The restoration of Painshill Park, which began in 1981, was the first major reinstatement of a historic landscape in the UK. It was an enormously ambitious project, to rescue a site so derelict that it was almost at the point of no return, and put the landscape and all its buildings back to its 18th-century heyday.
Designed by Charles Hamilton between 1738 and 1773, Painshill features a 14-acre serpentine lake dotted with small islands. The walk around the lake takes the visitor past a series of ornamental garden buildings, set among planting which enhances their mood and effect. Carefully composed views are revealed, both within and beyond the Park as the visitor travels the circuit, contrived so that the whole landscape is never entirely visible as a whole.
After Hamilton left Painshill, the estate passed through the hands of numerous owners, remaining relatively well preserved until the Second World War. Under military occupation, the landscape became overgrown and the lake began to silt up, while the garden buildings quickly deteriorated.
In 1948, the estate was sold off in lots to pay for taxes. The main part of the ornamental landscape around the lake was put to commercial forestry, and in the years that followed, the landscape became jungle-like, its buildings falling prey to decay and vandalism, and plundered for materials.
Concern about the condition of Painshill began to stir and evolve into action from the late 1960s. The Garden History Society (GHS) formed a working group to explore means of protecting the landscape, and steps were taken to have its buildings listed in 1969.
At a local level too, Norman Kitz, who lives in Painshill House, had recognised the importance of the landscape, and together with local historians formed the Friends of Painshill in 1975. The GHS collated all the research and information available on Painshill with a 29-page article in the GHS journal in autumn 1973. Off-prints of the article, with its evocative illustrations by William Gilpin and others, were used as the basis of the Society's campaign to arouse interest and funds for the acquisition of Painshill.
In 1974 pressure from local campaigners and the GHS encouraged Elmbridge Borough Council to purchase 47 acres of farmland, which had been previously part of the estate. The council also intervened in 1976 to prevent the collapse of the Gothic Temple, and carried out almost £4000-worth of emergency works.
In 1979, the council threatened the compulsory purchase of the 106 acres of land around the lake, which had formed the main pleasure grounds. This was an unprecedented step for a local authority to take in relation to a threatened historic landscape, but the council recognised Painshill's importance both locally and nationally, and was warmly applauded by the garden history community for its far-sightedness.
A compulsory order proved unnecessary, however, and in 1980 the council bought the land for £135,000. This purchase, together with another parcel of land brought the site to 158 acres (64 hectares) of the original 250 acres.
In 1981 the Painshill Park Trust was formed, and Janie Burford was appointed its director. With grants of £25,000 from Surrey County Council, and £45,000 from the Countryside Commission for emergency repairs, work began to rescue the ruined landscape.
Early clearance and research
Janie Burford's budget did not allow her to employ staff, but a lifeline appeared in the shape of the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) job creation scheme. In the 1980s, there were many unemployed graduates, and Janie was able to assemble a well-qualified team of archaeologists, historians, horticulturalists and other site workers, all of whom were paid by the Government.
For the next three years, Janie and her team began tentatively to open up the site, removing undergrowth and clearing paths to and discover what was still there, and making the remaining buildings safe.
Extensive surveying helped to guide the team in the painstaking work of clearing the site without destroying any precious evidence of original features or materials that remained. Every historic tree and stump in the park was identified, revealing 169 specimens that had survived from Hamilton's time, including seven 240-year-old cedars of Lebanon.
Janie felt it was very important to read the history of the site from the ground up, and brought in archaeologist Lesley Howes to assist. Only a few of the park's original buildings remained - the Ruined Abbey, the Gothic Temple and the Chinese Bridge - and archaeological research played a crucial role in identifying the ground plans of lost buildings and the materials of which they were made, as well as retrieving materials which had been scattered about the site.
Alongside the archaeological work, the documentary research team, led by Mavis Collier, amassed a good deal of pictorial and written evidence to show what the buildings and landscape had looked like. No estate papers were ever found, but there were plenty of contemporary visitor descriptions, maps, paintings and sketches, as well as photographs for Country Life magazine, taken earlier in the century when many of the buildings still stood.
The many 18th- and 19th-century visitor accounts were compared and analysed alongside maps and illustrations to build up a picture of the Park's design and layout, and the appearance of its buildings and plantings. The main routes around the garden were identified from evidence on the ground, together with visitor descriptions and old maps.
The research brought previously unknown facts to light. Following the discovery of a brick kiln behind the last of Hamilton's follies, the Ruined Abbey, archaeologists and researchers were able to establish that there had in fact been a tile works on the spot, where Hamilton had produced his own bricks, tiles and chimney pots.
‘It was a very exciting time - we were on site finding archaeological evidence and at the same time the historic documentary research was coming in. In retrospect I realise how lucky we were, that we had time, since it wasn't a public park,' comments Janie.
In 1983, a major grant from the new National Heritage Memorial Fund, and then a grant from English Heritage the following year, enabled work to begin in earnest on putting the landscape and its buildings back to what they once had been.
Elmbridge Borough Council leased Painshill to the Trust on a 99-year lease, and Land Use Consultants drew up a master plan for the restoration of the site and creating public access, involving several phases over a period of 30 years.
All the research information that had been gathered was compared and analysed, and superimposed on an 1870 Ordnance Survey map. The resulting routes, views and sequence of zones were tested on the site so that final plans could be drawn up showing the main paths, views and character areas to be restored.
In 1984, staff and volunteers began the detailed work, aiming to restore the Park and its follies ‘as nearly as possible to Charles Hamilton's original design and concept of a landscape garden with a variety of scenery, for the benefit of the public and with the aim of making the Park a self-supporting enterprise'.
Trees were thinned and cleared, and the main areas of open parkland and ornamental planting began to be opened up again. The network of paths began to re-emerge, while new tracks for maintenance vehicles were laid. The Gardener's Cottage in the walled garden was restored and converted to provide office space.
The masterplan divided the site into project areas around individual buildings and planting. Over the next 15 years, work progressed from the areas at the heart of Hamilton's design around the lake and out into the wider landscape.
The first building to be restored was the Gothic Temple, together with the area of planting known as the Amphitheatre. This was completed in the spring of 1985, and the following year the restoration of the Grotto began, a long and complex task that has still to be completed.
The lake was dredged in 1986, and its banks shored up with timber. In 1987, the cascade, pumps and Bramah waterwheel were restored, while the pump house was rebuilt.
The restoration of the Ruined Abbey was also started in 1987. Attention moved to the Chinese Peninsula in 1988, and the Chinese Bridge linking the peninsula to Grotto Island was rebuilt. The following year, the Gothic Tower reopened.
The Turkish Tent was the next feature to be recreated, and was opened by the Trust's patron, Prince Charles, in 1995.
In 1998, the Painshill team won the Europa Nostra medal for the ‘exemplary restoration, from a state of extreme neglect, of a most important 18th-century landscape park and its extraordinary buildings'.
New approaches to buildings restoration
Charles Hamilton did not possess a large fortune to fund his ambitious designs. Most of the garden buildings at Painshill were flimsily built, many made of wood rendered to look like stone. ‘The whole thing was a stage set, really,' comments Mike Gove , who took over as chief executive of the Trust in 2002.
In many cases, few of the original materials remained. ‘After the war there was a shortage of building materials, so as the site wasn't secure, people used to come in and take things away,' explains Mike.
Archaeologists had found the brick foundations of many features, such as bothies and pine pits in the walled garden, but all loose materials had been spirited away from the site.
At the outset, Janie Burford and her team aimed to restore Hamilton's buildings as closely as possible to the original. For example, they rebuilt the Gothic Temple using lath and plaster, as it had been in Hamilton's time, although there were some concessions to modernity in the form of a new steel roof with drainage system, which had not been there originally.
Despite these improvements, the Temple has needed major ongoing maintenance to keep it in pristine form, and as a result the original purist restoration philosophy has been tempered by a more pragmatic approach. Durability and cost-effectiveness have become more important.
‘When the restoration of the Gothic Temple was undertaken, the architect wanted to be so pure that he didn't even want to use treated timber. I wouldn't build it that way now,' comments Mike. ‘English Heritage accepts that modern materials can be used in appropriate situations.'
Besides the longevity of his buildings, another aspect that Charles Hamilton would never have had to take into account was the effect of the paying public on his landscape and its features. The Turkish Tent was originally restored with painted canvas drapes, as they had been in Hamilton's time, but after a season or two of being fingered by visitors the drapes looked terrible, and a decision was made to use fibreglass instead.
In 2008, there are still a number of Hamilton's original buildings still to be restored or recreated: the Temple of Bacchus, the five-arch bridge, the roof of the Mausoleum and the side walls on the Ruined Abbey.
The bridge and the Temple, originally constructed of lath and plaster on brick foundations, will be rebuilt in masonry, says Mike. He estimates the cost of rebuilding the Temple at around £600,000, but considers that this would be the most cost-effective solution in the long term.
‘Hamilton did it in a render to look like stone because he couldn't afford the stone,' explains Mike. ‘For maintenance and longevity I'd sooner restore it in more robust materials, which Hamilton would have done if he could have afforded it.'
Work on the landscape
Great care has been taken to restore the planting at Painshill as authentically as possible. Careful research in the early phases established those plants that Hamilton definitely grew, together with those that he is very likely to have had, and those that he may have had.
Estate manager Mark Ebdon began work at Painshill with the original MSC team in 1982, and now heads the landscape team. When work began, the landscape was almost entirely overgrown. A dense thicket of trees grown for commercial forestry covered much of the site. Most of the good timber had been stripped out, and what remained had never been thinned.
‘It was so thick you couldn't see through it,' recalls Mark. ‘It was a case of a few live trees holding up the dead ones! It was a shocking mess.'
Making decisions on what to clear was helped by the Great Storm of 1987, when some 1000 trees came down overnight. Although this included about a third of the 169 trees surviving from Hamilton's time, Mark believes that nature made the right choice for them.
‘In hindsight, I'd say the biggest mistake you make on jobs like these is not cutting down enough trees, so the hurricane did us a favour,' he says. ‘There was a bunch of trees at the northwest tip of the Chinese Peninsula which all went down into the lake. They were nice trees, but if they were still there now, they'd have unbalanced the design and been a nightmare to remove.'
The team aims to hold the landscape in a 40-year ‘window', as it would have looked between about 1740 and 1780. Setting the time frame for the planting was a relatively easy task. ‘After Hamilton, Painshill never stayed long in one person's ownership, so it didn't evolve as other gardens. The core of the park was quite identifiable and you could see - with research - what was needed,' explains Mark.
A rolling programme of planting, maintenance and renewal means that the team is now removing or cutting back some of the plants that they put in 20 years ago to retain the balance.
The planting schemes have also had to be adapted as knowledge of 18th-century planting has increased. In the early 1980s, conventional wisdom had it that 18th-century landscapes had been predominantly green, but research by the Trust's horticultural historian Mark Laird showed that flowers were much more widely used than had been thought.
‘When we started off, there wasn't a flower in the garden, but now they are a huge proportion of our planting. We've got shrubs and herbaceous perennials all going in on the Chinese Peninsula and the Elysian Plain,' says Mark.
All available evidence was used in drawing up Painshill's planting schemes, but much of the information, such as visitor descriptions, was vague, which has left a lot of room for interpretation. For example, although the Amphitheatre is known to be early 18th-century, it has proved difficult to identify whether it was a feature in Hamilton's design or pre-dated his work.
‘Landscapes followed fashion like everything else,' says Mark. ‘We've got evidence it was there once, but we're not sure if it was there at the end of Hamilton's time, because in the next bit of evidence we've got, it's disappeared.'
No details of the original planting remained, so Mark Laird drew up a plan based on a 1737 layout created by Lord Petre for the Duke of Norfolk at his Worksop estate in Nottinghamshire.
Getting the scale and balance of the planting right remains a continuing challenge. ‘The Park looks very different when the plants are only a foot high,' comments Mark. ‘When we did the Amphitheatre, it was all spot-planted, and there was nothing to see really but acres of bark mulch, so we got a lot of complaints about lack of progress.'
In reaction to this, the team tried over-planting to create more instant impact, but this led to almost immediate maintenance issues. Mark has learnt from experience that double-planting and then thinning the growth is not worthwhile in the long term, particularly in schemes which require even spacing: ‘The Amphitheatre back row was done on that principle, but the right plant never grows so you get uneven spacings!' he exclaims.
The vast expanses of grass in the Park are an on-going maintenance issue. Lawns are cut regularly while, until recently, a flock of Jacob Sheep kept growth in the wider park under control, as they did in Hamilton's time. Unfortunately, the sheep had to go when a foot-and-mouth outbreak hit Surrey in 2007. Mark is now letting the grass grow for a more informal, meadow-like look, which requires cutting just once a year.
Mark heads a landscape team of five, while Charles Hamilton's head gardener Peter Thoburn had seven under-gardeners working for him. Help from volunteers is essential, and the team also works with the resettlement unit at local women's prison, HMP Send, having provided training and paid work experience for 36 women so far.
Gaining public access
The single biggest issue the project has faced is arranging public access to the site. The original plan was to open the garden to the public about two or three years into the project, and The Trust began early on to offer guided tours of the landscape for a few hours each week in 1985.
Opening fully to the public, throughout the year, depended on establishing a public entrance, access road and car park.
‘The car park was key, because initially we could only open on 26 Sundays a year because of planning restrictions,' says Mike. The site, however, is bounded by the A3 to the north, the River Mole to the south and southeast, and privately owned land to the west, so that access could only be gained across fields to the east from the Portsmouth Road (A307).
A range of options had been examined in drawing up the master plan, and the best solution seemed to be a car park in the fields to the east of the site, with a pedestrian bridge over the river to give access to the Park.
Objections from local residents, however, meant that negotiations, planning applications and appeals dragged on for 14 years, absorbing both time and the project's precious resources.
At last, the Trust gained permission for a car park and bridge, although the entrance and car park were not in the position originally envisaged. The car park is now located 100 metres from the bridge, which increases the walking distance for visitors, while the entrance to the Park is in a less prominent position than the Trust would have liked, and on a road which involves visitors driving into the centre of Cobham.
A grant of £848,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund enabled work on the new access arrangements to go ahead, so that in 1997 Painshill became fully open to visitors. This was followed by another grant to build the education and visitor centres, which opened in 2001.
Originally 18th-century visitors would have joined the garden circuit by walking from Hamilton's house, which lies to the north of the Amphitheatre and Gothic Temple. Hamilton's successor, Benjamin Bond Hopkins, built the present house, which is in separate ownership on private land and stands at some distance from the main garden circuit.
These factors, together with the location of the car park and bridge, meant that the visitor centre was best positioned alongside the walled garden, which is not within the historic garden, and is where the circuit of the Park now begins and ends.
Balancing the books
Securing the future of the Park is the key challenge for the Trust, and Mike's task now is to carry forward the final stages of the restoration and ensure the sustainability of the Park for years to come.
Funding over the years has come from a combination of major and minor grants, plus donations from individual benefactors. Some £20 million has been raised from these sources, but keeping the Park's finances evenly balanced while funding further restoration remains an issue.
‘When I became involved, we took the decision that over the next couple of years we had to stabilise the finances of the park, ‘ says Mike. ‘We didn't feel that we were in a position to push forward with more restoration: we had enough on our hands looking after what we had on a limited budget.'
Visitor numbers have been building gradually, reaching 74,000 last year, and there was also a 44 per cent increase in membership. The Park is particularly popular among dog-walkers and local mums with young children.
‘The good thing about Painshill is that it's an evolving piece of art, and therefore there's always something new, whether it's in the landscape or the buildings, for people to come back again,' says Mike.
The optimum annual visitor number for the Park is 100,000, but more important is the spread as the landscape can only accommodate around 2000 people per day comfortably. Bank holidays are an important time for boosting ticket sales, but Painshill is particularly vulnerable to the weather, as it has no associated house as an alternative to the park, and visitors simply stay away if it rains.
Commercial income is very important, and requires careful handling to bring in enough revenue without having an adverse impact on the landscape. Originally, events such as weddings and corporate entertainments were held in the Park itself, but the sight of marquees during the summer months were destroying the historical ambience of the park. Now all events have been brought within the bounds of the walled garden, which makes them easier to service as well as conserving the landscape.
The Park relies heavily on volunteers, who last year contributed some 11,500 hours to the operation. Most of the volunteers are local, living within a five to 10-mile radius of Painshill, and competition for their time is fierce, given the Park's proximity to Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley Gardens and to the National Trust property Claremont .
Volunteers get involved in all parts of the operation, helping with ticket sales and in the office or shop, as well as working alongside the landscape team. Many give guided tours of the landscape, or outside talks, acting as ambassadors for the Park.
Visitor information and education has formed an important part of the project from the outset, and a schools education programme operates throughout the year. There are extra activities for children during the school holidays, such as craft workshops and mini-beast hunting, which help to generate income as well as attracting new visitors to the park.
Having worked to achieve a balanced trading account over the past few years, Mike is now confident that the Trust is in a position to move forward once again with fundraising for more restoration.
A high priority is the Temple of Bacchus, followed by the five-arched bridge, although it is much harder to get funding for these features, as they will be reconstructions of what was once there rather than restorations of features where a certain amount of the original building or its materials still exist.
‘The completed picture of Painshill must include these missing follies, but while we have the foundations, we don't have the superstructure, which means that any work we do is looked upon as a re-build rather than a restoration,' explains Mike.
The biggest single project still to be completed from the restoration's first phase - and of the highest priority - is the Grotto, combined with which will be the associated landscape of Grotto Island. Work on the Grotto is progressing slowly as funding allows.
‘It is very expensive and takes a huge amount of time: you have to stick all these little crystals on, one by one, and there are millions of them! If only you could buy it on the roll at B&Q or spray it on like pebbledash,' laughs estates manager Mark Ebdon.
He thinks that the 18th-century grotto builders must have had techniques that have now been lost: ‘I think they had the secret of lightweight, rapid grotto buildings, like a stage set. Lane was probably supplying his grotto by the yard,' he muses.
A continuing issue for Mike is preventing the landscape's three ‘borrowed views' from being disfigured by phone masts. So far, he has been successful, but says that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get planners to understand the need to protect such historic views.
‘One has to be pragmatic - a couple of masts have gone up, but they were screened by trees and couldn't be seen from the park, so there's no point in fighting every battle - better to win the war!' he comments.
Also on Mike's wish list is the removal of another anachronism, the electricity pylons which march across the western end of the Painshill landscape. These could be re-routed underground but - as ever - the main issue is money.
The return of Bacchus
A major excitement for the Painshill team was the rediscovery of the giant figure of Bacchus that once stood in the Temple of Bacchus, which overlooks the lake.
Bought by Hamilton's great-nephew William Beckford at a sale of Painshill's effects in 1797, the statue went first to Beckford's estate at Fonthill in Wiltshire, but after that it whereabouts for the next 200 years were unknown.
Painshill researchers traced the statue from Fonthill to Hafod near Aberystwyth and then to Ashridge in Hertfordshire before finally tracking it down at Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge, where it is in the care of the National Trust .
A replica of the statue now stands at the end of the bridge over the Mole, welcoming visitors. He will remain there until such time as the Temple of Bacchus is re-built and the statue can return to the home it left more than 300 years ago. We hope he will not have to wait too long.
Batey, Mavis. Personal interview, 24 January 2008
Burford, Janie. Personal interview, 10 April 2008
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Ebdon, Mark. Personal interview, 27 May 2008
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Gove, Michael. Personal interview, 27 May 2008
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