Edmund Burke had set a philosophical hare running with his 1757 essay An Inquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Artists - including garden designers
- spent much effort debating these concepts. Later in the century a new
category emerged, supposedly partway between the controlled terror of
the Sublime and the gentle perfection of the Beautiful: the Picturesque, describing something worthy of being put into a picture, or like one.
Herefordshire gentleman and heir to an iron fortune, Richard Payne
Knight, made his contribution to this debate in 1805 with his book An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste.
It was these ideas that were expressed in Downton. However, his earlier
claim to - well, if not fame, then notoriety - was the publication in 1786 of An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus,
a scholarly survey of the reverence of the phallus in antiquity,
printed complete with a frontispiece of a charming range of
archaeological willies. That he never married somehow comes as no
inheriting Downton in 1772 Mr Knight set about rebuilding the house as
a Gothic castle. It stood high above the waters of the Teme which, for
the most part, cut a dramatic gorge through the Herefordshire hills - just the same sort of environment we encounter in
other Gothic Gardens. Walks, climbing to and fro along the riverside,
dramatic bridges, and a cold bath made their appearance, watched over
by the castle itself from its more decorous parkland surroundings. The
keynote was the possibilities of the natural environment,
rather than nutty follies, but the form of the landscape skewed the
exercise more towards the Sublime than the Beautiful, as
such: 'Where sympathy with terror is combined/to move, to melt, and
elevate the mind' - as Knight himself wrote in his 1784 poem, The Landscape.
the Castle is owned privately (by someone who reputedly only visits
once a year) and most of Downton Walks is a nature reserve with no
public access, so we can only gain glimpses of this Gothic Garden.
|My introduction to the Downton landscape was walking down a footpath under threat of disappearing between seven-foot-high stalks of corn, which would have been deeply unsettling if I'd seen too many horror movies.
At the bottom you join the Herefordshire long-distance path, and enter
the Downton estate just before Forge Bridge, one of Mr Knight's
beautiful crossings of the Teme. The waters seethe and boil
beside the bridge, a gap in the trees affords a far-off sighting of the
turrets of the Castle, rising above the leaves in a fairytale fashion.
When you reach it, however, it seems disappointingly squat and twee - a
bit like something from a model village. |
|Once over Castle Bridge, the footpath, and its public access, climbs up the other side of the valley and leaves Downton
Walks behind. Somewhere beyond the Natural England sign lie wiers, a
cave, rocky cliffs, the towering Rock spoken of by 18th-century
visitors, and a variety of exciting views. All you can do is gaze along
the river and imagine the dramatic landscape that so delighted Georgian
seekers after the Sublime.|
- nearly all. I was terribly naughty and scuttled as far as I dared
along the gorgeside path, a hundred yards or so, to the first of the
'features' of the Walks, a Giant's Cave - exactly the sort of rock-hewn
archway or tunnel we find at Piercefield, which was constructed a few years before. I don't think I disturbed any terribly rare fauna along the way.|
its proud place in embryonic Gothic tourism, it's a great shame that
Downton remains so inaccessible. The old 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map
shows a bridleway extending along the south of the valley as far as Bow
Bridge, so this closure is presumably relatively recent. It was never
the most extreme of these maddened landscapes - just a sketch for the
Sublime, really - but it would be fun to sample nevertheless. Perhaps the dream is better. |