wotton House was built with a ground plan and elevations virtually identical to those of Buckingham House (later incorporated into Buckingham Palace). Gutted by fire in 1820, it was re-built by Sir John Soane who lowered the two top floors substantially and re-designed the interior. It was one of his last major country house commissions and one of the very few still surviving virtually intact. Five vistas converge on the West door of the House in equal segments of 90º arc: the main double avenue to the small lake (2); the south-west avenue; and narrow vistas leading to Mars (24), Venus (4) and Lake Urn (12).

Parterre and Lake Avenue (2)

The formal garden to the south of and below the House was laid out by George London and Henry Wise after the House was completed. The also laid out a number of radial avenues of which the three centred on the House have been re-planted. The principal avenue leading to the small lake (the Warrells) consisted of a double line of elms which survived until the 1970s when it succumbed to Dutch elm disease. It was re-planted in 1980 with chestnut outer lines and a mixture of small and large leaf limes inside. The present owners have re-planted it again with Common Lime (Pallida variety). The south-west avenue has been re-planted with oak.

Yew Walk (3)

Accessed originally from the formal garden through a gate in the brick wall (now blocked off – the garden is in separate ownership) the yew walk was almost certainly lined by a hedge rather than the trees now there. A line of crab-apples has now been planted on the west side of the path. From the gate there are views of Venus (4) and the south Tuscan Temple (5). At the end, where the path turns right, an eel trap provided food for the table.

New River Walk and Venus (4)

The path now leads westward alongside a stretch of water dug by Brown probably in 1767. Also known as Chestnut Walk on account of the succession of splendid specimens all the way to Warrells. After a quarter of a mile the path emerges from the shade of chestnuts on to an open lawn dominated by a statue of Venus (4). On the 1789 estate map, a statue of Jupiter is shown at this site, but there is no trace of it and it is not known whether it ever existed on the ground. In any case Venus was judged by the present owners to be better suited to this intimate garden.

Tuscan Temples (5)

Passing by a particularly fine, spreading chestnut, the path reaches the small lake (the Warrells). Tudor maps show it as a small triangular lake or pond and it may well be spring fed. A pair of swans normally nests on it. It was enlarged and re-shaped, probably by London and Wise, and at its eastern end Brown placed a pair of small temples in Tuscan style, probably copied by the estate carpenter from one of the many pattern books then availably. Unusually, they face both ways. From the various vantage points beyond the small lake they frame the house. From the north temple there is a view of Five Arch Bridge (7). The back of the south temple commands a view of the New River; from the front one gets the first glimpse of the Palladian Bridge (9) and possibly China Island (10).

Boathouses (6)

The path along the southern bank of the Warrells leads to a hummock underneath which is a boathouse (restored in 1999-2000). From a seat on top one has a broad view across the water but sees no man-made objects: it is a purely rustic setting. The boathouse on the opposite bank of the Warrells, if it ever existed, collapsed long ago.

Five Arch Bridge (7)

It was an axiom with Brown, as with other designers of the time, that a change of levels between two stretches of water should be disguised. This bridge cleverly fulfils that purpose with water cascading down an inclined spill-way through the central arch when in flood. It bears a more than passing resemblance to Kent’s Shell Bridge marking the boundary of the Elysian Fields at Stowe, though for once it surpasses its model by being double sided and having a second tier. The lower arches look disconcertingly like an upside down reflection of the upper ones. As at the Boathouse, no man-made object is to be seen from on top.

Whateley’s Seat (8)

Named after the writer whose 1771 account of the Wotton circuit is reproduced below. Legend ascribes to him a favourite seat from where a number of distinct and nicely contrasted views (including full frontal one of the house) can be enjoyed.

Palladian Bridge (9)

Whateley describes the Palladian Bridge as “an elegant bridge with a colonnade upon it”. It is made of wood and is a much more modest affair that the stone Palladian Bridge at Stowe. It was rebuilt in 1993.

China Island and Mab (10)

China Island, created by Capability Brown by extending an arm of the Warrells to the north-west, may be the site of an early bowling green. The Chinese Tea House which had been erected at Stowe in 1738 was moved in the 1750s to its new island site where it stood till the previous owners of the estate took it with them to Ireland in 1947. The National Trust located it in the 1980s, restored it and put it back at Stowe. It was possibly designed by Kent. In its place MRs Brunner had a folly (known as Mab) constructed out of classical mouldings removed from the house during its 1957 restoration.

Rustic Bridge (11)

China Island was approached from two sides by rustic bridges in a vaguely Chinese style. The present imaginative reinstatement of a serving bridge dates from Mrs Brunner’s time.

Urn (12)

A ruined plinth and a plywood cut-out mark the site of an urn which terminated a long view from the House (the counterpart of the sightline to Venus). The present urn is from the roof of the house.

Octagon (13)

In 1758 George Grenville wrote to Sanderson Miller, who was involved in the design and construction of other garden building at Wotton: “I must put you in mind too of our Octagon Seat upon the mound which calls for dispatch, and which if you have the time to send me the estate plan I shall be much obliged.” The gravel path through the middle of the Octagon was possibly intended for horse riders. The Octagon affords a variety of views through its arches, including one of the Turkish Kiosk (23), and a striking one of the House.

Grotto Island (14)

Mrs Grenville also sought the advice of Miller regarding the Grotto on “the new island with four Ionick pillars before it … decorated with Shells and Pillars with flints and shells (preserving the appearance of the real architectural ornaments) like some that are at Stowe …”

Victorian Boathouse (15)

The remains of a long wooden boathouse with a tiled roof are visible on the far bank of the lake opposite the Octagon.

Vase Lawn (16)

The vase is situated on the third of a series of mounds extending up the west bank of the lake from the Octagon. These mounds, successively the pine mound, the oak mound and the vase mound, served a viewing platforms on which artists could set up their easels and from which they and visitors could paint or just admire the carefully composed views laid out for them by Brown.

Malay Hut (17)

The thatched rustic hut in South Seas mode was originally on stilts in the lake and moved on to dry land in the 1960s to preserve it (the stilts had rotted). Being a rustic building, there were no views of man-made objects from it – only the lake and the field beyond. It is unlike any other building in the Pleasure Grounds. It was not marked on the 1789 plan of the Pleasure grounds and was probably built by the First Duke of Buckingham after the Napoleonic Wars.

Statue of Neptune (18)

From the group of Neptune statues which once included a boy on a dolphin, now in ruins, there are composed view of the Grotto (14), Octagon (13), Vase (22), Crescent Bridge (19), Rotunda (20), Turkish Kiosk (23) and Mars (24). Neptune himself has disappeared, probably a casualty of the Second World War.

Chinese or Crescent Bridge (19)

The original bridge was blown down in the early 19th century. In its present guise it is purely ornamental, providing a dramatic focus from several viewpoints, but it was probably built originally with steps to serve as a shortcut avoiding a detour round the end of the lake. To the north, where the lake narrow, a tree-covered island disguises the head of the water, a typical Brownian feature.

Rotunda (20)

Apparently an imitation of Vanbrugh’s Rotunda at Stowe, it will have been built, like most of the other temples, by the estate carpenters. Apart from serving as one of the main scenic attractions viewed from other vantage points, there are a number of carefully composed views between its ten columns, including the Grotto (14), Octagon (13), Vase (16), Neptune (18), Poplar Vase (22), Turkish Kiosk (23) and perhaps the House.

Windmill Hill (21)

The highest point in the surrounding countryside, a windmill stood here in the 17th century. It had gone by the time Brown planted a circle of yews on the mound to form a natural temple. The original North (main) Drive to the House was oriented on the hill before turning south just short of it. A least four avenues, planted by London and Wise around 1710, radiated from it, including one giving a long view into the Park.

Poplar Vase (22)

Now almost lost amid yews and poplars, this urn was so placed as to be seen from the Turkish Kiosk (23) and Rotunda (20) among other vantage points. This area is now under restoration.

Turkish Kiosk (23)

Expanding British overseas trade interests in the middle years of the 18th century led to increasing interest in exotic forms of art and architecture. In view of the Ottoman Empire’s predominant position in the Middle East, Turkey was seen almost as synonymous with Islam and a revival of interest in its religion – which was no longer seen as a threat – led to a vogue for things Turkish. The “Turkey Building”, or Turkish Kiosk as it is now known (the Turkish work kiosk describing just such a building entered the English language around this time) is a good example of contemporary pastiche. It its a six-sided wooden building with copper roof surmounted by a golden crescent. It is not known who designed it.

Mars (24)

On a detour back to the House, the path bears right leading to a ruined statue of Mars. It stood in a clearing commanding a panoramic view to south and west from a three-quarter view of the House round to the Crescent Bridge and Rotunda. Due south, a glimpse of Venus under her chestnut.

Wotton Oak (25)

Now the biggest recorded and possibly oldest oak in the County, it is in fact one of four oaks of similar size within a hundred yards of each other, suggesting a medieval planting.


Wotton House lies at the north-west corner of Wotton Underwood village, in the Vale of Aylesbury, 10km north of Thame and 13km west of Aylesbury.
Opening: Every Wednesday after 2pm

Wotton House
Wotton Underwood
HP18 0SB