Reader Reviews

The Unwinding 

At last a great mystery unravelled. Britain's most iconic garden has held a secret for so long and it was not until author Tim Woodbridge waded through his father, Kenneth Woodbridge's life-long collection of research notes did the light start to shine. Coincidental to Mr Woodbridge's work was an independent and timely underwater survey by Dr David Johnston in 2005. Johnston's underwater investigation found evidence of an earlier garden, and an interesting construction detail where the barrier of a previous pond took a neat dog-leg around an existing tree. Evidence of the tree still exists.The British Landscape Movement was well under way when Henry Hoare (The Magnificent) was building his garden. Kent, Bridgeman and Brown relied on their clients having vast reaches of land with prospects to the distance that could be groomed as if by a perfect God. The Stour valley offers none of that and could have been judged unsuitable to join the club because ones nose was pressed up against it, comparatively. Stourhead garden is very tightly contained.The Choice offers to establish the truth of a man torn by grief finding his way by trial to a sublime work of art. There will be some lovers of Stourhead who have only a vague notion of the creative process and will be disturbed by this exposure - those for whom myths become iron clad truth will have to weather this and hopefully come out the other side feeling refreshed in spirit. Mr Woodbridge has handled the transition to new understanding with sensitivity and care.A lifetime of building gardens puts me in the way of understanding the evolution of ideas and the intervention of the fourth dimension to this art. One of my fortunate moments was several years of correspondence with Kenneth Woodbridge in the early 1980s. Another was a later visit to the archives of Hoare's Bank to view records of garden construction at Stourhead.The Choice is a good beginning for a new era at Stourhead. A story that arouses new fascination with the garden and its creator is an absolute Godsend for the National Trust. The Choice leaves the gate wide open to more of the story.

Anthony Mugg (Australia)

The frame around a painting is a notional dam that prevents the art leaking into reality. It’s an existential lifebelt that ensures we can float in the choppiest of subjective waters. But what would happen if we removed the frame? Freed from the grip of canvas, would the art start replicating like some rampant Fibonacci sequence, or a man made monster devouring its master? Or conversely, would rationality invade the fantasy to try and knock some sense into the fiction? We mere mortals dream of paradise but the notion only exists because it can never be realised. Its unattainability is its durability. Like belief in a god, we are happy to be deluded because to have such faith is so superhuman it can move mountains. To strive for that which we can never possess elevates us above blood and guts; above the nuts and bolts of cause and effect. This is such stuff as dreams are made on, and some people almost achieve it. The Choice by Tim Woodbridge is the story of Henry Hoare who broke through the fourth wall to conjure up a utopian garden at Stourhead, carved out of the rolling hills of Wiltshire. This was a garden to rival the Garden of Eden, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Garden of Hesperides which contained the seeds of eternity. Reading The Choice is to enter a complex theatrical production. We are taken behind-the-scenes and shown the idiosyncratic character arcs, the collision of antagonist v protagonist, the tomfoolery of altered perspectives, the hoodwinking verisimilitude, the noises off, and the bells and whistles that evoke illusion and suspend belief. We rub shoulders with the players - animal, vegetable and mineral - exerting all manner of influences, and peep into the psychopathy behind intended and random collisions. Thanks to his aristocratic sense of entitlement and obscene wealth Henry could bypass the pesky shackles of this mortal coil and live inside his imagination. Creativity is about playing god. It’s our way of writing wrongs, coming to terms with loss, asserting power, manipulating fate, and a frantic bid for immortality before our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Tom Lynham

Part historical novel based on research into the designing and making of one of the great country gardens in England by Henry Hoare’s ,during the nineteenth century, and part detailed documentation of the actual building of the monuments, this is a fascinating story.  Tim Woodbridge’s own knowledge and interest in classical literature and art bring an additional dimension to a tale of a man driven by an obsessive dream which threatened family relationships, but left us with the legacy of one of the most beautiful gardens in the country.  Reading this book will make those who already know Stourhead wanting to return to look more closely, and will encourage those who don’t, to go and see for themselves.

Sue Leyden

The author of this story is in a privileged position to tell the story of the development of the National Trust’s magnificent estate at Stourhead in Wiltshire. His father, Kenneth Woodbridge, was the acknowledged expert on the gardens, so the writer had particular access to years of meticulous research and scholarship. From this rare viewpoint stems a tale mixing original archive evidence and fact-based imagination.

It tells of Henry Hoare, banker and owner of Stourhead. It narrates his obsession with family inheritance and the securing of legacy, while locating the reader firmly in the landscape and its developing vistas. It reveals how the garden was shaped: how Hoare’s love of post-Renaissance art with its mythic tales of classical travels and travails mingled with his own life journey; how his sense of duty and the need for virtuous discipline struggled with personal turmoil caused by the early deaths, one by one, of his all immediate family; how this struggle informed his design.

It is an engaging read, and not a long one - though extended by generous appendices which share artistic reference and other source material. So perhaps the best way with this Choice would be to take it to Stourhead on a fine spring day. Take a picnic, ingest good food, imbibe fine wine, inhale the smells of coming summer, embrace the views … and enjoy this tale of how it all came together.

Robin Imray

I have just read The Choice slowly and appreciatively. It’s Ibsen-like penetrating dialogue, Proustian handling of subconscious mystery behind Henry Hoare’s passion to fulfil his quest and it’s Chekhovian tortured introspection would make an excellent film

Dr Kurt Kandinsky

Henry Hoare’s story is amazing and the losses and misery he experienced and overcame, awe-inspiring.

John Nash. Brighton

This is an ideal read for anyone visiting Stourhead, chronicling the troubled human history that underlies the garden’s serene composure.

Janet Stevenson, Radnor

'The Choice' tells the intriguing story of how one of the world's most celebrated gardens grew from the profits of one of the world's oldest banks, and from the personal losses of one of its early owners, Henry Hoare. Tim Woodbridge artfully weaves the many strands that are the warp and weft of an enthralling tapestry – classical mythology, the works of art such legends inspired, the architects, landscape designers and artisans who strove to create a perfect setting for them, the influences of contemporary 18th century commercial and political developments and, not least, the life of Henry Hoare, whose tragic family history is reflected in the masterpiece he created. Although based on detailed historical research (and richly supported with helpful appendices), 'The Choice' presents Stourhead's evolution as a narrative, linking stages in Henry Hoare's life with the development of the garden over the course of more than half a century. This is a story with a recurring irony. Henry Hoare is banker to the aristocracy, many of whom are seriously indebted to him, and yet he is not one of them. Though he hopes to elevate his family through marriage, the fates, perhaps contemptuous of his wealth and ambition, see that his wife and many children die before him. Any lasting legacy must therefore depend on the progeny of his imagination – which is a garden on an epic scale, a work both classical and immediately classic, a lifelong undertaking that is also a shrine to his stoical dedication.

Andrew Lewis, Powys

This is an incredibly thoughtful, intelligent and well written book. The character of Henry Hoare is utterly believable and compelling and I was convinced this was the man who created the garden at Stourhead. All the other characters are wonderfully drawn too; from the Lords to the stonemasons, Tim Woodbridge brings history alive. It is obvious the author has lovingly and meticulously researched his subject and the period in which the book is set, and there is also so much in this short story that is thought provoking and enlightening: my knowledge of the classics, stonemasonry and 17th/18th century landscape painters has been turbo-charged, and my mind tussles with the choice of Hercules, as I tussle myself with what it is to be a human. It is a credit to the author that he makes the journey through this mind-boggling, tangled landscape effortless for the reader, leading us round corners to open up the views. It does what you want from a work of art: for a moment it draws back a curtain or veil that somehow lets you think, however briefly, you see the truth of life more clearly; maybe it’s the power of stories to tell us something about ourselves. And it has a great cover too!

Reuben