Claremont Gardens and House that…John built

claremont gardensBelvedere Tower at Claremont Gardens (photograph by James Long)

Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) was a colourful figure of his time. Until his late thirties, he’s been known as a quite popular playwright. His plays were accepted by public with enthusiasm, although not without caustic criticism from some people, who blamed his writing in frivolity and lack of virtue. But then, he suddenly found himself passionate about architecture, and swapped his quill for drawings, rules and curves. Working on such grand projects like Howard castle in North Yorkshire or Blenheim palace in Oxfordshire, Vanbrugh made his name as an eminent architect of his époque.

On the place of Palladian mansion, which is now owned by Claremont Fan Court School, Sir John built himself a house on much less ambitious scale. Although he didn’t enjoy living there for a long time, and subsequently sold it, he took part in the developing of the property and Claremont gardens for the new holder, Thomas Pelham Holles, Earl of Clare (hence Claremont, from Clare-mount). Belvedere Tower, which served the purpose to please Sir Thomas’ guests by outstanding vistas over Surrey, while having refreshments and playing board games, was solely Vanbrugh’s creation. Nowadays the views are pretty much obscured by the straggled trees, but it’s still feasible to discern Windsor Castle, as well as Heathrow Airport and Wembley Stadium.
claremont gardensGrass amphitheatre at Claremont gardens (photograph by Ian Capper)

Claremont Gardens might be not the most impressive in Surrey, and also not the biggest ones (50 acres of parklands, which is owned by National Trust), but they have an undeniable charm and individuality. An 18th century grass amphitheatre is claimed to be one of the few remained samples of its kind in the whole Europe. It extends over 3 acres to the lake, swarming with miscellaneous waterfowl. Apart from ubiquitous mallard ducks and greylag geese, there are black swans, moorhens, Egyptian geese, viewed as sacred in Ancient Egypt, dressy Mandarins ducks and many other specimens. In fact more than 50! All are friendly, especially if you have something in your hands that looks edible. The path along the lake, with grottos, rockeries and thriving vegetation, is meant for ambling and contemplating. For about a century the site had been inhabited by the royal tenants, so it’s easy to imaging the young Queen Victoria, who was a frequent guest at Claremont House, strolling along the same path and daydreaming about something.

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