Painshill Park in Cobham is a hidden Surrey gem that could be threatened by traffic – Rural Ramblings

PUBLISHED: 11:22 24 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:22 24 May 2017

The Ruined Abbey at Painshill Park in Cobham

The Ruined Abbey at Painshill Park in Cobham


Andy Smith, Surrey branch director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, takes us to one of Surrey’s most precious, yet undervalued, heritage assets – Painshill in Cobham – and explains why its peace and tranquillity could now be at risk

The hidden Crystal Grotto at PainshillThe hidden Crystal Grotto at Painshill

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2017


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The county of Surrey is rich in history and beauty, both man-made and natural. One place which exemplifies both is the stunning landscaped garden at Painshill, near Cobham. The garden was created between 1738 and 1773 by the Hon. Charles Hamilton (1704-1786), who was described by his friend, the diarist Horace Walpole, as a “patriarch of modern gardening”.

Inspired by Renaissance art and his “Grand Tours” across Europe in the 1720s and ’30s, Hamilton created a sequence of surprising vistas at his Surrey estate, making “a fine place out of a cursed hill”, with the landscapes forming living works of art, into which Hamilton placed a series of “follies” for dramatic effect – a Gothic temple, a ruined abbey, and a Roman mausoleum – giving the impression of an ancient and sacred landscape.

Despite his immense achievements at Painshill, Hamilton’s fortunes took a turn for the worst. Making his vision a reality turned out to be more expensive than he thought, and he was forced to sell the estate. Subsequent owners tried their best to keep Hamilton’s vision alive, and over time more follies were added. But in the 20th century, Painshill went into sharp decline. It was only in the 1980s that a determined effort was made to restore Painshill to its former glory.

Now, thanks to the Painshill Trust, the 158-acre wonderland is once again a marvel to behold, and walking through the gardens today, one is easily transported back to Charles Hamilton’s time. When it was set up in 1981, the trust set out to “restore Painshill as nearly as possible to Charles Hamilton’s original concept of a landscaped garden for the benefit of the public” and today, seemingly against the odds, it has undoubtedly achieved its ambitious goal.

In 1998, Painshill was awarded 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”. Eight years later, Painshill was awarded full collection status for its John Bartram Heritage Collection of North American trees and shrubs, by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens. Painshill is also Grade I Listed in the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. Most recently, the restoration of Painshill’s distinctive Crystal Grotto was completed, with support from a variety of charitable trusts including Surrey Historic Buildings Trust, attracting numerous awards. There is currently a fundraising appeal to recreate the Temple of Bacchus with its ornate interior and a series of sculptures, which once stood in the folly.

However, Painshill is not immune to the impact of changes going on around it. A scheme to alleviate traffic congestion problems at the nearby interchange between the M25 and A3 could have unforeseen consequences for the garden. The Surrey branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England has written to Highways England, which is responsible for the scheme, pointing out the potential damage to the environment. We have highlighted the fact that Painshill is one of Surrey’s most valuable heritage assets and that any proposed “improvement scheme” should consider the effects on the landscape garden. We are calling on Highways England to undertake a full Environmental Impact Assessment at the earliest opportunity, and to immediately enter into discussions with the Painshill Trust to agree the measures needed to minimise the impact of the scheme. We have also expressed concerns about proposals in the draft Elmbridge Local Plan for hundreds of new houses in the vicinity of Cobham, which could bring a significant increase in traffic congestion, noise and pollution affecting the gardens.

Let us hope the powers-that-be give due consideration to the threats Painshill faces - it would be a tragedy if all the efforts made by dedicated volunteers over the last few decades were undermined by poor decisions made by politicians and officials in 2017!

• Painshill, Portsmouth Road, Cobham, Surrey KT11 1GE.


Rural Ramblings is a monthly Surrey Life column with CPRE Surrey branch director Andy Smith. Visit for more information about the organisation’s work and latest countryside campaigns.


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Further reading

Good news for our Green Belt from CPRE Surrey – Rural Ramblings

Surrey Heritage Awards celebrate the best conservation and restoration projects

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