Landscape gardening was a favoured mode of display among the grandest eighteenth-century landowners, and Stourhead is one of the most accomplished examples of the genre. The Stourton estate was bought in 1717 by Henry Hoare, who commissioned Colen Campbell to build a new villa in the Palladian style. Hoare’s heir, another Henry, returned from his Grand Tour in 1741 with his head full of the paintings of Claude and Poussin, and determined to translate their images of well-ordered, wistful classicism into real life. He dammed the Stour to create a lake, then planted the terrain with blocks of trees, domed temples, stone bridges, grottoes and statues, all mirrored vividly in the water. In 1772 the folly of King Alfred’s Tower was added and today affords fine views across the estate and into neighbouring counties. The house is less interesting, though it has some good Chippendale furniture.
If Stourhead is an unexpected outcrop of Italy in Wiltshire, the African savannah intrudes even more bizarrely at Longleat. In 1946 the sixth marquess of Bath became the first stately-home owner to open his house to the paying public on a regular basis, and in 1966 he caused even more amazement when Longleat’s Capability Brown landscapes were turned into England’s first drive-through safari park, with lions, tigers, giraffes and rhinos on show, plus monkeys clambering all over your car. Other attractions followed, including a large hedge maze, a Doctor Who exhibition, high-tech simulators, and the seventh marquess’s saucy murals (children not admitted). Beyond the razzmatazz, there’s an exquisitely furnished Elizabethan house, built for Sir John Thynne, Elizabeth’s High Treasurer, with an enormous library and a fine collection of pictures, including Titian’s Holy Family.