Wells at the Bottom of the Garden

by James Rattue

Stourhead Gardens are often called the jewel in the National Trust’s crown, and their Classical temples, lakeside vistas, trees and grottos together forming the epitome of the Romantic landscaped garden, act as a magnet for tourists. In amongst all the grandeur are a set of wells which, although people do not seem to think of them in these terms, must rank alongside Glastonbury and Holywell as the most visited in the country.

Stourhead and its parent village, Stourton (Wiltshire), both take their name from the River Stour, which as Leland tells us ‘riseth ther of 6 fountaines or springes, whereof 3 be on the northe side of the parke harde withyn the pale’ [1]. These ‘Six Wells’, first so called in 1822, were at some point supposed to have arisen where King Alfred prayed for water for his troops, and they appear on the Stourton coat-of-arms [2].

In the 1740s the Hoare family began their development of the estate, diverting the headwaters of the infant river into a lake and a series of pools and wells. The most important is ‘Ariadne’s Well’, now contained within the grotto overlooking the lake. Water thunders behind a lead copy of a statue of ‘Sleeping Ariadne’ (the original is in the Vatican) [3], with verses by Alexander Pope inscribed on a marble slab laid into the pavement:

Nymph of the Grot these sacred springs I keep

And to the murmur of these waters sleep

Ah! Spare my slumbers; gently tread the cave

And drink in silence or in silence lave.

Nearby along a passageway a leaden river god pours water eternally from an urn.

Slightly earlier in date, just below the Temple of Flora (built 1744) is the Paradise Well, which takes the form of a square stone tank underneath an ornament in the shape of an urn.

The original site of  the Six Wells, in a long valley north of the gardens, was also incorporated in the grand scheme. In Bristol there were a pair of wells built in the 15th century as part of the public water supply; in the 1750s they were taken down, and the pillared pinnacle from St Peter’s Pump was transferred to the head of the river of Six Wells Bottom (now dry); the new structure is now also known as St Peter’s Pump. Incidentally, the enormous, elaborate cross which stood over St Edith’s Well was also taken from Bristol to Stourhead and stands on a knoll between the church and the lake; it is over 30ft high and reminds us how grand an urban medieval well could be [4]. A fourth well, Dyer’s Well, named after one Thomas Dyer at least from 1566, was never part of the garden scheme; it is now in woodland and inaccessible [5].

Naturally, you must pay to get into Stourhead these days, but the most impressive garden-feature wells in the country coupled with the spectacular garden itself make a visit most rewarding. (I can’t think of another way of finishing without sounding like a tourist brochure!)



1. L. Toulmin-Smith, (ed.), The Itinerary of John Leland, London 1913, v) p. 106.
2. J. A. Gover, A. Mawer & F. M. Stenton, Place Names of Wiltshire, Cambridge 1939, p. 182.J. Aubrey, The Natural History of Wiltshire, ed. J. Britton, London 1847, pp. 28-29.
3. Stourhead guide leaflet, National Trust.
4. R. C. S. Walters, The Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire, Bristol 1928, p. 147.
5. Gover et al., op. cit., p. 182.

Text  © James Rattue (1994)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 18/11/99

%d bloggers like this: