We usually spend our summer vacation on Fire Island, New York, where we stay in a midcentury-modern cottage near the new Pines Pavilion, designed by HWKN. But this year, on the occasion of my partner’s 45th birthday, we went farther afield and further back in time, to rural Buckinghamshire, about 75 miles north of London. For less per night than two rooms at a Holiday Inn, we and another couple rented an 18th-century Gothick folly on the grounds of Stowe House, one of the stateliest of England’s many stately homes. Our trip was cheap, great fun, and surprisingly meaningful: Though I didn’t know it until we arrived, Stowe was a landmark of my youth.
Over the course of three centuries, a who’s-who of British architects such as John Vanbrugh, William Kent, Robert Adam, and John Soane expanded the original Elizabethan manor into a 480-foot-long neoclassical pile and erected more than a dozen follies in the Lancelot “Capability” Brown–designed landscape. During its heyday, the picturesque spectacle of Stowe was a kind of Disneyland for the affluent and intellectual: Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels, French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, U.S. President John Adams, and Czar Alexander I of Russia all visited.
Our rental, named the Gothic Temple, is a miniature cathedral-cum-castle built in 1741 according to a triangular plan by James Gibbs; a waist-high railing separates it from occasional herds of curious tourists and indifferent, grazing sheep. I was surprised to find several works by the late English author T.H. White on a bookshelf in the vaulted-stone living room, including one of my childhood favorites, Mistress Masham’s Repose. The bodice-ripping title belies a whimsical plot, wherein an orphan discovers a band of Lilliputians secretly living in the garden of her vast and ruinous ancestral home. Naturally, adventures ensue.
What particularly captivated me when I first read the book, at the age of 9 or 10, were White’s descriptions of the estate’s architecture and landscape, through which he tweaked pretensions of British history and culture. One dusty parlour, for instance, contains a chair that Queen Victoria sat upon, “with a glass lid over the seat, to preserve the royal imprint.” Monuments in the park celebrate dubious worthies such as Gen. John Burgoyne, who surrendered an army of 5,000 men to the Americans during the Revolutionary War.
Being a curious child, I looked up each unfamiliar reference in my grandfather’s Encyclopædia Britannica; eventually I caught on to the joke. But at least one reference eluded my younger self: White’s setting turns out to be a thinly veiled portrayal of Stowe. The house was converted into a boarding school in the 1920s, and White taught there for several years. (The school remains, the grounds are now owned by the National Trust, and bookings at the Gothic Temple are available through the Landmark Trust, a U.K. nonprofit that restores architecturally significant buildings as short-term vacation rentals.)
I used to pore over an illustrated map on the endpapers of Mistress Masham’s Repose, which closely resembles the one in the National Trust’s current Stowe pamphlet, minus a few irreverent additions such as an arrow pointing to a fictitious village called “Monk’s Unmentionable.” The illustration served as my first introduction to the English landscape garden, but until this summer I hadn’t experienced a major example firsthand.
Wow. Capability and his collaborators positioned each structure to offer views of one, two, or three others through strategic breaks in topography and foliage. The paths between the eyecatchers are rarely laid on direct routes, so that a stroll through the grounds at Stowe becomes a voyage of discovery (and an agility course in the avoidance of sheep droppings). I didn’t see a single Lilliputian, but no matter. The design alone was wondrous.