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Building a Vision

PUBLISHED: 12:15 11 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013

The formal gardens at Hestercombe. Photo by Guy Edwardes

The formal gardens at Hestercombe. Photo by Guy Edwardes

The 18th-century landscape garden at Hestercombe, near Taunton, has gradually been restored over the last decade, being transformed from an overgrown wooded wilderness into as close to the original as might be possible. What Philip White, the powe...

"We're not trying to make Hestercombe an exact carbon copy of the past because we have to take into account our 21st-century perspective," says Philip. "What we want to do is help people to understand the spirit of Hestercombe, what they used to refer to as the 'genus loci', and that is as much about the emotions of the place as the exact physical being. The sole reason for all the restoration and recreation in the landscape garden is to try to appreciate and evoke the original intention of the man who first designed the garden, Coplestone Warre Bampfylde."

NEW ENDEAVOURS

This year, to the delight of Philip White, the garden has come a step closer to almost complete restoration, with the creation of three 'new' historic buildings in the landscape. They are the Octagon Summerhouse, the Chinese Seat and the Rustic Seat.

"It's a quantum leap for the gardens," explains Philip, "because it's suddenly taking us back closer than we've ever been to the original 18th-century design. It's the culmination of two years research work and means that apart from the ornamental tent, which will go up later this year, we will have all the structures that were recorded in the 1760s back in place."

The last main tranche of work has been made possible through funding from a Heritage Lottery grant, one of the largest awarded in the South West. Initial excavations were carried out by archaeologist James Brigers, working in close association with garden historians Kate Felus and Kim Legate.

OCTAGON SUMMERHOUSE

First to be completed was the Octagon Summerhouse, a tall, 18ft-square (1.67 sq m) castellated building, that according to Kate Felus, once marked the entrance to the landscape garden.

"We only had the footings to go on, which were uncovered by the archaeologist, but these were quite substantial," says Kate. "Because of its proximity to the house and enclosed nature, the Octagon Summerhouse could have been a banqueting house; there is lots of evidence for such buildings in other gardens of the period, like the one at Bowling Green House, in Dunster, which was actually designed by Bampfylde. There are also useful drawings of similar buildings by a local 18th-century artist, Phelps, held in the Somerset Records Office, which has helped us to come up with a design for what we think this building probably looked like, since there are no surviving pictures of it."

The building was carefully recreated by the local building company CS Williams, who sealed the small bricks so typical of the period using lime mortar made with sand from the estate quarry.

"From the windows of the Octagon Summerhouse, you got framed views across and out of the garden and we are reinstating those," explains Philip. "In the 18th century, they put so much time into thinking about the pictures they could create in their gardens, and then framing them for people to see from different vantage points. Many of the garden 'pictures' they formed in those days evoked a range of painterly styles and were actually inspired by well-known paintings and artists."

Over the next year, screens will be positioned inside the building showing DVDs that will interpret Bampfylde's vision to visitors.

CHINESE SEAT

Walk on along the terrace that skirts the Pear Pond below and the path takes you right through the second new building - the Chinese Seat, or 'ting', meaning tea house in Chinese. Although diminutive, at just 10ft (0.93m) square, this is an exquisite creation in the Chinese style, complete with solid oak pillars, curved leaded horns on each corner of the roof, hand-cut Cornish slate tiles and an intricate pattern of roof battens inside. It has been a labour of love for carpenters Mark and Bob Glanville, an unusual grandfather and grandson team.

"It's the first Chinese Seat I've ever made," says the younger of the partners, Mark. "You only get one shot at each cut so it's got to be right first time. The oak was very heavy, and the roof was the most testing because of the way the battens are spaced. I'm pleased with it, though."

So they should be, since they have brought to life another feature that took pride of place in this exact position centuries ago. The main evidence for some kind of Chinese building shows clearly in a watercolour painted by Bampfylde himself and described by a visitor to the garden in 1761. During this period there was a huge fashion for everything Chinese, from fences to seats and buildings, some much more ornate than the one at Hestercombe. Whilst archaeological evidence was uncovered suggesting the location of the Chinese Seat, the watercolour gave little detail as to its exact design. So extensive research was carried out to find evidence of similar structures in existence at the same time. A Chinese building at Wroxton, in Oxfordshire, thought to be designed by Sanderson Miller - a contemporary of Bampfylde's and probably a friend - seemed to provide an appropriate model in terms of style and date. This, together with drawings of Chinese buildings at landscape gardens including Stourhead and Stowe, helped to inspire the design that has finally taken shape at Hestercombe.

A spectacular opening was held for the Chinese Seat earlier in the year, attracting more than 100 Chinese guests from all over the Westcountry. The local Somerset Chinese Association played a key role in advising on the Feng Shui of the 'Ting' and a Chinese cultural specialist, Joseph Mo from Taunton, suggested how to bring luck for the future by staging a traditional Unicorn dance. Being a poet of some repute in his homeland, Joseph Mo also composed a Chinese poem for the banners positioned on either side of the Ting.

"A lot of the Chinese community like gardening, flowers and poetry - it's something from nature, trees and gardens - but at Hestercombe there was no poetry, so I have written a poem and one pair of words hangs on each pillar," explains Joseph. "The two verses describe the area and looking at the water, trees, the direction, and it thinks about the present and the future."

RUSTIC SEAT

The third of the new features in the landscape garden is the Rustic Seat, sited opposite the dramatic 45ft-high (14m) Great Cascade further up the valley. Although called a Seat, since it was another resting place from which to admire the spectacular view of the waterfall, like the Chinese Seat, it is actually a small building. It has an attractive arching thatched roof supported by chunky oak tree trunks and an interior finished in lathe and plaster. All it lacks in historical accuracy is a hermit! Built by the Raffle Brothers, specialists in historic summerhouses, this is another extraordinary work of art and craftsmanship.

The finishing touch to all this will be the installation, probably early next year, of a handmade canvas, Turkish-style tent on a rocky outcrop high above the Pear Pond opposite the Octagon Summerhouse. In cheery blue and white stripes, it will come complete with a 28ft-high (8.5m) flagpole adorned with a giant flag, five yards (4.5m) long, that will be visible from Taunton. In days gone by tents like this were erected for summer picnicking, which is very much as it will be used now. BY REBECCA POW

Take a visit (and perhaps a picnic) to Hestercombe Gardens to see the buildings for yourself. Hestercombe Gardens, Cheddon Fitzpaine, Taunton, TA2 8LG, tel 01823 413923, www.hestercombegardens.com.

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