Autumn colour at Painshill Park, Cobham

PUBLISHED: 09:30 10 November 2014 | UPDATED: 09:14 25 August 2015

Take a stroll through the staged Painshill landscape

Take a stroll through the staged Painshill landscape

Leigh Clapp

Take a stroll through the changing foliage of Painshill Park near Cobham to enjoy this historic landscape at its most atmospheric

Swans by the Ruined AbbeySwans by the Ruined Abbey

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2014


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Need to know:

Painshill Park, Cobham KT11 1JE

Tel: 01932 868113.


Opening hours: Open March to October, 10.30am to 6pm or dusk, and from November to February, 10.30am to 4pm or dusk (NB: Always check the website first as opening times can vary according to availability of volunteer stewards)

Admission: Adults £7.70 each, children £4.20 each

Volunteering: Painshill has opportunities for people who have retired, are looking for a career change or have an interest in historic landscapes. There are also opportunities for work experience and Duke of Edinburgh students.

• Find out more at




One of the finest examples of an 18th century landscape garden designed in the naturalistic style, Painshill Park is a wonderful place to visit at any time of year. That said, there is something particularly special about a stroll through the grounds during the crisp days of autumn when the sun is low and the many mature trees are lit up with seasonal colour.


A potted history

The spectacular views that we find here today were the artistic vision of former owner, the Hon. Charles Hamilton, who began purchasing land near Cobham in 1737, eventually going on to acquire some 250 acres. 
A keen plantsman, painter and imaginative designer, he would spend the next 35 years transforming the barren heathland into an ornamental landscape of contours with composed views, a 14-acre serpentine lake and carefully planned trees and shrubberies. For an added flourish, he added an element of surprise from an array of architectural follies, including a ruined abbey, a crystal grotto and Gothic temple.

Inspiration came from Renaissance and contemporary art along with visits to Italy on two Grand Tours. The resulting garden is a series of romantic scenes designed to delight the senses through a journey of discovery. Considered a ‘living work of art’, the landscape was one of the first to reflect the change in the fashion for formal geometric designs to the naturalistic, picturesque style.

Respected for his knowledge of plants, Hamilton also obtained some rare, exotic species for Painshill, including Lebanon cedars, trees and shrubs from Philadelphia through the naturalist John Bartram, as well as supplying seeds to various nurseries himself.

Always short of money, however, and despite trying various businesses, including a vineyard and brick works at Painshill, Hamilton was forced to sell the property in 1773 to repay the loans he had taken out. The estate then passed through a series of owners, at first remaining fairly well preserved and then over time becoming overgrown and totally deteriorated. In 1948, the estate was sold off in lots, with the main part put to forestry, and in the subsequent years the landscape became a jungle and the buildings fell prey to decay and vandalism.

It was only thanks to the research of local historian David Taylor that the importance of Painshill was finally identified, and in 1975 a group of Cobham residents formed the Friends of Painshill. Together with the Garden History Society and the Georgian Group, they brought pressure on the council to buy the site to restore the 18th century landscape and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1981, the Painshill Park Trust was formed and, with the help of grants, the work began and has continued to gradually bring the gardens as authentically as possible to the state seen today.


The next chapter

The latest visionary to take on the programme at Painshill is new head gardener, Andy Mills, who has come from the Stourhead landscape garden in Wiltshire. “Whereas Stourhead is an 18th century garden with overlays of the 19th and 20th centuries, Painshill is such a fantastic, pure 18th century landscape,” says Andy. “My heart lies with the heritage and conservation aspect – thinking of myself as a short-term custodian in the garden’s life.”

All the planting is based on what was available before 1780, keeping it true to what was there in Hamilton’s time. Around 90 original trees remain, including American oaks and taxodiums, and using meticulous research a multitude of species plants has been and continues to be added. Many seeds are still sourced from Bartram’s nursery today, which has continued in the same family for generations.

No garden stands still, however, and just recently they have been busy giving the Amphitheatre Lawn a more defined feel by reducing some of the lawn and allowing plants room to spread. Other plans include using more underplanting to recreate the picturesque woodland scene as Hamilton would have done using a mix of American and native plants.

“Trees need to be inspected regularly and remedial work done,” continues Andy. “There is also a lot of work to be done in the walled garden in the productive area and with herbaceous planting. This year, we have a tunnel of gourds, the runner beans are looking good and we have colour from North American perennials and annuals, including nicotiana, calendula, sunflowers and salvias.”

Autumn day out

So, if you do one thing this autumn, be sure to pencil in a date for a visit to Painshill – not only one of Surrey’s most famous historic gardens but with a Grade I Heritage listing and a Europa Nostra Medal to its name, possibly one of the finest in Europe.




Get the look 
(on a smaller scale…)

• Although this it’s all about the big picture and long views in this large-scale garden, it’s still possible to adapt some of the ideas at home

• For example, just as Hamilton did, start by considering your garden as a series of ‘living pictures’

• Create a focal point in your vista, using a sculpture, a water feature or even a summerhouse, then create a journey to get there

• Value the beauty of deciduous trees in the garden, taking care that the mature size is appropriate to the space

• Make a feature of a tree by planting in the lawn with other groundcover plants encircling it

• Incorporate a wildlife pond with sloping bank for easy access and some foliage trees for beautiful reflections


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