Larmer Tree Gardens

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Larmer Tree Gardens

The Larmer Tree Gardens near Tollard Royal in south Wiltshire, England, were created by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers in 1880 as pleasure grounds for "public enlightenment and entertainment". They were the first private gardens opened for public enjoyment in the United Kingdom, and were free to enter.[1][2][3] The gardens are situated on the Rushmore Estate in Cranborne Chase, an ancient royal hunting ground and now an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.[4][5] The gardens themselves are listed as Grade II* on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England by English Heritage.[1]


In 1880, Augustus Lane Fox inherited the Rushmore Estate, with a condition of the will stipulating that he should change his name to Pitt Rivers. He started making the Larmer Tree Pleasure Grounds almost immediately. The gardens are named after the Larmer Tree, a landmark tree on the ancient boundary between Wiltshire and Dorset. The tree was possibly an ancient Wych elm (Ulmus glabra) under which King John (1167–1216) and his entourage were reputed to have met when they were out hunting.[3] The original tree was still living as late as 1894, around which time it was replaced by an oak, which was planted in the centre of the decayed rim.[6] As part of the estate, Pitt Rivers had also inherited King John's House in Tollard Royal, one of King John's several hunting lodges in Cranborne Chase.[7][8]

King John deer hunting, from a manuscript in the British Library.

Pitt Rivers built several structures around the main lawn which were intended to educate and enlighten the garden visitors, including the Nepalese or Indian Room which was acquired after the closure of the British Empire Exhibition in 1898.[dubious ] There was also a racecourse, an eighteen link golf course, a bowling green and lawn tennis courts. There were eight picnic areas, each enclosed by cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) hedges and with thatched buildings in case of inclement weather. Pitt Rivers provided "crockery, knives and forks for picnickers, gratis", as well as "chairs, tables and dumb waiters" and accommodation for 20 horses.[3][9]

Music and entertainment was also provided at the Singing Theatre, where plays were performed by workers from the estate, and poetry recitals given. A band was provided on Sunday afternoons during summer. Thousands of Vauxhall lights, hanging glass lamps lit by candles, illuminated the gardens in the evening, when there was open-air dancing. The night that Thomas Hardy danced with Pitt River's daughter Agnes in 1895 he described the gardens as "Quite the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life".[3]

By 1899 the gardens were attracting over 44,000 people a year, both estate workers and the general public. With Pitt Rivers' death in 1900 the gardens closed, opening only occasionally after that time.

Ornamental pond

Restoration of the gardens started in 1991 under the direction of Michael Pitt-Rivers.[10][11] In the 90-odd years that the gardens had been closed, the cherry laurel had taken over almost all the gardens apart from the main lawn. Many of the buildings had decayed. The gardens were re-opened to the public in 1995. In 1999 a new Larmer Tree was planted to mark the new millennium.[1][3][12][13]

Thomas Hardy and the Larmer Tree Gardens[edit]

In early September 1895 Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma were staying with the Pitt Rivers at Rushmore. An annual sports day was held at the Larmer Tree Gardens on 4 September 1895, followed by a night-time dance. Hardy led off the country dancing with Agnes Grove, Pitt Rivers' youngest daughter and the wife of Walter (later Sir Walter) Grove. Agnes later became a literary pupil of Hardy's, and after her death in 1926 Hardy wrote the poem Concerning Agnes, reflecting on the night they first met.[9][14] The first two stanzas read:

I am stopped from hoping what I have hoped before —
Yes many a time! —
To dance with that fair woman yet once more
As in the prime
Of August, when the wide-faced moon looked through
The boughs at the faery lamps of the Larmer Avenue
I could not, though I should wish, have over again
That old romance,
And sit apart in the shade as we sat then
After the dance
The while I held her hand, and, to the booms
Of contrabassos, feet still pulsed from the distant rooms.[15]

The gardens today[edit]

Nicolas Poussin's The Funeral of Phocion, a copy of which forms the backdrop to the open-air theatre at the Larmer Tree Gardens.

The gardens cover 11 acres (45,000 m2). Many of the Victorian buildings, including the Nepalese Room, a Roman Temple and the Colonial style pavilion which was originally the Tea Room, still remain. The open-air theatre has a backdrop painted by the scenery department at the Welsh National Opera is based on The Funeral of Phocion, a 1648 painting by Nicolas Poussin which is in the National Museum Cardiff. Wide cherry laurel-hedged rides radiate out from the main lawn, leading to woodland beyond. There are displays of camellias, rhododendrons, hydrangeas and eucryphias among the other trees and shrubs. Peacocks and free-flying macaws, neither indigenous to the United Kingdom, roam the gardens.[13]

The woods contain one of the largest discrete areas of semi-natural broad-leaved woodland in southern England, which were managed and exploited for the hazel underwood trades for many centuries, involving coppicing to produce strong, straight hazel wands. A major restoration programme has taken place in the woods over the last ten years, and they are now recognised as a wildlife site of national importance.[16]

The gardens are privately owned and are open on a fee-paying basis from Easter to the end of September each year. True to the spirit of Pitt Rivers, picknickers are encouraged at the gardens, croquet equipment and deckchairs are provided for no charge, and free music is played on Sunday afternoons.[3] The gardens are grant-aided by English Heritage.[17]

Film director Ken Russell first visited the gardens as a child and used the gardens in a number of his projects over the years, including The Debussy Film (1965) and The Music Lovers (1970).[18][19]

Festivals, events and concerts[edit]

Larmer Tree Festival in 2009

A music and arts festival, the Larmer Tree Festival, has been held at the Larmer Tree Gardens every year from 1991 to the present. The dates for the 2009 Festival are set for 15–19 July.[20] In 2011 the End of the Road Festival was held at the Larmer Tree Gardens for the sixth time.[21] The Enchanted Garden, a music festival that was part of The Big Chill, was held at the Larmer Tree Gardens for five years, from 1998–2002.

Other events and concerts take place at the gardens throughout the summer. In 1999 Dining with Alice, based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and produced by Artichoke, the company that went on to produce The Sultan's Elephant and La Princesse, was performed at the gardens as part of the Salisbury International Arts Festival.[citation needed]

The 2009 Cranborne Chase Woodfair, organised by officers of the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is scheduled to take place at the Larmer Tree Gardens on 10–11 October 2009.[16]


  1. ^ a b c "The Larmer Tree Gardens". Larmer Tree Gardens. Archived from the original on 9 March 2008. Retrieved 12 September 2008. 
  2. ^ "A remarkable history". Larmer Tree Gardens. Archived from the original on 27 March 2008. Retrieved 17 September 2008. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Keen, Mary (24 May 2003). "A stately pleasure garden". London: Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 12 September 2008. 
  4. ^ "Dorset Downs and Cranborne Chase". Natural England. Retrieved 17 September 2008. 
  5. ^ "Welcome to Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty". Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Retrieved 17 September 2008. 
  6. ^ "Lieutenant-General A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers". Past, newsletter of the Prehistoric Society. Retrieved 13 September 2008. 
  7. ^ "The work of Pitt Rivers". Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Archived from the original on 18 December 2007. Retrieved 16 September 2008. 
  8. ^ "Cranbourn Chase: King John's Hunting-seat". Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, Their Legendary Lore and Popular History, by John Timbs. Retrieved 16 September 2008. 
  9. ^ a b Desmond Hawkins The Grove Diaries: The Rise and Fall of an English Family, 1809–1925 1995 University of Delaware Press, 310-11
  10. ^ [1] Larmer Tree Gardens on the Garden Visit website
  11. ^ [2] Larmer Tree Gardens on 'Past'- the Newsletter of The Prehistoric Society (April 2000)
  12. ^ "A remarkable History". Larmer Tree Gardens. Archived from the original on 27 March 2008. Retrieved 12 September 2008. 
  13. ^ a b "Larmer Tree – Wiltshire's secret garden". BBC. Retrieved 12 September 2008. 
  14. ^ Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited 2006 OUP, 336-7
  15. ^ Thomas Hardy, The Works of Thomas Hardy 1994 Wordsworth editions, 838
  16. ^ a b "About the Larmer Tree Gardens". Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Archived from the original on 19 August 2008. Retrieved 16 September 2008. 
  17. ^ "Opening Arrangements at Grant Aided Properties Details of Opening Arrangements". English Heritage. Retrieved 13 September 2008. 
  18. ^ "Festival line-up revealed". This is Wiltshire. Retrieved 11 October 2008. [permanent dead link]
  19. ^ "Ken Russell – Southern visions". BBC. Retrieved 18 October 2008. 
  20. ^ "It's all over.." Larmer Tree Festival. Archived from the original on 16 April 2008. Retrieved 12 September 2008. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Pitt Rivers, Lieutenant-General, 1890, King John's House, Tollard Royal, Wilts. Printed Privately.
  • Pitt Rivers, Lieutenant-General, 1900, A Short Guide to the Larmer Grounds, Rushmore; King John's House, and The Museum at Farnham, Dorset
  • Bowden, Mark, 2000, "Lieutenant-General A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers" in Past, Newsletter of the Prehistoric Society, 34 (online at [3])

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°57′6.82″N 2°4′59.86″W / 50.9518944°N 2.0832944°W / 50.9518944; -2.0832944