I have visited Claremont Landscape Garden many times over the years but on most occasions I have simply taken a quiet stroll around the lake and then stopped in the café for a cuppa before heading home. This time, I was determined to cover all corners of the place and I bought a guidebook so I could find out more about the whos, wheres, whats and whens of the place. Unfortunately, the easy-read guidebook is not all that detailed and I actually learnt quite a bit more from the much drier and wordier 1989 version that my father had in his collection. There’s a happy medium somewhere between the two versions – maybe I should write it!
I would also say that I picked this particular weekend for a reason as the Belvedere Tower, located in the adjacent grounds of the Claremont Fan Court School (itself based in the Claremont estate house) is only open on the first weekend of each month between spring and autumn. It was good to go up the tower for the first time and see the views, although I would say that they’re not really a patch on those that can be taken in from Leith Hill Tower. And I know for a fact that the grandstand at nearby Sandown Park Racecourse offers a clearer view of many of the sights in a northerly direction as it has less tree interference.
Although the Tower is certainly a picturesque sight at the top of a grassy avenue, Claremont’s real jewels in the crown are its lake and the beautiful backdrop of the grass amphitheatre. Looking at these today, it seems amazing to think that they were once buried in a thick wood of rampant laurels and rhododendrons. My father remembers visiting ‘Claremont Woods’ in the 1960s and struggling through the shrubs to the silted up lake. When the Trust started work on the gardens in the 1970s, the amphitheatre was virtually overlooked as it was believed that nothing remained. However, as ground was cleared, the outline started to appear and it was restored to its former glory. The old guidebook says that there is only one other surviving example of this kind of amphitheatre in Europe (located on a private estate in Hampshire) so it is certainly worth seeing.
So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. The landscape gardens as they exist today make up just a fraction of what was once a far more sizeable estate but they are certainly the most interesting part of Claremont’s grounds and owe their many attributes to several different contributors over the years.
The first of these was Thomas Pelham-Holles, later 1st Duke of Newcastle and twice prime minister during the 18th century, who bought the house and estate from its architect John Vanbrugh in 1714 and successively appointed Charles Bridgeman and William Kent to work on the pleasure gardens. The former was responsible for the Bowling Green, the Belvedere, a round pond complete with impressive obelisk and the amphitheatre. The latter then expanded the pond into a larger lake and added the island, a ha-ha and various temples. He also removed the obelisk but features from it can still be found in the grounds today, including the original stone boar and reproductions of bear and peacock ornamentations. The peacock is less easy to find than the boar or the bear but keep your eyes peeled and you might find him lurking in the dark undergrowth. He’s only fibreglass though so maybe that’s why he’s hiding while his more illustrious stone friends are showing themselves off!
The peacock motif forms part of the Pelham coat of arms, so this is probably why a peacock was featured on the obelisk, which was constructed in the Duke of Newcastle years. There’s some confusion though as my more recent guidebook says it is from the Clive arms. However, I’ve looked up both sets of arms on the helpful old Internet and the Clives seemed more enamoured with wolves than peacocks (which from the little I know of the Indian Clive is probably fairly appropriate!)
Robert, Lord Clive (of India), acquired Claremont from the Duke of Newcastle and employed Capability Brown to work on the gardens and rebuild the house. There wasn’t really much for our ‘capable’ landscaper to do in the pleasure gardens, however, so he had less impact than his predecessors. His main contribution seemed to be moving the Portsmouth Road and constructing the Mound on the opposite side of the lake to the amphitheatre. The former cascade was also converted into a grotto during Clive’s tenure.
Claremont had several other owners between 1786 and 1816 but it was then given by Parliament as a wedding present to Princess Charlotte and her new husband Leopold, marking the beginning of Claremont’s royal years. The ill-fated Princess Charlotte was only there for a year, however, before dying in childbirth. The Camellia Terrace was the young couple’s major contribution to Claremont, originally home to a Camellia House but now just a terrace surrounded by ornate railings sporting Leopold’s reversed Ls insignia. When Charlotte died, a tea house was being built above the amphitheatre and Leopold turned this into a Mausoleum and shrine to his wife. Sadly, this was torn down in the 1920s when the estate was earmarked for a housing development (which fortunately never materialised). Standing there looking at the foundations and the meagre stone block that is all that marks the spot, I couldn’t help but think what an uproar there would be if someone ever threatened to tear down the Albert Memorial in London or dig up the Diana fountain. It’s a shame that Charlotte’s shrine was less well-protected, but then I suppose they were different times with perhaps different attitudes to preservation.
Another particularly noteworthy fan of Claremont was Queen Victoria who spent many happy times here as a child, while visiting her Uncle Leopold, and the estate remained in royal hands with her son and later his widow. When she died, the estate was sold for a development that never happened and its bare bones remained broadly intact until the house was sold to the school in 1930, with the gardens later given to the National Trust in 1949. Run by Esher Urban District Council for the next two decades (not entirely successfully if the state of the place in my Dad’s 1960s foray is anything to go by!), a donation in the late 1960s allowed the NT to return the place to its glory days and restoration began in 1975.
What is perhaps most interesting about the restoration project is that no one timeframe was settled on and the existing garden shows off the various fruits of the Bridgeman, Kent and Brown years, as well as a few gems of the Charlotte-Leopold years. It is also a thriving bird sanctuary! At this time of year, there are ducks and their chicks, coots and their chicks, moorhens and their chicks, Canada geese and their chicks, Brent geese and their chicks… needless to say, there are an awful lot of chicks about and in some cases you have to be careful not to step on them as Mother Goose (or Duck, etc) brings her chicks over to the visitors in the hopes of some discarded picnic!
I would recommend a visit to Claremont in the next couple of weeks, as the rhododendrons are going to look spectacular (much as the many yellow azaleas did today, some with a pretty carpet of bluebells beneath) so the neglect of Claremont and subsequent invasion of the rhodies wasn’t a completely bad thing. One thing that is bad, though, and which is increasingly common at NT properties is the lack of facilities inside the grounds. I know the Trust don’t want to spoil the site with modern cafés and toilet blocks but it means organising your visit carefully so you don’t get caught short a long way from the car park, while trying to grab a cuppa halfway through your visit rather than at the beginning or end is awkward as you have to go back past the ticket office and explain yourself if you want to re-enter. And one last gripe, the cup police wouldn’t let me have two teacups with one pot of tea so I could share with my Mum. What’s that all about?!
Highlights: Amphitheatre, lake and views
Refreshments: Tea and carrot cake (but remember, just one teacup per pot!
Companion(s): Mum and Dad