This morning was a lovely relaxed morning exploring oxford on our own before being back on the bus to head to Stowe House for a garden tour with Patrick from the National Trust. Since today didn’t have any set activities, and they were both such pretty locations, it will mostly be a photo gallery.
As I’ve been to oxford once before, and we’ve been covering so many museums in the last several days, I took a break from museums. I briefly poked my nose into the Ashmolean but spent most of my morning just wandering the streets and people watching.
We were lucky enough to stay in Magdalen College in Oxford university, unfortunately not the wonderful heritage buildings, we were in the 1970s dorms above sainsbury’s. However it did give us the perks of being able to wander the college quod and see all the lovely gardens and buildings when they were practically empty. We also got to have breakfast in their Hall, which is very Harry Potter style, so also amazing.
After roaming Oxford until 2pm we were yet again on a bus to our next stop, Stowe House. Stowe is an odd place as it’s part historic house, part National Trust gardens and part prestigious boarding school (we got told it was one step below Eton College. So the Stoe House Preservation Trust manage the house and have it open to the public, but the school also use it for classes and their dining hall and dorm rooms, and the gardens are owned and managed by the National Trust, but the school leases sections for playing fields and outdoor activities. It’s a very unusual but relatively harmonious between the three organisations.
Our perk for this section of the trip was staying on site in the boarding houses so having the run of the manor house and gardens at night when there was no one else there. This afternoon was spent on a lovely walk through the Elysian Fields section of the gardens with Patrick, the deputy head gardener. He lead us through the Paths of Virtue and Vice and explained the symbolism of different sections of the garden and the various temples and statues which reside there.
The Paths of Vice and Virtue represent the Greek god, Hercules’ struggle between these two choices. The Path of Vice is relatively easy, flat and winds through the garden of love. The temples in this area allude to stories of seductive women, sordid goings-on and partying to excess. Not for the faint hearted, but designed to show that vice is an easy way out.
The Path of Virtue represents heaven on earth. The temples show good values, such as the Temple of British Worthies showing the thinkers and do-ers of Britain’s history. Of course, the virtuous path isn’t the easiest, so there are many bridges and hills in the way.
The Path of Liberty apparently represents the political aspirations of Lord Cobham, the guy who designed the gardens in 1730s. As a simple metaphor it is the longest and hardest of all three walks, showing that politics is never easy. The temples along the way show Britain’s dominance in the eighteenth century. Hence the Temple of Concord and Victory celebrates Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War and Lord Cobham’s Pillar shows Cobham as a mighty Roman warrior, mostly because he had a superiority complex.
Lord Cobham was a very political man who wanted to all his political opinions to hit visitors in the face when they came to his house. At the time, these symbols would have been pretty obvious to his friends and everyone would have known exactly what political affiliations he had, as well as how rich he was. Now we just see them and think ‘oh that’s a pretty temple’. It was really interesting de-coding all of these messages in the gardens and I think it would be great if there was a bit more explanatory signage around for the average visitor to give the gardens context. If we didn’t have Patrick there to helpfully (and literally) walk us through the meaning behind it, there would be so much significance lost on us. I’ll leave it there for now, with a few more garden pictures and delve more deeply into Stowe House tomorrow.