Landscape designer William Kent died in 1748, but he still guides our footsteps at Rousham

At the start of the path on the Bowling Green, the right side appears blocked by a massive yew hedge.

At the start of the path on the Bowling Green, the right side appears blocked by a massive yew hedge except for a gateway into the kitchen gardens.

In designing a circuit path at Rousham in the 1740s, William Kent sought to create a particular experience for those walking around the grounds.  John Macclary, Rousham’s gardener at the time, describes the experience Kent was seeking in his 1750 letter, “The Way to View Rousham.”

What Macclary describes, and what’s most important for pathmakers today, is that the primary circuit at Rousham was meant to be directional, to be walked in one direction only. And what Kent achieved demonstrates how to make a path directional without arrows, signs, or docents. To see the walk in photographs, click here.

The left side is open across a paddock to a small building called the Gothick Seat.

The view left is open across a paddock to a small building called the Gothick Seat.

Directionality matters at Rousham because Kent made some buildings and benches face only one direction, his refuges and Roman statues draw visitors forward only from one direction, and his tour’s climactic surprise is no surprise at all if approached from the opposite direction.

Why does everyone walk the right way, the way Kent intended, around the path’s loop? Primarily because Kent made the first outgoing leg visible while hiding the return leg. When I first visited Rousham

Behind the yew hedge is a slot next to the kitchen garden wall, space for Kent to hide the  return leg of the loop path around the property.

Behind the yew hedge is a slot next to the kitchen garden wall, space for Kent to hide the return leg of the loop path around the property.

and reached the Bowling Green terrace at the back of the house, the only outlet appeared to be a path to the left around a grazed paddock to a building visible on the far side. The right-hand side was a wall of yew pierced only by a gate to the walled kitchen gardens.

Rounding the paddock, I was already being directed, like almost all other visitors, in the direction Kent wanted. What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t discover until the end of the walk was that behind the yew hedge is a narrow open space containing the path’s return leg.

Walking in the proper direction creates the experience Kent sought, reaching the climax of the Vale of Venus late in the circuit.

Walking in the proper direction creates the experience Kent sought, reaching the climax of the Vale of Venus late in the circuit.

Traveling in this direction in the 18th Century, a small pond now gone would have drawn me forward and down into the woods, but would have been invisible coming uphill in the other direction. In the desired direction I would also have seen a bench in an alcove angled toward me.

Later, as I walked downriver to its elbow below the hillside arcade known as Praeneste, the woods unexpectedly opened to the right, up a previously hidden valley. “Sure no Tongue can express the beautiful view that presents itself to your eye,” Macclary the gardener wrote. The Vale of Venus stands revealed—one cascade above another, flanked above and to the sides by a variety of classical statues in a grassy glen, with fountains originally spouting 12-15m/40-50 ft high. If I had come upriver instead of down, this climax would have been visible early and at a distance, a tepid thump instead of a theatrical thunderclap.

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