Monthly Archives: May 2017

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.