Somerset's historic Halswell
PUBLISHED: 09:00 13 September 2016
The grounds of one of Somerset's most historic estates are being sensitively restored, as Sarah Ford discovers
“String can sometimes be a bit longer than it first appears,” says Edward Strachan when I ask how long his restoration project will take. He bought historic Halswell House and some 30 acres in 2013 and restoring the buildings and grounds has turned out to be a very long labour of love for those involved.
“If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well and our respect of the buildings, gardens and parkland dictates that this cannot be a rush to the finish line,” says Edward, who hopes to open the restored estate to visitors when it is complete.
Halswell Park, a Grade I listed house and Grade II listed park, is situated in the village of Goathurst in Somerset. The estate has its origins in the 11th century and today the main buildings are a Tudor manor dated from the mid-16th century and a mansion house of 1689. These and the landscape are all now being carefully and authentically restored. The house and gardens were broken up in 1950 but escaped the fate of demolition, or conversion into flats.
But despite being a Grade I listed building that the famous architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner called ‘The most important house of its date in the county’ it has had a punishing time of it since then, as Edward explains.
“The 450 acre parkland was sold piecemeal and the ancient trees were felled, many of the follies scattered around the parkland and the rides and walks that circumnavigated the park were destroyed or left to disintegrate.”
An important part of the estate that is now back within the ownership is the waterfall filled lake pleasure gardens called Mill Wood.
Edward says: “Mill Wood is a highly important ancient waterway site that was transformed in the mid 18th century into a mystical place of Druid’s huts, waterfalls, bridges, mock ruins and classical temples scattered around its five lakes. “This area should be seen in the context of the 450 acre naturalistic parkland laid out by Sir Charles in the mid 18th century, very much under the influence of William Kent and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
“The first stage of the parkland restoration is the replanting of the trees. We still have a handful of 17th century chestnuts and some fine oak trees but thousands were destroyed in 1950 and even later when the pastures where put to the plough. This year alone we have planted almost 5,000 new trees in Mill Wood.”
Work has been carried out in a wood by the rotunda and ice house that was always open to locals and further flung visitors to walk amongst the bluebells, wild garlic, daffodils and wild orchids.
“By clearing and managing this wood the remaining descendants of this once flower-filled wood are again springing back to life,” says Edward. “To the south of the house a full Tudor garden is being created and wild meadow gardens are planned.”
Halswell Park contains a very important English Baroque house and is one of Somerset’s most historic estates. Restoration work has thrown up a list of challenges such as relocating bat colonimes, dealing with wet rot, dry rot, full re-wiring, full re-plumbing, installing heating, insulating the building, replacing the roof and repairing the stonework. Work is being carried out by Mark Lidster and his team at Corbel Conservation. The project is led by Claire Fear of Architectural Thread. Mill Wood, is being restored under the guidance of Architecton Ltd of Bristol.
Edward says: “We have a fantastic working relationship with Historic England and Sedgemoor District Council. We were very lucky to meet with Mrs Ann Manders. She works for the Somerset Building’s Preservation Trust which is a dedicated team and previously saved and restored two of the follies at Halswell, Robin Hood’s Hut and the Temple of Harmony. Ann was a ferocious campaigner to save Mill Wood well before I came on the scene so when I swapped some nearby farmland for it and brought it back into Halswell’s control Ann was the perfect leader of that project.”