An inn used by 18th-century tourists to Stowe has been restored to allow modern visitors to see the “monumental” gardens in the way designers originally intended.
The National Trust, which took over the Buckinghamshire gardens 20 years ago, purchased the falling-down remains of the New Inn in 2005 and undertook a £9m restoration project using old drawings, photographs and research on site.
The project, which has allowed the Trust to move from temporary buildings on the other side of the gardens, now means people tread in the footsteps of visitors to one of England’s first tourist attractions.
The original inn was first built in 1717 and largely remodelled in the 1790s. The restoration allows visitors to wander through the kitchen, parlours, office, dairy and laundry of the building to see what it was once like.
Original fixtures and fittings such as the laundry basins, sinks and cow-horn lamps have been restored or recreated, while visitors are also able to see scraps of wallpaper and original tiles rescued during the restoration project, sit by the open fire in the parlour and even play cards and board games from the time.
Other buildings on the site, which later became a farm and fell into disrepair in the 20th century, have had to be largely rebuilt and a new building constructed using larch taken from the National Trust’s Ashridge estate houses the cafe and gift shop.
The revival of the site means visitors approach the garden as they would have done in the 18th century, travelling down from the inn to the Bell Gate, where they would have paid a gardener to show them round.
The 250 acres of landscaped gardens, which were worked on by leading designers including William Kent and Capability Brown, take visitors on paths through “vice, virtue and liberty”, passing more than 40 temples, grottos and monuments.
The gardens, which experts say were conceived as a riposte to the formal gardens at Versailles, were a political statement by creators Viscount Cobham and Earl Temple.
They were keen to show off their “theme park” to visitors, who were provided with the inn as a purpose-built entrance and lodgings – although documents from the time show standards were very poor – and a guidebook.
David Brooks, National Trust property manager, said that in the past two decades before the inn was restored, “people used to go in effectively through the back door, and didn’t see it (the garden) the way it was meant to be seen.”
He said that due to the garden’s size and the calibre of the designers and architects who had worked on it, it was a “garden of monumental significance on the international stage”.
“Until now we were lacking a heart to the property - somewhere worthy of the magnificent grounds. Rebuilding the New Inn means that day-trippers can now follow in the footsteps of the original Georgian tourists.
“The reinstatement of the Bell Gate means that visitors will now catch their first glimpse of the breathtaking grounds as originally intended,” he said.
Richard Wheeler, National Trust garden historian, said: “Money was no issue for the Cobham family who commissioned the gardens.
“Viscount Cobham and his nephew and heir Earl Temple could spend liberally on making their own paradise and created what became a theme park-style tourist attraction of its time.
“Over the past two decades we’ve restored much of the grounds and recreated three pathways, vice, virtue and liberty, to encourage visitors to fully explore the grounds which will be, we hope, a fantastic playground for young and old alike.”
Some £1.5 million of the £9 million funding for the restoration project came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with fund-raising and donations making up the rest. The National Trust has spent around £10 million on restoring the gardens in the past 20 years.
The house at Stowe, overlooking the gardens, is home to Stowe school, and a swathe of the gardens hosts a golf course.