Walk 149: Painshill Park circular walk

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 2.82 miles (4.53km)

Time to walk: There’s no time limit on this one as you could easily spend a full day here. Dogs are allowed on short leads

Difficulty: A mixture of hard paths & grassy tracks. It is hilly in places

Parking: Car park attached to Painshill

Public toilets: The Visitor Centre

Map of the route:

We were staying with family & they recommended visiting Painshill Park– what a wonderful place it is!

Painshill, near Cobham in Surrey, is one of the finest remaining examples of an 18th century English ‘landscape’ park. It was designed & created between 1738 & 1773 by Charles Hamilton. The original house built in the park by Hamilton has since been demolished

In 1738 Hamilton began to acquire land at Painshill &, over the years, built up a holding of more than 200 acres. His creation was among the earliest to reflect the changing fashion in garden design prompted by the Landscape Movement, which started in England in about 1730. It represented the move away from geometric formality in garden design to a new naturalistic formula. Many of the trees & shrubs planted by Hamilton were sent to him from Philadelphia by the naturalist John Bartram. The garden was open to respectable visitors, who were shown round by the head gardener for a tip. Then as now there was a particular route round the park recommended, designed to bring the visitor upon the successive views with best effect. Views from Painshill were painted on plates for a Wedgewood service of porcelain commissioned by Catherine the Great of Russia

Hamilton eventually ran out of money & sold the estate in 1773. Until World War II Painshill Park was held by a succession of private owners. In 1948 the estate was split up & sold in separate lots for commercial uses. The Park’s features fell into decay

By 1980 the local authority, Elmbridge Borough Council, had bought 158 acres of Hamilton’s original estate & the work of restoring the landscape garden & its many features could start. In the following year the Painshill Park Trust was founded as a registered charity with the remit “to restore Painshill as nearly as possible to Charles Hamilton’s Original Concept of a Landscaped Garden for the benefit of the public

Today Painshill comprises 158 acres of the original more than 200 acres owned by Charles Hamilton in the 18th century. The landscape garden stretches along the banks of the winding River Mole on land that has a number of natural hills & valleys

It bills itself as a ‘living canvas’ so shall be see?

Let’s Walk!

1. The route I’m following is the ‘Red Route’, the exact same route that is the living work of art that Hamilton’s guests would have done, enabling them to admire the way the garden, buildings & views unfolded before them

The walk from the car park to the Visitor Centre crosses the River Mole, adding to a sense of anticipation…

The River Mole is a tributary of the River Thames which rises near Horsham & flows northwest through Surrey for 50 miles to join the Thames opposite Hampton Court Palace

So hand over your hard-earned cash & walk to the left, passing the toilets & shelter

2. At this point there’s a small seating area where the path splits. The red route which is our’s heads slightly diagonally left ahead…

Across to the right, the park begins to open up

3. Continue as the path bends to the right, looking for a red marker, showing the track doubling back & climbing up into the woods…

4. The red route now heads quite steeply up into the woods…

…to emerge into a clearing with some large firs

5. Painshill is known for it’s large trees & we’ll see the largest one later. The one you’ve just past is pretty impressive though!

At this point you suddenly realise how high you’ve climbed as this is the first of many viewpoints. And what a view it is, down across the vineyard to the lake…

One of the first projects undertaken at Painshill was the planting of a vineyard, probably around the early 1740s, since the vines were mature enough to produce grapes by 1748. An area of 5 acres was planted on the steep slope you see before overlooking what’s an artificial lake fed from the Mole by a waterwheel, which we’ll see later

The original wine was sold at 7s 6d a bottle. The outcome varied, the white wine deceived the French Ambassador into thinking it was champagne, although the red wine was described as tasting like vinegar

Today bottles of Painshill Vineyard Sparkling Rosé (a blend of classic Pinot Noir & Chardonay grapes) & Sparkling White (100% Seyval Blanc grapes) are now available to be bought in the Painshill Shop

6. Follow the path along the edge of the hill. On the right’s a clearing called the Amphitheatre…

At the end of the above path’s the first of Painshill’s “follies” & you’ll soon see why the word “landscape” is used to describe the layout of the park…

7. The Gothic Temple was first mentioned in 1761. Stand inside & admire the beauty of the park spread out before you through the individual windows, much of which we’ll visit on this walk…

Also…don’t forget to look up at the ceiling of the temple

8. Well that’s wetted the appetite so time to move on by descending the ‘snaking’ path down to the left of the Temple…

At the bottom bear right & continue through the Chinese Peninsular Plantings

Look across to the right to see the largest tree in the park which we’ll pass towards the end of this walk. It’s also thought to be the largest cedar in Europe

9. As you emerge from the narrow path you’ll realise why the area’s known as the Chinese Peninsular. Ahead of you is the stunning Chinese Bridge…

Restored in 1988, this was the only one of the bridges across the lake at Painshill Park that had survived in any form when the derelict park was purchased by Elmbridge Borough Council in 1980. Although it’s a poor quality stock photo, you can see what a state it was in…

10. Walk across the Chinese Bridge (posing for the photo in the middle). The island you’re now contains some strange ruins…

This is part of the Crystal Grotto, more of which can be seen on the right side of the island. Intended to appear as a natural rocky cave & believed to have been designed by Charles Hamilton, work began on the grotto in the 1760s

Grotto maker Joseph Lane of Tisbury, near Stourhead, built & decorated the grotto

Unfortunately Covid 19 prevented us entering the Grotto, but if we had we would have seen two halves divided by water & joined by an arched bridge, its underside laden with crystal stalactites

“Inside, the walls are lined with mainly gypsum with calcite, quartz, fluorite & other minerals. The man-made stalactites which hang from the ceiling, glisten in refracted light, create a magical crystal cave. The grotto was carefully designed to catch rays of sunlight which lit the crystals & sent shimmering bands of light across the ceiling”

If we could have gone in here’s a stock photo of what we would have seen…

11. Look ahead through the trees to get another view of the intended “pictures” of the park & a sense of what’s still to come on this “red route”…it really is stunning!

Continue down the path to cross another beautiful structure…the Wooden Bridge…

12. After crossing the bridge, turn right & follow the stunning lake-side path which bends in a big arc…

In the distance now appears another bridge you’ve seen already from different viewpoints…Five Arch Bridge…

13. The atmosphere along this stretch of the walk is different as the intention was that darker trees lining the path should give a feeling of poignant sadness, reminding visitors of the swift span of life & transience of material things

It’s no surprise that the next ruin on the left’s the Mausoleum…

The Painshill Mausoleum was similar, though much smaller than the Arch of Constantine which Hamilton saw in Rome. This ruined Roman arch was the only place in the garden that there were plaques, inscriptions & urns – possibly brought back from Hamilton’s Grand Tour. The charity is trying to raise funds to restore the building to its former glory

14. The mood lightens once more as you arrive at Five Arch Bridge…

The original Five Arch Bridge was created in the middle to late 1760s, & stood until the early 20th century. It was constructed of wood & rendered to look like stone. Unfortunately, by the late 1970s all that remained were the abutments

The bridge was designed in white reinforced concrete with a feature finish to imitate the original stone-like bridge

15. Do not cross the bridge, but continue along the same side of the lake, which soon ends & the path begins to narrow & climb into the woodlands once more…

As you reach the top of the rise the waterwheel we mentioned earlier begins to come into view…

16. At Painshill a waterwheel was needed to lift water from the River Mole to provide water for the lake. The wooden waterwheel, designed by Charles Hamilton, was 35m in diameter. It’s worth a walk down the steps to have a look at the workings

17. Continue in the same direction, climbing into the trees once more…

…to emerge in a wonderful area called the Alpine Valley – lined by conifers you could actually believe you are in the Alps

18. Walk up the valley looking for a path on the left (the red marker’s there), but before turning up it, the Gothic Tower’s now appeared at the head of Alpine Valley – we’ll visit it shortly

For now though turn left & follow the path as it winds its way up the hill…we’re now going to visit the Hermitage. You can see the excellent markers

19. At the top of the hill bear left & ahead of you is a small hut…the Hermitage

Charles Hamilton advertised for a man to live in his hermitage in the 1740s. The advert read: “The hermit must continue on the hermitage seven years, where he shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage & food from the house”

He was ordered to wear a camlet robe & was forbidden from cutting his hair or nails. He was not allowed to speak or stray from the grounds of the estate

The fee was 700 guineas, but this would only be paid if the hermit served the whole seven years, & no money would be given if he left before this time or broke the rules

It didn’t go well…Legend has it that the first hermit lasted three weeks before running away & being found drunk in a nearby hostelry

20. Leave the Hermitage along the same path but, at the junction. walk straight ahead instead of returning down the path you came up…

This path runs parallel to the Alpine Valley, which is below, & the Gothic Tower now comes into view once more…

21. Sadly when we visited, due to Covid 19 it wasn’t possible to climb the tower. The 27 metre high tower was built in the late 1750’s on Painshill’s highest point. It’s thought that initially it was used to display Hamilton’s collections, but became a residence in the late 19th century

Sadly it fell into disrepair & was vandalised & set alight in 1973. Since restored it also contains a cafe 

22. Walk straight down the hill from the tower & turn left across the Alpine Valley looking for a red marker showing the path heading up another hill towards the Temple of Bacchus…

23. You’ve just left an Alpine Valley &, at the top of the path, you emerge into a different world…the Elysian Plains

The Elysian Fields is a conception of the afterlife that developed over time & was maintained by some Greek religious & philosophical sects & cults. Initially separate from the realm of Hades, admission was reserved for mortals related to the gods & other heroes. Later, it expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, & the heroic, where they would remain after death, to live a blessed & happy life, & indulging in whatever employment they had enjoyed in life

24. Walk straight across the Fields & exit them through the gate…

Ahead now lies the magnificent Temple of Bacchus

25. The Temple, built by Hamilton in 1762, was designed to house the statue of Bacchus that he brought back from his Grand Tour. The first thing that strikes you is the views from it across the countryside. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President of the United States) visited in 1786 & described it as “A Doric Temple. Beautiful”

By the time the Painshill Park Trust was formed in 1981 the Temple of Bacchus had collapsed. It’s the most recent garden building to have undergone restoration. The outside was completed in Mar 2019. The trust is now fundraising to complete the inside

26. Continue in the same direction from the Temple, heading towards what looks like a large tent!

Commanding further amazing views across the Park, this is the Turkish Tent, which is where the original trail would have ended. Although Hamilton never travelled to Turkey, he would have seen examples of Ottoman culture across Europe. A decorated Tent was considered both war-like & cultured

The Tent would have had plus seats for visitors to rest & enjoy the view after their walk to reflect & relive their own personal tour. The view’s not bad either is it…

27. The original tour may have ended at the Turkish Tent, but there’s still some more things to see on the way back to the Visitor Centre. So continue on the path last the tent & down the hill to arrive at Five Arch Bridge…

On reaching the Bridge, don’t cross it, but turn left & follow the lakeside

28. Once more you get a different perspective from this side of the lake. Remember the Grotto from the island that you stood on? Well now you can see it full on…

Remember seeing the largest cedar tree in Europe? Well here it is now on your left &, yes it’s big…

Known as the Great Cedar it’s 120 feet high & over 100 feet in width. Lebanese Cedar also happens to be my favourite kind of tree

29. Continue along the path & look out on the right for the hole…which is actually the old Ice House which was built around 1840

Now just follow the path which will take you back to the Visitor Centre where we started this walk…

So that’s it, my look at a very ancient walk around beautiful Painshill Park. In summary, I would probably say that the intention of creating a “landscape’ park has definitely paid off &, if you’re in this part of Surrey you must visit…

Go Walk