Larmer Tree Gardens - Description


In 1880, Augustus Lane Fox inherited the Rushmore Estate, with a condition of the will stipulating that he should change his name to Pitt Rivers. He started making the Larmer Tree Pleasure Grounds almost immediately. The gardens are named after the Larmer Tree, a landmark tree on the ancient boundary between Wiltshire and Dorset. The tree was possibly an ancient Wych elm (Ulmus glabra) under which King John (1167–1216) and his entourage were reputed to have met when they were out hunting. The original tree was still living as late as 1894, around which time it was replaced by an oak, which was planted in the centre of the decayed rim. As part of the estate, Pitt Rivers had also inherited King John's House in Tollard Royal, one of King John's several hunting lodges in Cranborne Chase.

Pitt Rivers built several structures around the main lawn which were intended to educate and enlighten the garden visitors, including the Nepalese or Indian Room which was acquired after the closure of the British Empire Exhibition in 1898. There was also a racecourse, an eighteen link golf course, a bowling green and lawn tennis courts. There were eight picnic areas, each enclosed by cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) hedges and with thatched buildings in case of inclement weather. Pitt Rivers provided "crockery, knives and forks for picnickers, gratis", as well as "chairs, tables and dumb waiters" and accommodation for 20 horses.

Music and entertainment was also provided at the Singing Theatre, where plays were performed by workers from the estate, and poetry recitals given. A band was provided on Sunday afternoons during summer. Thousands of Vauxhall lights, hanging glass lamps lit by candles, illuminated the gardens in the evening, when there was open-air dancing. The night that Thomas Hardy danced with Pitt River's daughter Agnes in 1895 he described the gardens as "Quite the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life".

By 1899 the gardens were attracting over 44,000 people a year, both estate workers and the general public. With Pitt Rivers' death in 1900 the gardens closed, opening only occasionally after that time.

Restoration of the gardens started in 1991 under the direction of Michael Pitt-Rivers. In the 90-odd years that the gardens had been closed, the cherry laurel had taken over almost all the gardens apart from the main lawn. Many of the buildings had decayed. The gardens were re-opened to the public in 1995. In 1999 a new Larmer Tree was planted to mark the new millennium.

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