Wotton was the first on my list of Evelyn-related places to visit this year, and last weekend I spent my birthday there. The house is now a hotel and conference centre owned by the Principal Hayley group.
In Evelyn’s time the house was timber-framed, with a main block flanked by two wings projecting to the north enclosing a u-shaped court. The garden lay to the south, and this is where John Evelyn first experimented with Italian-style design from the 1640’s onwards. There he created a parterre with a central fountain and viewing terraces to either side.
To the rear the natural hillside was terraced and fronted by a classical portico and grotto. The grotto was adorned with statues, of which only the Venus now remains.
The walls of the niches were encrusted with corals and shells that glittered behind gushing fountain-jets. All of this was achieved thanks to a system of ingenious conduits that diverted the flow of the natural streams that run through the grounds.
The mound was planted with beech trees which have since vanished, along with apparently all other vestiges of the seventeenth century planting.
There is some uncertainty about the date of the statues of the four seasons that flank the central access stairway. They would certainly fit in with Evelyn’s theme here, derived from Epicurean philosophy, of the powers of nature (represented principally by Venus). At any rate, all four seasons apart from Winter are now headless, which is rather sad.
I have to say that the evidence of these and other broken statues, fountains and benches and the detritus of wedding revels leave one feeling that this rare survival of seventeenth century garden design is not being properly cherished by the current owners.
Careful archaeological investigation might be able to recover the plan of the parterre. That area as well as the former orchard and kitchen garden to the east of the house are now just grassed over. If the neglected water features were repaired, and the garden replanted in period style, the result would be truly stunning. It would also, of course, attract many visitors.
The house itself has been much altered since the seventeenth century. Refaced in brick and extended in Victorian Gothic style, when it passed out of the family’s hands all its original furnishings and fittings went too.There remain a few beautiful Jacobean and Elizabethan doors, and interesting nooks and crannies. However, all the old heart of the house is reserved for corporate training and conference events, as well as wedding parties. Hotel guests stay in a modern accommodation wing, where the rooms are, frankly, bland and overpriced. It was next to impossible even to get to see any of the older rooms, as they were nearly all declared to be either in use or off-limits. Here, nevertheless, is a glimpse of the room where John Evelyn may have been born – or could it be the one next to it?!
The best part of my brief time at Wotton was the midsummer dawn chorus, the like of which I’ve honestly never heard before in my life. Thanks no doubt to the lush woods behind the mound and the many trees and streams in the garden, the variety, volume and sheer virtuosity of the birdsong was breath-taking. Looking out then from the first floor window onto the mound in the half-light, it seemed like one of those numinous fairy-hills in which legends tell that Arthur sleeps – except in this case, it must surely be the local equivalent of Venus…
All photos by the author except for the Evelyn sketch scanned by Jacqueline Banerjee, from http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/homes/33c.html For more information on the garden, see Small A. & Small C., John Evelyn and the Garden of Epicurus, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 60 (1997) pp. 194-214. For the basic historical facts on the house, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wotton_House,_Surrey and for details of the architectural features, see here http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1189814.