Alton Towers lies nearly midway between Ashbourne and Cheadle, in the IX picturesque valley of the river Churnet.
The creator of the magnificent gardens that the visitor to Alton sees today was the eminent Roman Catholic Charles, Fifteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, who succeeded to the title in 1786. He was then thirty-four, a man ‘of a very retired temper and much addicted to music and mechanics’. At that time the chief Shrewsbury home was not at Alton, but at Heythrop in Oxfordshire. All there was at Alton was a simple house called Alveton Lodge described as ‘a comfortable homestead, with farm buildings adjoining’. It was surrounded by poor farm land, bare rocks, and hills; and it was overrun with rabbits.
Lord and Lady Shrewsbury were a childless couple, and only visited Alton occasionally. It was not until Lord Shrewsbury was in his sixtieth year that he decided to ‘exercise his imagination and talent for landscape design on the bare and rocky hillsides of the Churnet valley’. In 1812 a nearby hill and the grounds adjoining it were enclosed, and two years later Lord Shrewsbury moved into Alveton Lodge, so that he could keep a personal eye on the work to be done, and personally supervise the conjuring, out of wild and desolate scenery, of the beautiful, romantic and picturesque landscape that Alton presents today.
Fortunately Lord Shrewsbury was immensely rich, and had at his command the limitless resources which he needed for his grandiose plans. Labourers, builders, masons and an army of gardeners were brought in to carve out terraces, delve valleys and lay out the gardens. Thousands of tons of soil were excavated to make pools and canals. Water was laid on from a spring two miles away. At the waving of Lord Shrewsbury’s golden wand, paths meandered in every direction, fountains threw up their crystal water-drops, and staircases clambered up and down the slopes.
A feature today, as it was early in the last century, is the architecture of the garden at Alton. This includes the Chinese Pagoda fountain, designed by Robert Abraham, with its 70-foot plume of water soaring above the treetops, and the Gothic Temple made of cast iron, a new material in those days. From this point of vantage the whole astonishing panorama of the Alton garden can still be admired. There was, and is, a Swiss Cottage which was the home of a blind Welsh Harper, whose duty it was to ‘discourse the music of his distant hills’ and fill the valley with melody for the delight of the family and visitors of the Earl, as they strolled among the beauties of the gardens.
Above: The Choragic Monument, built by ‘the filial Earl John, in memory of his father’, who created the splendid garden at Alton Towers.
Meanwhile, as the gardens grew in beauty, with some assistance from the architect Augustus Pugin, so did the ‘comfortable homestead’ of Alveton Lodge. Simple dwelling no longer, it sprouted Gothic pinnacles and battlements. To suit its new grandeur it was renamed Alton Abbey, though it was never to know an abbot or a monk.
Charles, Earl of Shrewsbury, died in r 827 and was succeeded by his nephew John, ‘the good Earl’, who, when the family seat at Heythorp was burned down, made his home at Alton and added to it still further. Once more it changed its name and became Alton Towers. The gardens were extended and brought to further perfection.
Near the Chapel, ‘Her Ladyship’s Garden’ was lovingly laid out. This nestles between two wings of the main house and is a garden of roses in a setting of magnolias and, a place of great beauty in high summer.
On their way to the great Conservatory (also designed by Abraham), now beautifully restored, visitors to Alton pass the Dutch Garden, with its guardian lions. Nearby they pause to admire the Choragic Monument which the filial Earl John put up in memory of his father, the creator of the garden at Alton. The monument, in the Corinthian style, is a replica of the monument to Lysicrates erected in Athens in 344 BC (Choragus means ‘the leader of a chorus’). On its walls are inscribed the apt words ‘He made the desert smile’.
And here might be the moment to pause in our admiration of the gardens at Alton, to insert an irreverent aside. It must be remembered that when Lord Shrewsbury was scattering his temples and pagodas about his unkempt Staffordshire valley, his trees and shrubs had not grown up to create a leafy setting for them, and soften the general outline. His ‘follies’, in the early days of their existence, may have struck an incongruous, if not faintly ridiculous, note. His son had dutifully inscribed, ‘He made the desert smile’, but a local wit added, ‘. . . and a polite desert it was, not to laugh outright’. But we must be respectful.
Below the Choragic Monument, the rock garden sweeps down a slope, as colourful as a peacock’s tail. This is spectacular all through the spring and summer, but never more so than in July when the thousands of spiraeas with which it is planted are in flower.
The gardens at Alton Towers are famous for their architectural features which now, embowered by full grown trees, seem an integral part of the Staffordshire scene. They are also renowned for theirand rare trees. A choice few of these would include the graceful tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), the incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), the fern leaved beech (Fagus sylvatica), and some fine Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum).
To have conjured, from barren wasteland, the enchanted, almost fairytale gardens at Alton is a rare achievement. It would be quite impossible today. And the thousands of visitors who come to Alton every year should spare a grateful thought for the maker of this magical demesne. Charles Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who indeed created beauty, sparked with fantasy, where nothing was before.
OPEN Good Friday-first weekend in October: 9.30 a.m. -dusk. LOCATION Situated in triangle between Leek, Ashbourne and Uttoxeter. All approach roads are signposted.