Earls of Shrewsbury occupied the castle from 1412 when the Lady Ankarat de Verdun married Sir John Talbot – the title remained in the same family until the 1920’s.
It was the 15th Earl, Charles Talbot, born in 1753, who tamed the landscape surrounding the Towers. With the help of hundreds of artisans, mechanics and labourers, “He made the desert smile” and the Alton Towers dream was born.
Charles ensured that every details and plan was original, and only consulted other artists in order to avoid imitation. The two principal garden architects were Thomas Allason (1790-1852) and Robert Abrahams (1774-1850), and it was this combination of financial resources, architectural talent and an eye for beauty, which made the gardens the grandiose yet stunning sight they are today.
Under the direction of the 15th Earl, Abrahams designed and built the Chinese Pagoda Fountain as an exact copy of the To Ho Pagoda in Canton. To supply this fountain, Talbot had to skilfully dig out lakes, pools and terraces encouraging the flow of water from a spring at Ramshorn into the lower extremity of the valley gardens. This particular fountain had the capacity to throw a volume of water 90 feet above the tree tops, where it now seemingly teases the Skyride cable car which crosses the valley gardens.
The Bath Fountain was constructed under the directions of John Talbot. The small yet beautiful pond with a figure of Triton, blowing water through a conch shell, would have been the immediate view from Le Refuge. It was totally renovated in summer 1994 when a new base was installed using stone excavated from the hotel site.
The Grand Conservatories were designed and built by Abrahams and are a breath taking architectural structure stretching 300 feet in length and made of galvanised iron and plate glass. The elegant domes are richly gilt. They have already been restored and are now filled with various geraniums and fuchsia.
Le Refuge was originally built as a recess for repose and refreshments, and the fireplace ensured that Her Ladyship could retire in comfort on even the most wintry of nights.
Although Charles Talbot was a man with little concern for spending money on shows and entertainment, he housed a blind Welsh harpist in a quaint thatched cottage, known then as Swiss Cottage. The harpist was employed to fill the garden with music for the delight of the Earl, his family and their guests.
Scattered around the gardens are numerous examples of statuary, which would have instantly added to the overall artistic mood of the surroundings.
The Grand Conservatories and the surrounding terrace house several intricate and charming statues including Hercules and the Maneon Lion, the Warwick Vase, the Infant Bacchus and Goat and the Italian Antique Torso. On the second terrace, adjacent to the distinctive Yew Tree Walk, stood the statues of the Four Seasons.
The Dutch Gardens, which stand to the left of the conservatories, are formed from a raised circular garden designed by John Talbot in the late 1800’s. The two lions which stood proudly at the entrance have now been replaced by secure sturdy plinths, and there are hopes to ensure that the water from the lion fountain at the rear of the Dutch Gardens flows naturally again from the River Churnet.
On entering the lavish gardens, visitors will notice a grand monument, which stands proudly opposite the white bridge. This was built as a cenotaph to Charles Talbot. Modelled on the celebrated Choragic Temple of Lysiscrates (Athens 344 BC) this distinguished feature houses a marble bust of the 15th Earl. An appropriate inscription was made on the base of the pedestal reading “He Made the Desert Smile”.
When the 15th Earl died in 1827, he had achieved a great proportion of his aspirations; the gardens of Alton Towers were vastly different in character and style to almost any other in England.
The curious designs of elegant bedding plants and the rich masses of foliage enhanced the general ambience of the landscape. The wild ferns and numerous rhododendrons similarly added to the romantic air of semi-wilderness. Nevertheless, gardeners continued to further improve this beauty when Charles Talbot was succeeded by his nephew John. The 16th Earl was a flamboyant character, full of enthusiasm to continue his uncle’s great works and he succeeded in completing both the formal gardens near the Towers and the valley gardens.
The Shrewsbury family remained in residence until 1923, after a sometimes turbulent 700 year history.
Since then the development of both the parkland and grounds has been astonishing, housing as it does the UK’s number one paid for tourist attraction
First Broadcast: 30th January 2007
A self confessed super fan of Most Haunted and editor of GhostMag.com. Matt’s passion for ghost hunting began when he moved into a haunted house in his second year of university in Leicester! His favourite location is the Niddry Street Vaults in Edinburgh.