In May 2012 an excursion to Larmer Tree Gardens, Rushmore (Sandroyd School) and Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum was organised by the Friends of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, the group was made up of friends, researchers from the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers project, and students. Here are some observations on the Gardens as they are today, and their history.
The gardens were closed down not long after the General's death in 1900 and were neglected for almost a century. Michael Pitt-Rivers, the General's great-grandson, began restoring the gardens in 1991 and they were reopened to the public once again in 1995. Restoration work has been continued by William Gronow-Davis, the present owner. On the road approaching the gardens we were first greeted by the sight of Gronow-Davis' folly, a huge ochre coloured structure which was intended to support mobile phone masts, although this plan fell through and the structure, true to its name, is now without any function except decoration.
The restoration has been faithful to the General's vision; the laurel which had taken over the gardens has been tamed back into hedges surrounding the central lawn, and around the edges are paths winding through groves of shrubs and trees, with hidden statues and wandering peacocks, and the five 'quarters' named by Pitt-Rivers, the Yak's Quarter, the Stag's Quarter, the Bride's Quarter and the Hound's Quarter. There is a series of small ponds, one neighboured by a grotto containing a statue of Neptune, and a walk through tunnel of tangled laurel trees. The gardens today have a botanical focus, with a guide in the information room to notable plants and where to find them. Camellias, rhododendrons, orchids and various other flowers create a colourful display. The same room explains the history of the gardens, and has a collection of photographs of them in their late nineteenth-century heyday.
Many of the buildings erected by Pitt-Rivers himself are still standing. Most of these wooden structures have had to undergo extensive restoration, the stage had to be almost entirely rebuilt as the original wood was severely decayed. Photographs of performances on this stage in Pitt-Rivers' time show crowds packing out the gardens, which were attracting 44,000 visitors a year by 1899. The thatched huts intended as picnic shelters were similarly in a severe state of disrepair when Michael Pitt-Rivers began his work. The General used to freely provide crockery and cutlery for the use of visitors with picnics. The classical temple, two 'Indian houses' and the Pavilion which was originally the tea room are still standing, apparently more or less intact.
The temple was constructed in 1880, the year Pitt-Rivers inherited the Rushmore estate. This construction date reveals that Pitt-Rivers has extensive ambitions for this estate from early on. The General had in fact known he would eventually inherit the estate for sometime before 1880, so perhaps he had been planning his improvements well in advance. The classical style of the temple is similar to the temple of dedicated to Vesta that Pitt-Rivers had erected in the grounds of Rushmore Lodge in 1890, in celebration of the birth of his first grandson. Inside the Larmer temple today is a bust of the General.
The two 'Indian Houses' were constructed between 1895-1900, possibly in celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The building originally known as the Indian Room is now called the General's Room, while the Lower Indian House still bears the same name. These buildings were acquired from one of the various colonial and Indian exhibitions of the late nineteenth-century, at least one of them from the 1890 Earls Court Indian Exhibition. Family photograph albums showing Pitt-Rivers' renovations to his estate apparently show two other rooms which no longer exist, the Upper Indian Room and the Oriental Room. It is unsurprising that these buildings have not survived since they were not designed as permanent structures, although when they disappeared is unclear. It appears from captions on photographs in the family albums that the Oriental Room was situated on the East Lawn, it is not known where the Upper Indian room was located. A further structure that has not survived is the bandstand, from which Pitt-Rivers band of men from his estate used to play on Sundays. The outline of it can still be seen in a corner of the central lawn.
To see more photographs of Larmer Gardens in 2012 click here.
Rachel McGoff (June, 2012)
 Thompson, 1977: 80
 Dudley Buxton, 1929: 14