My mum and I share many things in life; the same surname, the same love of scones, the same dislike of noise and the same Painshill Park membership card.
Painshill Park is a hidden gem near Cobham, Surrey, originally owned and created by Charles Hamilton (MP) between 1738 and 1773. In fact, Painshill eventually became an actual hidden gem, as after a succession of owners the park fell into decay and disrepair. Yet public interest in 1980 led the local Elmbridge council to buy 158 acres of the original 200 acres estate, with the intention of full restoration. In 1981 Painshill Park Trust was created and the restoration of the park began and work still continues today. Now Painshill is a Grade I listed Historic Park and one of the finest examples of an 18th-century landscape park, with bountiful follies and beautiful forestry. However, the intention of this post is not to go into detail about the follies or foliage, it is to talk about my Sunday walk.
My weekend plans are normally arranged on the day as I never really know what I am doing. However, as soon as my mum gave me the Jane Austen Day flyer I knew my Sunday 16th July was going to be spent at Painshill, embracing some 18th-century culture. Promises of restoration dancing, boating on the lake and reading in the follies was all too much for me, I knew I had to go and was determined to. So, on Sunday morning off we went in my little red car to the park. As we drove over the extremely bumpy entrance road I thought the car park would be inundated with Austen fans, fortunately 11:30am was a bit early for most people and we found a car parking space easily enough. I had high hopes about the day as we entered the visitor centre, I flashed my joint membership card and we were in! First stop a very short introductory exhibition of Jane Austen, with a projected video clip, an old original copy of a Jane Austen book and a replica of the wedding dress worn by Jennifer Ehle in the BBC Pride and Prejudice. For me this dress provoked fond memories of slugging on the sofa with my housemates at uni, but for my companion the dress was not to his taste. Next we began our walk looking towards a historical reenactment camp in the distance.
I decided that we wouldn’t go my normal route of along the river and past the fake castle ruins, instead we went up the hill towards the Gothic temple. Well, what a good choice of mine! As we entered the lawn with the Rape of the Sabines statue we were welcomed with actors in full 18th-century dress. I felt like we had stepped back in time and were about to embark on a casual stroll with the gentry. We managed to catch the end of a talk in the Gothic Temple about how 18th-century people used the gardens; for example fondling in the shrubbery and impromptu singing as you walked around the land. I found this all very amusing as we headed off towards the Crystal Grotto. I’m sure you can picture how the rest of the walk went; more follies, people in boats on the lake, horse and carriages, beautiful trees, it was very lovely. Yet the obvious elements of a walk was not what interested me the most on Sunday and to be honest other than already mentioned Austenian pieces there wasn’t much visible 18th-century culture. Perhaps we arrived too early to experience the full Jane Austen day, especially as the Restoration dancing was planned for mid-afternoon.
No, it was Jane Austen that grabbed my concentration, it was the juxtaposition of a glorious restored historic parkland still steeped and surrounded by the modern-day. It is often the case in many parks or stately homes you can envision yourself in the past for a moment, imagine drinking tea on the lawn or dancing in the ballroom, but at Painshill you can never escape the 21st century; there is audible noise, audible auto noise as the park is surrounded by the A3, M25 and Cobham streets. Additionally, as you delve deeper into the woods to find the Hermitage, once a secluded realm, you have a very clear reminder that you have not escaped; electricity pylons are in almost reaching distance. It seems so contradictory to have these brutalist metal structures entrenched in nature and no place better to see this is on the roof of the Gothic Tower. You thoughts as you climb the 99 steps may be ‘I can’t wait to see the glorious views’, unfortunately such views are marred. Half of the view is what seems a carefully placed canopy of trees to block out views of the humming traffic, whilst on the other side you are confronted with a line of pylons. For a moment a pined for perfect vision of the past, but this is progression after all, a sober reminder that as we move forward with technology we often move away from and remove naturalist countryside. With a slight solemn feeling, or I suppose annoyance of the audible traffic, we left the Gothic Tower, past the Turkish Tent and were on our way back to the entrance. Yet these feelings quickly melted away when in the distance we heard a modern rendition of a 18th-century merry tune descending on the parkland from the Gothic Temple, drowning out the traffic; a pleasant end to a unsuspectingly poignant walk.
Painshill Park will always be a favourite of mine, noise and all. But this walk on Sunday affirmed my understanding that heritage sites are a product of the modern world. We will never be able to fully restore and preserve heritage places to their original glory, but the fact we have heritage sites is amazing itself. In my opinion it is far better to experience old buildings or parks in this juxtaposed way, because the truth of the matter is if we were still living in the 18th-century the majority of people would not be able to experience them at all.