The sixty five mile length of the river Stour begins in a small valley near to the National Trust Estate of Stourhead in Wiltshire. The Stourhead estate can only be described as "A Must See". It is, without doubt, one of the jewels in the crown of the National Trust. The Stourhead estate boasts a whole range of incredible and often bizarre buildings. The estate promises a fantastic day out for all.
The estate is huge and is based around a large beautiful lake. It would be easy to spend a week there and yet still have things left to see.
The starting point for the river Stour is approximately a mile from the Stourhead estate and is accessed by walking from the estate up through a small grassed valley with wooded ridges. The nominal source of the river Stour is now marked by St Peter's Pump, an ancient 14th century pumping house. This though is actually a fairly recent addition to this site and was positioned at the nominal source of the river Stour by Henry Hoare in 1786. Previously, St Peter's Pump (also known as St Agnes pump) had stood at the junction of Peter Street and Dolphin Street in Bristol for 300 years. It had formed a major part of the Bristol water supply. It was heavily decorated although now much of the original stone work is now badly eroded.
The location Henry Hoare located St Peter's Pump is also known as Six Wells Bottom. Six Wells Bottom has been regarded as the start of the river Stour since antiquity. The family crest of the Stourhead baroncy is actually based on a theme of six wells. Today though only one well is left. This sits right at the base of St Peter's Pump.
As you come down from the pump house there is initially little sign of standing water. But the ground becomes progressively more boggy until a small underground stream breaks surface and feeds into three interconnected small lakes. These lakes form the first significant body of water on the river stour. They in turn feed into the large lake that forms the centerpiece of the Stourhead estate.
The Stourhead estate dates back to the early 1200's when the land and surrounding area came into the ownership of the Stourton family. A baroncy was created for the the influential Stourton family in the mid 1400's with John Stourton being the first Barn of Stourton.
The Stourton barons then held onto the lands we now know as Stourhead for the next two hunderd and fifty years before selling them to Sir Thomas Meres in 1714. The Meres family only held the property for three years before it was sold on to Sir Henry Hoare. Hoare was the son of Sir Richard Hoare and a member of a wealthy banking family.
Henry's father, Richard, was a common man made good. Originally from the the North West of London, Richard Hoare was raised near Smithfield market and served an apprenticship as a goldsmith. After finishing his apprentiship and at the age of 25 he established his owned goldsmithing business on Cheapside in London, this subsequently developed into the private bank which today still bears the family name. "C Hoare & Co" is today, the longest surviving private bank in the UK.
After his financial success, Richard Hoare was knighted in 1702. He then went onto become Mayor of London in 1714. As he received his knighthood, Richard Hoare's son Henry became active in the family bank. Henry Hoare purchased Stourhead in 1717 and immediately set about demolishing the existing manor house and constructing a much grander building, but within eight years Henry Hoare was dead.
Ownership of the Stourhead estate then fell to Henry Hoare's son also named Henry. Henry Hoare II became the dominant partner in the family bank of C Hoare & Co. Using the vast wealth accumulated in the family bank Henry hoare II set about collecting a huge range of artifacts to decorate the estate. But Henry's main passion was the garden. Heavily influenced by this contemporary, Capability Brown the gardens were carefully laid out and manicured.. Henry was a major patron of the arts. Due to his philthopy Henry Hoare II became known as Henry the magnificent or Henry the Good or simply Henry the benefactor.
Henry died in 1785 and was succeeded by his grandson Richard Colt Hoare. Richard Colt Hoare was a noted traveller and antiquarian. He also had a taste for fine furniture and was major patron to Thomas Chippendale the younger. Arguably, when Chippendale went bankrupt in 1804 it was only the patronage of Richard Colt Hoare that saved the company from oblivion. There is a great deal of Chippendale furniture on display on the Stourhead estate along with many other treasures amassed by Richard Colt Hoare and his family.
Today the house is presented by the National Trust as it was in the days of Richard Colt Hoare. It is, to say the least, truly magnificent. It should be pointed out that the current house, although it looks the part, is actually a copy. The original 18th century house burned down in the first years of the 20th century. Luckily most of the artifacts in the house at the time were saved. The house was subsequently rebuilt.
Today the gardens at StourHead estate reflect the huge amounts of money and labour invested in them in the 18th and 19th centuries. The gardens and the area surrounding the lake hold many novel and sometime bizarre constructions. It is difficult to overstate the majesty of this estate. The only dissapointment is that there is so much to see that a single day is really not adequate.