Author Archives: David Martyn

Volunteers make bold steps

For many years now the path between the Echo and the Georgian Viewing Terrace behind has been a bit difficult to negotiate. Whether it was by a direct and steep route along the side of the Echo, or by an uneven diversion around the bay tree the route was difficult to negotiate for many visitors, and particularly treacherous in the winter.

The steps during construction

KWAG volunteers have now rectified the problem by constructing a new set of steps descending in  a graceful curve around the bay tree and delivering walkers safely to the main path. Building on our previous training and experience with the long ascent through Penpole Wood a small group of invited volunteers attended a special working party on the 2nd May. Timber, gravel and tools were all purchased through donations to KWAG, but, of course, the manpower required was provided free by our volunteers and were are very grateful.

KWAG volunteers pose with the finished result

KWAG volunteers pose with the finished result

The alignment of the path approximates the historic route shown on an estate plan of 1772  and is therefore more of a restoration than an entirely new insertion. However the creation of level steps is a modern innovation of our own, and one which we hope will make the path between two of the estate’s historic features much more accessible for all.

Our thanks go to everyone who lent a hand on the day, and especially to Jim and Celia Ellis whose planning of the project made the whole day run smoothly.

Coincidentally the day also saw a good deal of activity form Bristol City Council parks rangers. They felled some of the large bay tree boughs that were threatening the masonry and urns of the Echo. Other complementary work say the poisoning of the Japanese Knotweed later the same day.


The steps curve away around the bay tree beside the Echo.

The steps curve away around the bay tree beside the Echo.

Research update: More on the Echo

With the acoustic feature partially restored it’s worth reassessing the parkland building that took its name. The Echo was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, the same architect as Kings Weston house, and was probably erected when the parkland was being embellished in the 1720s. It was fitted into a pre-existing series of formal gardens that led up the hillside from the house. These three walled gardens followed a typical arrangement of parterre garden, ‘wilderness’ garden, and grove, that became popular in the Seventeenth Century. At Kings Weston these gardens were to have been likely laid-out by Sir Robert Southwell and designed to related to the earlier Tudor mansion. They were retained, partly remodelled, when the old house was demolished and the present one begun in 1712.

The early gardens are shown in several engravings, but the most complete is an estate plan of 1720. This may have been commissioned immediately ahead of the park being embellished, and doesn’t yet show the Echo in its current location. Instead, in the location the axial route through the Grove terminates in a canted wall, perhaps with a raised viewing terrace where the view back towards the house could be enjoyed.

Detail of the 1720 Estate plan showing the location of features mentioned in the text

Detail of the 1720 Estate plan showing the location of features mentioned in the text

The blank sides and rear of the present Echo building has often perplexed visitors. Why would a garden structure that could, at the time, have been seen from all sides make no effort with ornamentation? The answer has been revealed through recent research. A drawing exists in Bristol Record Office  which shows the slope of the landscape from the garden front of the house along the garden axis. Dated 1720 it’s is a measured survey produced ahead of proposed alterations to the height of Kingsweston Hill, and, although it doesn’t show the Echo, passes through its future location. Measuring carefully the distance from the house the location can be plotted on the historic drawing. What it shows is that at this time there existed a public road passing around the back of the private gardens.

Detail of the 1720 section surveyed through the landscape and with the current position of the Echo added

Detail of the 1720 section surveyed through the landscape and with the current position of the Echo added

Whilst it’s not possible to find traces of the road today – it’s long been erased by works designed to obliterate it – it illustrates why there was never any necessity to ornament the rear of the Echo at this time. The public’s experience of this side of the gardens was only of a high boundary wall intended to keep the inquisitive at bay. When the Echo was built it too turned its back on the public highway.

How long the road, and the garden wall, remained is not known; They were swept away before 1772 when the Echo is first shown as a stand-along building. It is likely that the road was moved and landscape altered in the 1730s when records suggest part of the hill here was being taken down. This was a major undertaking designed to improve the view from the house towards the city across Shirehampton Park, and a public road would have been a substantial inconvenience to ambitions.

The early wall fabric preserved in the rear of the EchoThe early wall fabric preserved in the rear of the Echo

What we are left with in the Echo bears closer inspection. Looking carefully at the stonework there are clear scars in the fabric. Whilst it’s known that some of these date from substantial restoration works in the 1990s there remain earlier traces. Across the rear wall of the echo, on the front and rear facades, there is a definite change in colour and texture in the stonework. The lower section is of paler limestone, whilst the upper section matches the sides of the building and are of a pinkish Penpole Stone. This is the fossilised remnant of the original garden wall that were incorporated into the Echo when it was built in about 1724. The alcoves inside the Echo have been inserted within the thicker fabric of this boundary wall, and the arches spring just above the line of the original wall.

Although no other built trace remains of the formal garden structure (even the current axial path is a Victorian) we are fortunate that, if we look closely, we can still discover traces of the landscape’s past in even in it most familiar features.

The back wall of the Echo showing the change in stonework from grey below the line, to pink above it.

The back wall of the Echo showing the change in stonework from grey below the line, to pink above it.

Round the Back Front: History of a forgotten part of the estate.

Many people’s first impression of Kings Weston house is marred by the slightly mangled and despoiled rear of the building. There have been some real improvements recently under Norman Routledge, but it’s a far cry from the original intentions of the architect Sir John Vanbrugh who designed the house with four individual facades of near-equal importance. We are fortunate that there are a wealth of estate maps, and drawings for the Kings Weston estate, but with so many differing styles, scales and detail it’s sometimes difficult to interpret how the setting of the house once appeared.

Recent research and interpretation of this forgotten side, the “Back Front” as it was built, has revealed how this part of the estate has evolved. A new set of reconstruction images, presented here for the first time, seeks to show how this are developed over time. Click on  each image to view it at larger size.

When Sir Robert Southwell bought Kings Weston in 1679 it was centered on a late Tudor mansion, in front of which were formal open courts and scattered service buildings. By 1710 his son, Edward, had ornamented the grounds with a brick-faced banqueting house and a long raised terrace, perhaps for bowling.


By 1720 Vanbrugh had completed the new house and with Edward they’d added new kitchens, brewhouse and a huge new terrace overlooking the Severn terminated by an ornamental loggia attached to the side of the Banqueting House. A pond and fountain were added symmetrical to the “Back Front”

Edward Southwell III had deformalised the gardens by 1772. A new kitchen range closed off the back of the house for the first time and a service court was created. This, and its access drive, cut through the old Banqueting House terrace. An ice house was sited to take advantage of the shade below the bank down to Kingsweston Lane.

The Victorian era saw substantial changes under the Miles family. A large replacement  kitchen block was added in the 1840s and the former Banqueting House was reused as a laundry and wash house. The remnants of the terrace was a drying yard. An ash tip was hidden out of site behind a timber fence and yew hedge.

The kitchens were demolished in 1938/9 before plans to turn the house into a school faltered in WWII. After the war the estate entered institutional use, and the gardens and buildings were neglected and went to ruin. By 1980 the back of the building was in use as a car park, and little sense of the historic setting remained.

Iron Bridge update. April 2017

We’re regularly contacted about the current progress on the Iron Bridge repair. We’re still in the position of lobbying the city council highways department to get some progress. We are aware that there are significant safety concerns about crossing the road close to Shirehampton Road junction, and the use of the bridge by trespassers crawling through the scaffolding, and have passed both issues on to the Council.  Rest assured that local Councillors Jo Sergant and Donald Alexander  have also been pushing hard on behalf of their ward.

The latest news is that it is planned that the work will be included within the current financial year, though this will be very dependant on budgets and other priorities within the city. We’re sorry that the news isn’t more positive, but the best advice we can give is to recommend you refer any queries, concerns, or issues directly to the councillors so they can pass them on to cabinet or the highways officers involved.

Tree planting with One Tree per Child

Following clearance of laurel and brambles last month saw the replanting of a large area around the White Oak in Penpole Wood with native tree species. Bristol City Council’s One Tree Per Child programme supported an event held on 23rd of March to involve school children from Kingsweston School in planting new 58 saplings.

Bristol Council's Jon Atkinson shows us how it's done

Bristol Council’s Jon Atkinson shows us how it’s done

Jon Atkinson, and volunteers from KWAG and Keynsham company, So Vision, set out the area ready for planting and helped in the work of planting.  Native species focused on native oak, lime and hazel and have been planted to complement the existing and rare White Oak which remains the central focus of this part of the woodland.

Children and helpers from Kingsweston School get stuck in with the tree planting.

Children and helpers from Kingsweston School get stuck in with the tree planting.

The original path through the area has also been informally reinstated as part of the work. The path will enable the saplings to be accessed for future maintenance and enable visitors to get much closer to the landmark White Oak, so please do take the opportunity to use it.


Unfortunately the new path has been deliberately vandalised, blocked, and the edging removed on two occasions now. If you know who is responsible please let us know, or report it if you see anything or find it removed again. Thank you.

The tree planting area and reinstated path below the White Oak.

The tree planting area and reinstated path below the White Oak.

Spies at large!

The recent publication, Somerset Mapped, by Emma Down and Adrian Webb, brought a curious new story to light. One of the maps reproduced in this volume represents the landscape around Kings Weston and the north of Bristol and was drawn up for a sinister purpose!

Tensions between France and Britain were frequently high throughout the Eighteenth Century, and both sides were keenly prepared if war broke out. It was important to plan for both the defence of your own territory, and, if necessary, the invasion of your opponent’s. With this in mind, in 1768, the French dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Paule St de Beville to undertake covert reconnaissance of key targets in the south of England.

Detail of Lieutenant Colonel Paule St de Beville's map of the Avon, 1768, from Somerset Mapped.

Detail of Lieutenant Colonel Paule St de Beville’s map of the Avon, 1768, from Somerset Mapped.

Part of his mission was to survey the landscape and provide detailed maps and analysis, which could prove strategically significant for an invading force. His map for the mouth of the Avon was drawn on the 18th September 1768 and is likely to have been drawn from memory, or notes, taken furtively during reconnaissance trips.

From the map it’s clear that he stationed himself at Kingsweston Inn (D on the plan) which he refers to as ‘Cabaret de l’espion’: tavern of the spy. The inn would have given him the perfect pretence to stay and survey the area, and was ideally located to provide a high vantage point from which to study the landscape. Kings Weston was firmly on the circuit of fine houses and gardens frequented by the well-to-do, and it had an international reputation that regularly attracted Continental nobility; a Frenchman visiting the estate, and staying in the inn, would be unlikely to raise much suspicion.

On Kingsweston Hill he identified the former windmill (A on the plan), which he’d established was stationed by a lookout in times of war. In describing the hill as the ‘mountain of the spy’ it’s clear that he used it as the principal station for his own observations.

Kingsweston Inn seen from below and from the south, circa 1820.

Kingsweston Inn seen from below and from the south, circa 1820.

Kings Weston house and it’s recently completed stable courts, (B and C on the plan) have a recognisable relationship, and the avenue of trees stretching westwards appears to connect to Penpole Lodge, though the detail is more illustrative than accurate. Strategic features, such as the anchorage in Kingroad, and the ferry between Lamplighter’s and Pill are also shown, no doubt of significance to any army seeking to dominate the entrance to Bristol by land or sea.

How St de Beville interpreted the strategic significance of Kings Weston is difficult to say. He identified a potential camp for troops on a flat plateau around Nailsea that he’d seen at a distance, but the capture of the mouth of the Avon, and an assault on Bristol from the north, either from the Gloucestershire side of the Avon, or the Somerset side via Pill, would have relied on securing the high ground above Shirehampton. Perhaps Kings Weston house would have provided a suitable command post for operations?  In the event no such invasion ever happened, but signal masts were maintained on Kingsweston Hill for the duration of the wars with France that followed later in the same Century.

Continuing work in the gardens

Norman Routledge of Kings Weston house has been continuing work on the gardens throughout the winter. The new plans and landscape design received planning consent in January and since then the area of the old building site ruins on the south-east side of the mansion has been transformed. The scheme includes a re-laid lawn, new planting, trees, and a long water rill running down through the site along an old workman’s trench.

View across the new lawn and garden works towards Kings Weston house

These images show the site as it now looks including the concrete foundations of the new water feature and the recently planted beech hedge and shrubbery that will separate the gardens from the existing car park.  Some of the stone elements recovered from the ruins that once stood here have been reincorporated into a retained section of the old walls and turned into a secret garden for private use.

Plans have been amended from since we last circulated them; the proposed second drive exiting onto Kings Weston Lane from the woodland car park has been omitted following consultation.

More planting  along the south side of the water feature, alongside the new gravel path, will soon enhance the scene. Although the gardens are still incomplete it’s easy to see the handsome effect they will have when finished, returning some of the lost formality to the setting of this Grade I Listed building. Norman would like to pass on his thanks to some of KWAG’s volunteers who let a hand last month in getting the new trees and shrubs into the ground.

Looking towards the Echo with the secret garden to the left and the new water feature in development in the centre.

The Circle completed

We are again grateful for such a good turnout at January’s working party, and especially to the many new volunteers who came along to lend a hand. This ended up being one of the toughest of the laurel-clearing working parties, with a thick and tangled mass of dense greenery to fell. The scale of the challenge is perhaps not fully demonstrated in our before and after images, but the impact on the site is marked.

Looking south from the main path through the woods towards the Circle before and after work

Looking south from the main path through the woods towards the Circle before and after work

Before and after work looking through Penpole Wood towards the Circle

Before and after work looking through Penpole Wood towards the Circle

Views of veteran trees through the area, and revealed vistas to important ornamental planting have all benefited from the work, as well as the long-term health and diversity of the woodland in this key location.

Although we only narrowly achieved our target of clearing the whole of the area around the Circle, a great deal of felled timber had to be cleared and reduced over subsequent weeks. We are grateful for Jim Ellis and Norman Routledge for having undertaken this, and enhanced the finished result.
The event also saw the planting of three new trees around the edge of the Circle and within the wood. As noted last month, these will supplement the native and ornamental species already growing here.

The Circle looking towards Kings Weston House before and after work

The Circle looking towards Kings Weston House before and after work

The laurels regress between December and January

The laurels regress between December and January

Historic painting returns to Bristol

The gallery of paintings in the Saloon of Kings Weston House is one of its highlights. Whilst there are literally dozens of portraits of members of the Southwell family, who owned the house and estate for the whole of the Eighteenth Century, this is just a fraction of their original collection.

The rooms throughout the mansion were filled with many paintings, with a strong emphasis on ancestral portraits. Today the family still owns a small collection of these, but many remain lost or in private collections; However, just occasionally, one comes to light…

Most recently a painting came onto the market of Lady Elizabeth Dering, the Irish noblewoman who, in 1665, married the first of the family at Kings Weston, Sir Robert Southwell. There are already paintings of the couple in the house; a pair of beautiful and characterful works. The newly uncovered painting has a well documented history and can be tracked from its original execution to its final sale out of the family in 1834 following the death of the last of the direct line.

Elizabeth Dering, by Sir Peter Lely and "Mr Sonius"

Elizabeth Dering, by Sir Peter Lely and “Mr Sonius”

The painting itself is vast; Over seven feet in height it is almost life size. It carries the name and date of its sitter in the lower left-hand corner, and Elizabeth stares out of the canvas with almost-luminous skin, and a distant gaze. A striking red shawl wraps through the painting, but, unusually, the dress she wears is jet black and isn’t as splendid show of opulent colour as one might expect from such a bold painting.

Elizabeth Dering, by Pooley, now in Kings Weston House.

Elizabeth Dering, by Pooley, now in Kings Weston House.

Clues to the painting’s origins are given in an early inventory of goods in the house compiled in 1695. With regard to the full-length portrait of Elizabeth it explains “the head done by Sir Peter Lely in 1680, a little before his death. The drapery by Mr Sonius”. Lely was the foremost court painter of his age, and his prolific output included the majority of the Royal family and nobility of Britain. At his death in November 1680 many of of the works in his studio were incomplete and finished by assistants, the Dering portrait no doubt amongst them. Elizabeth herself lived only a few months longer, dying in January 1681. It is therefore likely that the studio were instructed to complete the painting posthumously and the dark mourning dress of black symbolised the recent loss.

Elizabeth's memorial in Henbury Church

Elizabeth’s memorial in Henbury Church

The painting originally hung in the Southwell’s house in Spring Gardens, London, but quickly found its way to Kings Weston by the time the house was remodelled by Vanbrugh in 1712. All subsequent descriptions of the house mention it in the Breakfast Parlour overlooking the Severn; This space has since been opened out into what’s better known today as the Vanbrugh Room. When the last of the direct line of the family, Edward Southwell VI, Baron de Clifford, died in 1832 almost the entire contents of the house were auctioned in a lavish series of events in London. It appears that the Dering portrait was sold with one other of a similar size for the princely sum of £7!

The history of the painting since that auction remains uncertain. A number of auction stamps, and collection marks, on the timber stretcher hint at a long chain of subsequent ownership. No doubt in the future we may be able to find out who was interested enough in the sitter, or the portrait to own it, and who the mysterious painter, Mr Sonius was! The intention is that the painting will now return to Bristol. Plans are yet to develop for how public access and enjoyment of it can be arranged. At some point it would be wonderful to see it return to kings Weston in some form.

A love no longer evergreen

As with our work last year, this winter’s work in clearing the laurels has caused a little concern with regular park users. However it is key to understand how the problem has arisen in the first place.

Whilst much of the Kings Weston estate feels very wild it was not always the case. The whole of Penpole Wood and the Home Park were once carefully managed pleasure grounds and were carefully managed and embellished for well over four centuries. Penpole Wood, although partially ancient woodland, was set-out and maintained as part of the gardens to Kings Weston house.

Continuing clearance of invasive cherry laurel from Penpole Wood.

Throughout the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the Southwell family who owned the estate sought to enhance the promenades and avenues. They sought not only to demonstrate their mastery over nature, and impress visitors with the latest imported trees and shrubs. To enliven the walks in the winter months they sought to introduce verdant colour through the planting of evergreen shrubs as an understorey. As with the selection of exotic tree species they planted both native and imported varieties, and the legacy of what they placed in the ground is very much with us today. Although the laurel now dominates this is the perfect time of year to identify more of the evergreen species that lend colour to the winter landscape and help us understand the design and layout of earlier ornamental planting schemes.

Below: A path at Newton St Loe where laurel and box are maintained to their originally intended C18th appearance. note also the use of yew trees picturesquely interspersed.

The Cherry Laurel we’re currently removing originally comes from Eastern Europe and Asia. It was used extensively at Kings Weston, and, when planted in the Eighteenth Century, would have been carefully cut and was intended to be maintained at a uniform height and scale. Many historic parklands retain this species, but only very few have the resources and patience to ensure they are trimmed as originally intended. A good example of the effect they would once have had can be gleaned from Newton St Loe, near Bath. Here Bath Spa University continues to manage the Capability Brown designed landscape in the traditional manner. When dealing with the monstrously large cherry laurels at Kings Weston it is difficult to imagine that they grew from such well-mannered shrubberies!

Also surviving within Penpole Wood are a number of Portuguese laurel. They too are an introduced species and would have been inter-planted to give variety of colour and texture with the cherry laurel. These are less invasive, and tend to be more compact, forming small trees with smaller, darker leaves.

Throughout the Georgian and Victorian period native species remained popular for understorey planting. Familiar hedging plants like box and privet can still be found, now growing wild, and interspersed through Penpole Wood, and behind the Echo. They’ve survived less well where out-competed by cherry laurel. Many of the English Yew within Penpole Wood are part of deliberate but long-forgotten planting schemes and have grown into maturing trees rather than the manicured bushes they were intended to form.

The native Butcher’s Broom was also a sought-after evergreen for ornamental planting. An unusual and distinctive plant with sharp spiny leaves and stiff branches it grows to about 2-3 feet in height in dense and well-defined patches. There are several remaining plants along the South Walk between the Echo and The Circle, but it survives less well in other parts of the estate where there has been greater competition for light.

Note also should be made of one other plant which still forms a notable and attractive component of the designed woodland areas: Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius). Although not evergreen it deserves mention here as a survival of Georgian and later planting schemes. A native of Southern Europe it is now naturalised in Penpole Wood and formerly flowered in sunny areas with richly scented white blooms. Our recent laurel clearance efforts also focussed attention on pruning a number of these plants along the main path through the woods. These should naturally regenerate into attractive and dense bushes. With the sunlight now able to penetrate into the woods these shrubs should again flower in coming years.

Below: A typical outcrop of Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus)

Evergreens will remain an important component of the Kings Weston landscape, though the problems with introduced species, and the decades-long neglect in maintaining them as originally planned, have distorted our perceptions of the woodland. Cherry laurel will continue to grow across the park, but the planters of the once-fashionable shrubs cannot have contemplated the damage they would cause to the landscape in the modern era. Now the dominant plant in many areas of the estate our love-affair with laurel has soured. It is our hope that, in reducing the coverage now, we will enable other species to take their place on the forest floor.