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Downton Walks
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.

A 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 surprise.

On 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.

Nowadays 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.

Downton Forge BridgeMy 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 beneath.
From 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. Downton Castle
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.Downton Gorge
Downton Giant's CaveWell - 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.Downton Giant's Cave
Given 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.

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