Rievaulx Terrace in Yorkshire is one of the earliest examples of the Picturesque Landscape Style still in existence today.
Dating from the 18th century, the terrace lies on an escarpment overlooking the River Rye valley and the ruined Rievaulx Abbey.
Judging from the feedback we have received, Garden Visit blogs are popular articles in Plews Potting Shed. They often lead to discussion on the history of the garden, the gardening style, the landscape designers, plant hunters and the plants themselves. So it seemed sensible to reference (if I may use a more academic term) the relevant blogs in both the garden visit and garden history categories.
Some of them will be more naturally a garden history item than a garden visit. The trip to Rievaulx Terrace is one of those, as the aim was to visit an example of the Picturesque Style of landscaping and gardening.
The Picturesque Style of Landscape Gardening came about partly through the “Grand Tour” and travels through the Alps in the earlier years of the eighteenth century. The wildness of these landscapes was encapsulated by painters such as Rosa and Lorrain and generated an enthusiasm for ‘unadorned nature’.
Rievaulx Terrace was constructed in 1749-56 by Thomas Duncombe II, owner of Duncombe Park. The land originally belonged to the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx. The half mile or so of terrace was laid out to make features of the unfolding views to the Abbey and valley below. and to the two temples which sit at either end. These are a nod to the classical architecture seen by Duncombe on his grand tour.
Unlike formal walks of this type in grand parks and estates, the whole vista at Rievaulx cannot be seen at once. The curve of the escarpment and the trees on the slope hide and then reveal elements. This style was so different, that Rievaulx Terrace is considered to be a landmark in the creation of the Picturesque Style in Britain. As such it is listed as being of special historic interest.
Although nothing official is recorded, the most likely candidate for designing the terrace and temples is Thomas Robinson.
The purpose of the terrace was to provide an outing for the Duncombe family. Somewhere for them to promenade along, probably beginning from the Tuscan Temple. They would revel in views of the romantic ruins, before reaching the Ionic Temple, where they would dine. Then they would stroll back to their carriages and return to Duncombe Park, a few miles away.
Rievaulx Terrace is today reached through a woodland path, arriving first at the Ionic Temple. You have the choice of strolling from here along to the Tuscan, or Doric Temple and return the same way. By resisting the temptation to turn around, you do benefit from different vistas as you stroll.
The Ionic Temple would have been a wonderfully rich venue for a posh picnic. From the ceiling, you are looked down upon by Aurora, Apollo and the Muses. Godly disdain, painted fresco, rich furniture and gilt candle sconces would have combined to leave you in no doubt as to your host’s status. Unlike the gardener who lived in the two rooms below…
Descending the steps, there is time to take your first look along the terrace, and appreciate the carefully managed woodlands to left and right. Well, you can’t leave nature totally untamed, or they’d be no room to walk!
One thing made me jump (in a good way) as we strolled along, and that was the incredibly lifelike wire horse sculpture by Emma Stothard. This stands overlooking the Rye valley; almost as if it’s a ghost. It certainly has a connection with the carriage horses of the eighteenth century visitors.
I would have liked to have seen Stothard’s willow sculpture ’The Hares’ Parliament’ which was at Rievaulx Terrace a few years ago. But I’m looking forward to seeking her out at RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May.
Needless to say, Border Collie Sharpe wondered why the horse shape didn’t smell of horse. I think he would have been more impressed with a real equine standing there…
At the other end of our stroll we came to the Tuscan Temple, or Doric temple. The structure is not strictly speaking Doric in form, the columns do not have bases, but let’s not get overly architectural about this. In contrast to the square, imposing Ionic Temple, dressed to impress, this feels more informal. Like a summerhouse to sit and write your gardening books in.
The doors would be open so a soft Yorkshire breeze could waft through, rustling the wildflowers that sit in a vase on the octagonal table. For more inspiration you could raise your eyes to the rich plasterwork of the walls and ceiling, or wriggle your bare toes on the thirteenth century floor tiles from nearby Byland Abbey.
The return promenade along the serpentine terrace did indeed offer up a changed perspective of the valley, Rievaulx Abbey, and, around the bend, the Ionic Temple.
Our visit took place in winter, so the wildflowers were confined to banks of snowdrops (Galanthus) edging the woodland. And a smattering of yellow winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) to add a ray of sunshine.
The Picturesque Style of Landscape Gardening would later include the Gardenesque Style, with the planting of exotics among the native species. Think of the Azalea Garden in the quarry at Scotney Castle, for example. The Picturesque Style also inspired garden designers and landscapers such as William Robinson and the Wild Garden in the late nineteenth century.