Somerset Parks and Gardens

Talk by James Bond.

By way of introduction James explained that Parks have changed character – originally deer parks in medieval times, then private parks attached to grand houses and only later were there public parks. Gardens on the other hand have also changed through time but also vary with social class

Beginning with an outline of how he got into this work he then traced parks and gardens back through time. It’s a difficult talk to describe relying as it does on a great many slides. I’ll try and find some links and pictures for the website

He started with a look at Green Beach Park in Clevedon (1887) explaining how the climate affected the planting and went on to comment on when plants were introduced. William Turner, Dean of Wells Cathedral wrote “A New Herball” in 1551 which, whilst relying heavily on earlier herbals, also included many of his own observations on plants in Somerset. This was the first printed herbal in England and Turner is acknowledged as the “Father of English botany” Henry Lyte of Lytes Cary also wrote a herbal in 1578 which was a translation of a French herbal translated from the Flemish original printed in 1554.

The next picture was of Hestercombe where the garden was re-modelled in 1903 by Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll on the orders of the owner E.W.B. Portman. The Great Plat, a sunken parterre, is a semi-recreation of an Elizabethan form with four geometrically laid out beds . The garden is fairly formal but not enclosed and has views over the surrounding countryside. Jekyll kept the planting scheme quite pastel in colour as she disliked Victorian plantings schemes of garish colour. James explained the layout of the garden and how Lutyens had linked the various elements, both formal and informal.

Lutyens also worked at Ammerdown which was originally surrounded by a deer park.   In 1901 Baron Hylton asked Lutyens to re-design the garden and he landscaped the area with a parterre leading to a more formal garden enclosed by high hedges

The next slide was of Wayford Manor an old house built in about 1600 but not completed at the time. In 1899 Ingham Baker employed Sir Ernest George to add a wing and Harold Peto was asked to re-design the garden. The top of the garden is quite formal but then drops down to a less informal woodland garden and Japanese rock garden. James explained that this was a good example of how gardens were moving from formality to informality and the varied planting also reflected the Victorian age of the plant collectors

There was, apparently, considerable debate at this time about whether formal gardens with strong architectural features were better than informal gardens. An exponent of the former was Inigo Thomas who designed the garden at Barrow Court, Barrow Gurney, for Henry Martin Gibbs. Thomas was famous as the illustrator of “The Formal Garden in England” and received many commissions after its publication in 1892. The garden show extreme formality, with a strong architectural framework, statues and formal planting.

By contrast the next slide was of the wild garden at Clapton Court. Here the planting looks very natural and features a wood and pond

James explained that one of the features in the Victorian era was the public park and showed a photograph of Vivary Park in Taunton, which was laid out in 1895 with its bandstand, fountain and impressive railings.

Another public park was Grove Park in Weston-super-Mare. The slide showed elaborate bedding schemes beloved of the Victorians. Although out of fashion now, James suggested that this form of planting lasted longer in public parks than anywhere else.

An example he showed from the early 19th was the garden at the Banwell Bone Caves with its Druid’s temple, pebble house, gazebo and Prospect Tower.

Moving back in time to the C18th James showed examples demonstrating the evolution of the private park. One example was West Quantoxhead where the park was expanded and developed at the expense of the village, and thereby leaving the church isolated. This was, apparently quite a wide-spread practice.

The parks were often deer parks which were designed to show off the wealth of the “nouveau riche” land owners, harking back as they did to previous times. They were a means of showing wealth and status. One example of this was Ammerdown House at Kilmersdon Thomas Joliffe, a clothier by trade, had married an heiress and created a park by uprooting hedges which James said was quite convincing unless you looked at the earthworks which show where the hedges were.

Another example shown was Orchardleigh near Frome, whose house was re-built and the gardens substantially altered in 1856. There is a very elaborate gateway designed so that the house is hidden from view and thereby demonstrating how important the house is. Inside the park, a large lake was created by “removing” some of the village and thus isolating the church on an island.

In the mid late 18th Capability Brown did some work in Somerset. His first commission in Somerset was at Newton St Loe in 1760. The park shows a characteristically Brown lake which imitates nature, sweeping lawns and artfully arranged trees. Brown was, apparently, very good at hiding things he didn’t want people to see such as the dams which formed the lake

Another job he undertook was at Burton Pynsent in 1765 where he designed a column for William Pitt as a memorial to William Pynsent the previous owner of the house who had bequeathed it to Pitt.

Before Brown, James told us, such informal gardens tended to have a much greater architectural component such as bridges and buildings but the houses were always linked to the landscape. Prior Park near Bath house has views to Bath and this was considered important. Pear Park at Hestercombe is another example of this era with a visible dam creating a lake and open vistas created by cutting through the natural woodland to show various follies and temples.

Other examples include Haswell Park near Goathurst which has some gothic features such as a rotunda on a hill, a temple of Pan and a Robin Hood hut disguised as a hermitage from which, apparently, a hermit served cucumber sandwiches!

The C18th was, according to James a period of transition and the garden at Marston Bigot was a good example. A drawing by Rene Parr in 1739 shows traditional features such as a formal garden and bowling green, typical of an earlier period but there was also a wild garden. This mix of classical elements with more eccentric ones has been referred to as Baroque. The garden was laid out between 1724 and 1745 by Stephen Switzer.

Another example of the transition from formality to less formal is Brympton d’Evercy near Yeovil. Here the garden had a very formal layout which was drawn by Johannes Kip, a Dutch artist, in 1772. Kip did a number of drawings which are like aerial views and, although dobt has been cast as to how accurate they are, James said that by looking at estate plans and the archaeology they have proved very accurate . The drawing shows a bowling green, long avenues of tree and formally planted orchards

Clevedon Court and Nether Stowey are other examples. A plan of the latter in 1750 shows elaborate planting, box hedges, and fish ponds. As James pointed out, many of these formal gardens have disappeared but can be traced back to the late Tudor period. Typical planting schemes and plans can be seen in “The Gardeners Labyrinth” a book written in 1577 by Thomas Hill under the pseudonym Diddymus Mountain.

Moving back in time to the Middle Ages, James showed a slide of the gardens at Montacute House. A survey of 1667 shows evidence of an Elizabethan layout and the basic framework was probably earlier than that. Cottlestone Manor also shows a courtyard and earthworks reveal a complicated terrace garden.

Many Elizabeth gardens have now vanished but James explained that a survey done in the 1960’s of large numbers of earthwork sites show where many gardens were which date back to the late C16th

Mick Aston did important work identifying some of these sites. For example the garden at Claverton manor near Bath which was laid out between 1580 and 1625, Parsonage Farm at Nether Stowey which also has earthworks showing several features which are similar to plans of other gardens of the age although they have no idea why they should have had such a garden there as it’s not thought to have been owned by anyone wealthy or important.

Another example was at Henshill Copse where earthworks show evidence of terraces and another at Low Ham which Mick first identified from the air. What is now an isolated church was once a chapel built in 1588 and there are extensive earthworks going up to it. Documentary evidence shows that a house was bought in 1588 by Sir Edward Hext who built a chapel there in 1623 and laid out a garden. In 1625 the house had passed to the Stawell family and in 1690 the mansion was demolished by Lord Stawell, who built another house lower down. The Stawell gardens were not completed when Lord Stawell died in 1692. They had cost £100K and had necessitated the sale of most of his other properties. Planning was, however, well underway when he died according to a letter of 1690 from Jacob Bobart the younger writing to Lord Stawell and describing the work then in hand.

Sometimes, James explained, maps also give us pictures of lost gardens. An example of a 1718 garden attached to a farmhouse reveals a parterre and shows that elements of the formal gardens did sometimes move down the social scale

In towns, gardens were very likely to retain some degree of formality because of space. A 1735 drawing of Wells shows gardens divided into formal patters and in another example at 4 The Circus, Bath, a Georgian garden layout was revealed when they dug under the Victorian spoil.

There are very few medieval gardens left but there are many mainly French and Flemish illustrations of gardens which drew a lot from the Arab world; ideas being picked up during the Crusades. Most were enclosed behind high stone walls with locked gates. Inside the gardens were compartmented with a lot of trellis and there were parts laid out in rectangular and raised beds with clipped shrubs and a lot of climbing plants and fruit trees grown for their fragrance rather than their fruit.

Examples of English gardens are mainly of monastery gardens. At Glastonbury, the Abbot had his own garden and there was also a subsistence garden, vineyard, orchard, grass that was being grazed, and nettles were grown as a crop. Records show that in one year 2000 heads of garlic were grown in the vegetable plot. A resistivity survey done at the Carthusian monastery site at Witton shows that the cells lived in by the monks each had their own garden and there is a similar layout at Hinton Charterhouse.  At Court Farm, Wookey in the 1550’s there was a substantial garden including a 4 acre orchard all contained within the moat. Records of the 1460’s show that they grew saffron. It was the only crop they grew and was perhaps a speculative venture since none was recorded as being grown there again.

Castles such as Farley Hungerford also had gardens and there are examples of the remains of horticulture in smaller manor house gardens such as at Mere where the remains of a vineyard can be seen and at Mells.  Another example is Nether Adber, a deserted medieval village.

Surviving flora is difficult to find but at Steep Holm there are some peonies which are thought to have been introduced by Augustinian monks although they were not documented until the C19th  Wild garlic is also related to the garlic which would have been found in medieval gardens.

James then returned to Deer parks showing a plan of 1687 of Marshwood Park, Dunster with a wild landscape of trees, boundaries, high banks and ditches. The overall shape of the parks was usually an oval shape, the purpose of which was to minimize the amount of paths around it and maximize the internal area.

Looking at Roman villas, James pointed out that these probably had very elaborate formal gardens and courtyards but very little is known.

He concluded by pointing out that although there were fashions in gardens there were always mavericks who did something different. He ended to laughter by showing the well-known garden at Cross with its elaborate topiary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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