Paradise Restored at Hestercombe Gardens

Recreating a lost Arcadia at Hestercombe

Philip White, MBE, founder and chief executive of the Hestercombe Gardens Project, now the Hestercombe Gardens Trust, by the Great Cascade.Hestercombe House & Gardens

During a lunchtime walk in 1991, the forgotten 18th century Landscape Garden created by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde of Hestercombe 1750-1786 was rediscovered by Philip White, a retired dairy farmer who was then based in Hestercombe House, an the employ of the Somerset Wildlife Trust. The subsequent rescue of Bampfylde’s picturesque garden, one of the finest historic examples in England, became a lifetime’s work and in 2013 White was honoured with the MBE for ‘services to historic garden restoration’.

View of the restored Pear Pond, Hestercombe Landscape Garden.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Created in the second half of the 18th century by garden designer, architect, soldier and landscape painter, Coplestone Warre Bampfylde, Hestercombe’s Landscape Garden is a celebrated example of an Arcadian landscape – carefully designed to create variety and changes of mood, and with the all-important views composed as if they were a landscape painting. Bampfylde’s ‘rural sequestered vale’ was widely praised for two centuries after its creation.

View of The Pear Pond at Hestercombe c.1777. Pen & Ink, grey wash.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Coplestone Warre Bampfylde’s watercolour painting of the Pear Pond is the best documentary evidence that has been found for his Arcadian essay of temples, urns, cascades and ponds at Hestercombe. To help inform its restoration, the painting was incorporated along with other historical evidence (primarily 18th century visitor accounts) into a historical survey of the combe compiled by heritage specialists, Debois Landscape Survey Group in 1993-94. A tree stump analysis by Lear Associates followed in 1997.

Clear-felled East Combe (Hestercombe Landscape Garden) with the Temple Arbour evident on the skyline, 1963.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Among the measures taken by the Commissioners of Crown Lands after they took full control of the Hestercombe estate on the passing of the Hon. Mrs. Portman in May 1951 (it actually came into their hands in 1944 to satisfy death duties incurred by the Portmans), was the clear-felling of the East Combe for the value of its timber (mainly oak, beech, & ash). The Crown later received a grant from the Forestry Commission to replant the former 35 acre Landscape Garden as commercial woodland (larch, beech, ash, sycamore, Scot’s pine).

Scrub clearance and the dredging of the Pear Pond 1995, view north into the East Combe (Hestercombe Landscape Garden).Hestercombe House & Gardens

The restoration of the Pear Pond took place in the summer of 1995, necessitating scrub clearance followed by dredging and stonework repairs. ‘The situation was so bad that we even had to clear 12ft high trees growing on top of what had been a lake’, recalled Philip White later. De-silting operations revealed a pond that had originally been circular and 12-14 feet in depth at its deepest point. Today, the Pear Pond once again recalls the smooth lines, fine textures and quiet beauty of Bampfylde’s c.1777 painting.

Restoring the man-made stream below C. W. Bampfylde’s Great Cascade, 1995.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Restoration of the Great Cascade (b. 1762) took place in the winter of 1996, and apart from necessary tree and scrub clearance, addressed critical repairs to the substantial brickwork leat which had once conducted water to the Cascade’s artificial cliff from a pond higher up the combe (valley). The leat was retained by a dry-stone wall known as a revetment which was also repaired.

Repairs being made to the Georgian leat built to supply water to the Great Cascade from a pond higher up the combe (valley), 1995.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The Great Cascade is fed by a stream which originates high up in the Quantock Hills, and is redirected via a large catchment pond along a brick-lined leat. Up until 1995, water had been supplied in makeshift fashion from the so-called Box Pond, via a plastic pipe installed by the Somerset Fire Brigade, who were then based in Hestercombe House. The 300 yard (274m) Georgian leat was repaired over a six-month period in 1995 by building contractors, who were obliged to replace 7,000 of the estimated 17,000 bricks that had been fired on the estate in the 18th century.

Official re-opening of the Great Cascade on Tuesday 2 April 1996 by the Mayor of Taunton, Councillor Mrs. Jean Hole.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The six-month restoration of the Great Cascade was financed by grants from the Countryside Commission and by donations from local and national charities.

The Great Cascade todayHestercombe House & Gardens

Today The Great Cascade is a popular spot for our younger visitors.

The derelict Temple Arbour overlooking the Pear Pond, 1995Hestercombe House & Gardens

The Temple Arbour had been almost totally destroyed by vandals, following the clear felling of the Landscape Garden in the early 1960s, with only the lower half of the building surviving. Reconstruction took place 1996-1997. The missing columns were found intact, although strewn over the bottom of the combe, and the capitals (the top parts pf the pillars), removed by a concerned local resident during the height of the vandalism, were returned.

The dominant classical building in the Landscape Garden, the Temple Arbour was built in the mid 1770s in Tuscan Doric style. It was recorded as having two long benches and four single chairs in the estate sale of 1872.

The classical Temple Arbour being rebuilt, 1996.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The Temple Arbour following restoration.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Situated in classical style on a rocky outcrop, the Temple once again commands a magnificent prospect with fine views out over the Pear Pond to the distant Blackdown Hills. The building also has two important subsidiary views that were only discovered after the restoration. Viewed from within and framed by the central columns, both the Great Cascade (right hand side) and the Witch House (left hand side) can be seen.

The dilapidated Mausoleum building in 1995.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The Mausoleum, a formal gothic building seen here prior to its restoration in 1996, was first recorded in 1761, but likely to date from the mid-1750s. It was not a real burial chamber, but a folly or eye catcher that also served as a garden seat. The latter role was celebrated in a poem set into a tablet below the central obelisk. The verse is a quotation from Alexander Pope's poem Windsor Forest, first published 1713:

Happy the man who to the Shade retires
Whom Nature charms, and whom the Muse inspires
Best whom the Sweets of home-felt Quiet please
But far more blest, who study joins with Ease

The derelict Mausoleum being examined by Philip White in April 1995.Hestercombe House & Gardens

To initiate the restoration of Hestercombe’s neglected Landscape Garden in the 1990s, Philip White raised £250,000 by mortgaging his home and securing a large Countryside Commission grant. To publicize the project, White organized an exhibition of watercolours by Bampfylde which was held at Christie's King Street rooms, London, 31 July to 11 August 1995. Many were on public view for the first time.

The Mausoleum being restored, 1996.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The combined cost of the restoration of the Mausoleum and Temple Arbour buildings was over £100,000. As was the case with the leat restoration, the repair of the Mausoleum was hampered by a shortage of the oversize 18th century bricks that had been fired on the estate for building use. Reclamation yards throughout the country were searched and eventually produced the required number.

The Mausoleum today in its favoured position on the east side of the East Combe overlooking the Pear Pond.Hestercombe House & Gardens

In 2008 the Mausoleum underwent a second phase of restoration at the hands of local stonemasons, J. J. Bowerman & Dave Wyke, who reconstructed the rear apse, knitted together the old bricks on the building’s facade with tile repairs, and re-created the two missing urns that had been lost from the central obelisk and adjoining pier.

Hestercombe Visitor Centre being declared open by Somerset County Council Chairman, Ralph Clark, on Tuesday 22 April 1997Hestercombe House & Gardens

On Tuesday 22 April 1997, the 35 acre Landscape Garden was officially re-opened to the public for the first time in 125 years by Mark Coplestone Bampfylde, 7th Lord Poltimore, a descendant of Coplestone Warre Bampfylde. The nearby visitor centre was unveiled on the same day by the Chairman of Somerset County Council, Ralph Clark. In the afternoon, about 100 supporters were treated to a guided tour of the garden. Additional publicity was generated by HTV which aired two half-hour documentaries on the restoration on Sunday 27 April and 4 May.

The restoration of the Witch House in progress, 1998.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The restoration of the Witch House was aided by the discovery of an old photograph that had originally appeared in a mass market periodical to which automobile enthusiast, Teddy Portman (1856-1911), had subscribed. The Car Illustrated 25 Apr. 1906, featured a story, entitled ‘Cars and Country Houses: No. 205 – Hestercombe’. Restoration was further supported by garden archaeologists, who located the original foundations of the structure in 1997. The Witch’s House was re-created in just five weeks by rustic buildings specialists, Andrew & David Raffles.

The interior of the Witch House todayHestercombe House & Gardens

The building constructed of simple, naturally occurring materials (tree branches, stones, bark, thatch etc.) that lies just steps from the Temple Arbour was known in early accounts of the garden as the Witches Cave and was first recorded in 1761. Decorated by C. W. Bampfylde with paintings of a witch, cat, snakes and an owl, it was much admired by 18th century visitors, including the English writer, Arthur Young (1741-1820), who was moved to quote a genteel compliment to the grounds from Dr Langhorne, the vicar of Blagdon:

O’er Bampfield’s woods by various nature grac’d,
A witch presides! – but then that witch is TASTE

The Chinese Seat under construction on the terrace walk overlooking the Pear Pond, Hestercombe Landscape Garden, 2007.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The design for the recreated Chinese Seat was based on archaeological investigation, historical pictorial and contextual evidence. C. W. Bampfylde’s watercolour of the Pear Pond c.1777 provided indications of size and form, but supplied only a distant view. Period examples for which there is evidence, most notably the Chinese tea pavilion at Honington Hall, Warwickshire, painted by Thomas Robins 1759, were consulted for appropriate detailing, as was Bampfylde’s own design for Chinese rails (for Henry Fownes Luttrell of Dunster Castle, Somerset).

Attaching slate tiles to the curved roof of the Chinese Seat, 2007.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Construction of the Chinese Seat began in the summer of 2007. Along with the Rustic Seat and Octagon Summerhouse, it was officially opened on 30 June 2008. During celebrations staged in conjunction with the Somerset Chinese Association, traditional unicorn dancers danced to the four corners of the Chinese Seat and at each pillar retrieved a red envelope containing traditional luck money. A buffet lunch and exhibition of Tai Chi rounded out the festivities.

The Chinese Seat today.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Against a wooded backdrop, the oak, lead and slate Chinese Seat terminates one end of the terrace walk that runs along the ridge above the west side of the Pear Pond, providing an excellent view of the combe, with the cave-like gothic Mausoleum lying directly opposite on the other side of the valley.

Rustic Seat under construction, 2007.Hestercombe House & Gardens

In the absence of a drawing of the original building, the design for the reinstated Rustic Seat was based mainly on an archaeological survey and historical contextual evidence. In 2004 the remains of a small faceted, three bay building, marked out by angled drip stones were uncovered by local archaeologists, James Brigers and Keith Faxton. Images of other 18th century root houses and rustic seats were then used to help evoke the spirit of Bampfylde’s modest thatched original. The construction of the Rustic Seat by the Raffles Brothers (also responsible for the Witch House) began in the summer of 2007.

The finished Rustic Seat, with oak posts supporting an asymmetrical thatched roof.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The tree trunks, earth floor and the plaster aggregates for the recreated Rustic Seat building all came from Hestercombe. The plaster was finished with gravel spar from the stream opposite, and the simple bench inside was made from planks of sweet chestnut supplied by Philip White. Along with the Chinese Seat and Octagon Summerhouse, the Rustic Seat was officially opened on 30th June 2008.

Octagon Summerhouse under construction, 2008.Hestercombe House & Gardens

As no image was found of this garden building, thought to have been built by Bampfylde in the 1750s, the design of the reconstructed Octagon Summerhouse was based on archaeological investigation - in 2006, the original foundations were discovered by archaeologists intact along with some building fragments - and contextual evidence. The latter consisted, in large part, of Bampfylde’s own design for an octagonal building with crenelated walls for his friend, Henry Fownes Luttrell, MP, of nearby Dunster Castle.

The Octagon Summerhouse today.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The new Octagon Summerhouse was built directly on the substantial rubble stone foundations of the original. To agree with the archaeological survey, it is clad with brick and incorporates glazed windows, rendered interior walls, a slate roof on oak framing, and a timber floor. First recorded in 1761, the Octagon Summerhouse of Bampfylde’s day was demolished sometime after 1872.

Reinstated on its original position on top of a spur overlooking the Pear Pond, the recreated Octagon Summerhouse once again offers framed views of the Landscape Garden.

The Gothic Alcove, undergoing further conservation work, 2009Hestercombe House & Gardens

In 2000, the Gothic Alcove was reconstructed over a four month period by Caroe & Partners, using foundations rediscovered by archaeologist, P. M. Cottrell (1998) and known Bampfylde designs in the gothic taste as a guide. Further modifications were made to the building in 2009, based on an ink wash sketch of a similar garden building that was discovered on the reverse of a playing card amongst some of Bampfylde’s watercolours in the British Museum.

Pinnacle roof being added to the Gothic Alcove, 2009.Hestercombe House & Gardens

As part of the 2009 conservation works to the Gothic Alcove, a pinnacle roof with lead covered lantern and side buttresses was added along with a decorative finial, crafted by Matt Conlon of Cheddon Forge, Cheddon Fitzpaine.

The Gothic Alcove todayHestercombe House & Gardens

First recorded in 1761, the south-facing Gothic Alcove was taken down after 1903, possibly by its then owner, the Hon. E. W. B. (‘Teddy’) Portman. As originally intended, the Gothic Alcove once again affords a stunning panorama of the Vale of Taunton framed, from within, by an arched opening.

The foundations of the newest introduction to the Hestercombe Landscape Garden, the classical Sibyl’s Temple, being built in 2013.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The reinstatement of Sibyl’s Temple at Hestercombe was based on analysis of archaeological finds from the site (spring 2005) as well as archival evidence from a popular 18th century novel. In the absence of visual evidence for the original structure, the design of Sybil’s Temple was modelled on a garden temple once present at Batheaston Villa, near Bath, the home of 18th century socialite, Lady Anna Miller (1741-1781), who was a great friend of C. W. Bampfylde.

Sibyl’s Temple nearing completion in 2019Hestercombe House & Gardens

Sibyl’s Temple is first mentioned in Columella; or The Distressed Anchoret, published 1779 by the Rev Richard Graves (1715-1784), a friend of C. W. Bampfylde who lived at Claverton, near Bath, and wrote many successful novels, poems and articles. The story is set in a landscape that strongly resembles Hestercombe and at one point refers to an “unexpected view of Sybil’s Temple, whose mimic rotundo appeared almost suspended in the air amidst the surrounding groves”.

Philip White addressing invited guests and garden visitors at the grand opening of Sibyl’s Temple in October 2019.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Designed by Robert Battersby of Architecton, Bristol, and built by Wells Cathedral Stonemasons using construction techniques that were common in the mid-1700s, the Bath stone, lead and oak Sibyl’s Temple was finished in the spring of 2019. It occupies a secluded site in the upper part of the Landscape Garden on the edge of a spur that overlooks the Box Bond. The classical rotunda building was part funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

Paradise Restored, a place for young and old.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Now, more than twenty years after its ponds were dredged and its first buildings were restored, the Landscape Garden sits proudly beside the other two gardens at Hestercombe – the world famous Edwardian Garden, designed by Edwin Lutyens and planted by Gertrude Jekyll; and the Victorian Terrace laid out by Edward Berkeley, 1st Viscount Portman. Together they make Hestercombe, not only one of the foremost historic garden sites in Britain, but also a major tourist draw. An independent charity, the Hestercombe Gardens Trust will continue to look after the estate for future generations.

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