A visit to Hawkstone Park Follies is like no other garden visit because it is a landscape of extremes. I don't think I've been anywhere else where:
- It's advisable to take a torch (though you can buy or hire one when you're there)
- It can be closed at short notice owing to unfavourable weather conditions
- You watch a health and safety video before entering the garden
- There's an emergency telephone about half way around the visit
- There's notices like the one pictured above at various strategic points (this one is above the very aptly named Awful Precipice)
- An extremely fit NAH has been almost defeated by the walk round (there's lots of steps, very steep climbs and uneven or extremely worn surfaces)
However, if that little lot doesn't put you off then you are treated to a Grade I listed landscape dating back to the late 18th Century. It's a fine example of a Picturesque English Garden where trees, more naturalistic features and romantic ruins formed the backbone. This was a move away from it's earlier cousin, The English Landscape Garden (also explained in the above link) which was influenced by the classical features seen on The Grand Tour (embodied in gardens like Stourhead, which is much more familiar to me).
The statue at the top of this column is of Sir Rowland Hill, the first prominent member of the Hill family who bought this estate. He was the first protestant mayor of London during the 16th century. His great great great great grandson Sir Richard Hill had this column plus most of the other follies built after he took over the estate in 1783. It was an extremely windy day when we were there, so we clung to the railings at the top after climbing the 147 steps, rather than admiring the views over 12 counties.
Much of the surrounding land is extremely flat, but the garden was built on a sandstone ridge rising above the Cheshire Plain. This ridge is also scored by deep gorges giving a variety of views and rickety bridges to clamber over to get to the follies espied from afar.
The Romans also mined the sandstone which was then ripe for development into a grotto (hence the need for a torch) and it was quite easy to get lost whilst in here. There was also reference to this being a possible site for part of the Arthurian legend, but I'm unclear whether this was gleaned from ancient reference documents or just simple rumours used to make the garden more attractive to visitors during the 18th century or later.
Where natural features couldn't be exploited, then romantic ruins like this Gothic arch were built to enhance the landscape.
The garden was extremely popular at first, so much so the family built an inn nearby. However, their fortunes waned during the 19th century so the estate fell into disrepair and was split up during the 20th. A Catholic organisation bought Hawkstone Hall to use as a retreat (this link shows what an extremely grand building it still is) and the inn plus parkland were developed into a country hotel and golf club. The follies were neglected even further, until the hotel owners started a programme of repairs and revival during the 1990s. It means that unlike most of our great landscape gardens, the follies aren't set within the context of their great house and parkland. However, I believe they of such good merit they're good enough to be visited in isolation.
The way back is via a lower level full of more steps plus caves and passageways (more torchlight needed), where a well deserved cuppa and squishy cake await you after your 2.5-3 hours of breathless exertion.
The BBC have collected even more images together to give you a fuller flavour of what's there and surprisingly seem to have the only detailed description of the history of the site available on the web. My only gripes were that the interpretation panels are where the health and safety video is shown, which made it difficult to concentrate on the fascinating history of the place. There wasn't a guide book to buy either :(
However, it's well worth a visit if you're in the Shropshire, Cheshire or North Wales area.