Spring has sprung
PUBLISHED: 09:00 01 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:58 09 May 2014
There is no end to Hestercombe's wonders - especially at this time of year
Events at Hestercombe
Mother’s Day Lunch & Tea
30 March. Booking essential.
5-13 April in the plant centre.
5-21 April. Garden admission fee applies.
22-25 April. Garden admission fee applies.
Café specials and herbs on sale. Free admission.
24 May. Hestercombe House. First show Leaping the Fence.
whilst it boasts a superlative garden, listed amongst Britain’s top 20 best, latest developments have now extended Hestercombe’s portfolio to include art and music too. It is all part of ‘the genius’ of the place.
It is the gardens however that have really put Hestercombe on the map.
Situated in the shelter of the Quantock Hills with a commanding view over the Vale of Taunton, but perfectly reachable being just minutes from junction 25 of the M5, venture to this 35 acre estate and step into another world.
The well-laid-out paths will steer you almost imperceptibly through three centuries of gardening history. It is a kind of living history lesson.
First, make your way through the Victorian shrubbery, planted in the style of William Robinson, famed for his late 19th century natural planting, which was a forerunner to the English cottage garden style.
A mix of hardy perennials and shrubs, it contrasts with the intricate patterns of the colourful Victorian bedding schemes popular at the time. You can compare the two styles when you reach the terrace to the south side of the house with its geometric beds and vibrant planting around a tiered fountain.
From the shrubbery, pass the Octagon Summerhouse, an exquisite castellated building re-created after intensive archaeological excavation and research and head into the dramatic 18th century landscape garden, set in a peaceful wooded valley away from the house. With its tranquil lakes, elegant temple, mausoleum, dramatic Great Cascade, eye-catching vistas and panoramic views it is breathtaking.
The scene appears unaltered since its creation three centuries ago by Copplestone Warre Bampfylde, a well known man about Taunton, who lived at Hestercombe during the 1700s. He had wanted to create a garden to rival nearby Stourhead in Wiltshire and over his lifetime that is indeed what he achieved.
However, over the centuries Bampfylde’s landscape garden disappeared virtually without trace. Undergrowth encroached, buildings fell into disrepair, the 40 foot high cascade ran dry and in 1963 the Forestry Commission planted the whole area with commercial coniferous trees.
It is thanks to local man, Philip White, who realised there was a hidden treasure beneath the undergrowth, that the garden has been restored, starting in the early 1990s.
“I became consumed by the idea of returning the landscape to its original glory.
“I felt I was here to restore the landscape. I think I had always had this fantasy of doing something in an 18th-century style.”
Mortgaging his own house to raise the money to dredge 17,000 tonnes of silt from the bottom lake and to start clearing the coniferous woodland, like a tenacious puppy dog, Philip left no stone unturned.
Eventually in 1995 he secured a grant from the Countryside Agency to really push the project forward, enabling further clearance and the restoration of the mausoleum and temple. The Great Cascade was ready to run again in time for a grand opening in 1997.
Further work was funded by a Lottery Grant of £3.7million and with the ironing out of complex ownership and management arrangements involving a range of bodies, the Hestercombe Gardens Trust was finally established with Philip White as its Chief Executive. In 2012 he was awarded the MBE for services to garden heritage restoration.
The final piece of the Hestercombe jigsaw was slotted into place last year when ownership of Hestercombe House was transferred from Somerset County Council (who had used it as the HQ of Somerset Fire Services) to the Hestercombe Gardens Trust.
The Edwardian Garden
There is another whole century to pass through before you head back to the visitor centre (which itself has metamorphosed from the old Victorian coach house). Enveloping the house is Hestercombe’s Edwardian piece de resistance, the world famous, grade I listed garden, designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and planted by the redoubtable plantswoman, Gertrude Jekyll.
This garden was commissioned by the Hon Edward Portman in 1904 shortly after the wealthy Portman family took over the Hestercombe Estate.
With its iconic orangery, rotunda, rills, Dutch garden and its central feature, the Great Plat, an enormous sunken parterre laid out with geometric borders and bounded by the longest pergola in Britain, this is regarded as the finest example of the Jekyll/Lutyens partnership anywhere.
This garden too has undergone extensive restoration using original Jekyll plans discovered in the potting shed in the 1970s.
Bringing art and music
Hestercombe has always had a place at the leading edge of creativity. The world famous gardens were designed by people who, before they became garden designers, were established artists in their own right.
Building on this long-standing tradition of art intertwined with landscape, in May Hestercombe will launch an exciting contemporary art gallery. Not opened to the public since the 18th century, visitors to the gallery will be able to experience works by some of the country’s leading contemporary artists making it well placed to become a regionally-important gallery space.
The opening exhibition, Leaping the Fence, celebrates the breadth of contemporary art over the past 20 years, bringing together provocative and exciting art works.
The show will include sound and film pieces, sculpture and digital works as well as paintings from the national Arts Council Collection together with works borrowed from leading art galleries and collectors with the prospect of works by Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger, Mark Quinn and Meriele Neudecker.
There will be music in the air too. In March the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama launched a Regional Centre for Young Musicians in Hestercombe House. This is only the second such centre in the country.
The centre offers talented young musicians aged five to 18 the opportunity to take advantage of the exceptional quality of music tuition for which the Guildhall is famed. Operating every Saturday during term time, the centre is run by Tomas Yardley from the Guildhall.
He says: “I am thrilled that we have opened this school at Hestercombe in the heart of the West Country. We will use the London model to bring a curriculum that is not dictated by examination boards and the school system but offers a more holistic approach to music making in the region.
“Hestercombe provides an ideal backdrop for our musicianship because we are a classical school and where better for a classical school than in a stately home with its sweeping views?”
Volunteers play an important part in the gardens, being involved in everything from weeding to mending the 4km dry stone wall surrounding the estate, and volunteers will also be playing a crucial role in the new art gallery.
Philip White, Chief Executive, explains: “We are looking for volunteers with a wide range of skills for a variety of activities from painting and decorating, to invigilating the rooms, meeting and greeting visitors, manning the new second hand bookshop and serving tea and coffee.
“Previous knowledge is not necessary as we will be giving training including an opportunity for volunteers to learn about the art. We are excited that we’re able to offer new and stimulating opportunities for local people.”