Author Archives: David Martyn

Southwell’s Architectural Odyssey

Edward Southwell, circa 1705. Downpatrick Museum

Anyone committing to build themselves a house no doubt puts a good deal of thought and research into the design beforehand, and it was no different for Edward Southwell when he was planning his new home at Kings Weston. Although he had appointed the Queen’s architect, Comptroller of the Royal Works, Sir John Vanbrugh to design the building Southwell would have been keen to make sure the designs, and the cost of the project, suited his needs. In appointing Vanbrugh he had already committed himself to the most modern and innovative architecture of the day. It is difficult now to picture quite how revolutionary the architecture was. For comparison, most of the grand houses around Bristol were still largely Tudor structures. At the time, nationally there were relatively few houses that adopted the newly fashionable Classical style we might now associate with grand stately homes. The revolution in style had only really taken hold in the decades after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, and took time to establish after the privations of the Civil War and Commonwealth era. If Southwell was to get inspiration for his new house he had a shallow pool from which to drink.

Sir John Vanbrugh. Painting in the National Portrait Gallery.

Seemingly with little plan for what to replace it with Southwell began demolition of his old family home in Spring 1711. By December the same year his sister, Helena le Grand, lamented to family friend John Perceval 

“we expect my brother in town the end of the week after filling his belly with the ruins of Kingsweston for I can call it no otherwise.” 

Still, in March the following year, Southwell himself confessed to Perceval “Kings Weston house is almost down though I don’t know what to build in the room” – an extraordinary lack of foresight! In the same letter he notes that he is making his gardens there “very fine” though the pressing priority of the house designs continued to elude him.
On April 25th Southwell set off from his London house, Spring Gardens, for ten days at Kings Weston, with an intention to set out the new foundations for the house. Rather than hurry to the building site an itinerary had been devised that would take in many of the most modern house architecture between the Capital and Bristol. Southwell’s own travel journals record the visits made on the four day trip and each short entry is accompanied by very basic notes on the incidence of garden features, architecture and stables. This was a study trip to get inspiration, and perhaps some housebuilding advice. 

Beginning on the 25th April
Duke Schomberg’s – Uxbridge (Hillingdon House)
Sr Roger Hill’s – Denham Place, Buckinghamshire
Sr Richard Temple – Stowe, Buckinghamshire
Mr Boyle’s – Middleton Stoney, Oxfordshire
D. of Shrewsbury – Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire
Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire  
Dodington, (Gloucestershire)

This map shows all the stops on the route.

Today many of these buildings are fairly obscure, if not forgotten. Some have been entirely rebuilt or altered, but at the time they represented a good selection of the modern architectural or landscaping works, utilising the most current styles, construction techniques, and building technology.

Painting of Denham Place, its gardens, and estate buildings, circa 1700. Yale Centre for British Art. cropped to image
The grand staircase at Denham Place, circa 1701

Hillingdon House is not supposed to have been commenced until 1717, so what Southwell saw there is unknown. Denham Place had been completed in 1701 and was surrounded by fine formal garden compartments, including a long ornamental canal, that set the house in the centre of a lavish pleasure ground. The ornamental garden buildings, gates,  and statues added opulence to the house itself, which was built of brick. Well-mannered with good proportions it was in a fairly staid style, perhaps even out of date for its time. Inside, a grand central staircase was one of the finest features along with other finely fitted out rooms; perhaps these were inspiration for what Kings Weston could offer.

Stowe house and gardens are now internationally known, and Vanbrugh later worked to embellish its gardens with ornamental buildings, but Southwell will have seen an earlier, less extravagant, house. Built in 1676 it was similar to Denham in its general plan and style with ‘H’ plan and hipped roofs. Both these houses had balustrade rooftop terraces and architecturally prominent chimneys. Architecturally they were fairly derivative, following almost standardised patterns after Burlington house, London, a building, amongst other fashionable examples, that set the mould for house design at the start to the Restoration era. 

Stowe House in about 1715, before it was redeveloped  on a colossal scale. 

Middleton Stoney was built around 1710. Unfortunately it was completely rebuilt in the 1750s and no earlier depiction has been located to know what he saw there. 
Heythrop Park was the most architecturally ambitious building visited. Begun in 1706 it was nearing completion when Southwell visited. Not only would it have given him an insight into the modern Baroque style, but he could have sought direct advice from builders and other people involved with the construction. Applied columns in the Corinthian style and ‘Giant Order’, robust window keystones, and an emphasis on the main entrance with its portico have some parallels with what happened at Kings Weston. The unique interiors of this house were lost in a fire in the 1830s.

South east front of Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire, by Thomas Archer, 1706- circa 1718.

Cornbury, though much earlier, shared similar features to Heythrop, but is more restrained in its exuberance. Here, on the south east wing, the Portico is engaged with the façade, with bold projections at the cornice. Imagining the frontage without the two end bays, and a silhouette enriched by a rooftop arcade, this building has stronger parallels with Kings Weston than Heythrop. The south-east wing was designed in 1666 by Hugh May, and architect who Vanbrugh admired for the work he’d done at Windsor Castle. The interiors here have been heavily altered, but there was once a double height hall here whose over-scaled fireplace with a Vanbrughn boldness survives. 

South east wing of Heythrop house, Oxfordshire, by Hugh May, 1666. 

Most curiously the diversion to Heythrop diverted right around Blenheim Palace, Vanbrugh’s most famous work, that was then in the process of construction. Considering Southwell had hired him as architect an inspection of the works might be expected it to have been an essential highlight. It’s assumed therefore that Southwell had visited at least once before and was already familiar with the project. How Heythrop, or for that matter any of the buildings on the itinerary, were selected can only be speculated upon.  

Like Middleton Stoney, Dodington Park was entirely rebuilt in the late 18th century, and little can be ascertained on why it was included on the itinerary. Dyrham Park nearby,  finished in around 1711, would already have been very familiar to Southwell, who was close to the Blathwayt family and would marry into it in 1716.  
Further research is required to know whether Vanbrugh accompanied his patron on this journey. Was he there directing Southwell to features he thought fitting for Kings Weston, or did he have some influence on the selection of properties to visit? Was Vanbrugh present when Kings Weston was set out and begun?   
You might expect that by the time Southwell reached Kings Weston, on the 29th April, and after so much inspiration, he might have at last decided on a new design. Indeed he writes that already “upwards of 60 men preparing stones and digging the foundation of the new house”; but still, in the closing days of May he wrote “I am full of a great anxiety and trouble as to mine (house improvements) which arises from the uncertainty of setting out right, and to this hour my model, I cannot say, is fixed; though it may be and will be by the next week.” Clearly April’s ambition to set out the new building had failed, the study trip perhaps even adding confusion to the process.    

 Architectural drawing of the main front of Kings Weston House, from the office of Sir John Vanbrugh. (Victoria & Albert Museum) 

 This indecision appears to be Southwell’s own, and Vanbrugh is not mentioned at all. The architect must have been working closely with his client on proposals, so whether his designs were rejected and revised, or whether the fault was his, and he’d been slow in furnishing his client with drawings is not known. There are no significant variations in the general design of the new mansion in existing drawings. Eventually plans for the house were agreed, and on 16th of June work on Vanbrugh’s designs for Kings Weston house was begun. In the context of most of the grand houses of its day, particularly in the Bristol Region, it was still a pretty revolutionary piece of architecture. Where Vanbrugh deviates from the rigours of classical architecture with the main front, and experiments with robust modelling of the other three fronts, Kings Weston is particularly unique.  

The stones of Kings Weston house

One of the most distinctive aspects of Kings Weston house is the unique honey coloured stone from which it’s built. Looking closely at the blockwork you’ll notice a world of variation in its colour and composition, but also the way the original masons finished each stone. This short report hopes to focus attention on this overlooked architectural aspect.

The whole of the Kings Weston ridge is peppered with former quarries. Some are obvious, like the one fenced off below the TV transmitter, or to the north of Penpole Point; these are from the 19th and 20th Centuries and their scale is a giveaway. Others are more ancient, possibly as early as the Roman era when the nearby villa and town were built. Having been planted out with trees and landscaped in the Georgian ere these are less visible. The extent of the quarrying is most obvious using Lidar data, that shows the land without the distractions of trees and buildings.

Map with Lidar date, showing excavations of old quarries and their era.

Dig anywhere along the south side of the park and you’ll soon hit greyish limestone, like that in the Avon Gorge. Once quarried it’s best used in rubble walls. But the stone Kings Weston’s built of is the more distinctive Penpole Stone. As its name suggests, Penpole Stone is found exclusively along the north side of Penpole Wood. It’s a hard and resistant ochre coloured stone with pink and red marbling, a mixture of compressed grit, clay, and glittering quartz occlusions, called Dolomitic Conglomerate. At over 200 million years old it’s certainly the most ancient thing you’ll find on the estate!

Detailed high resolution scan of Penpole Stone, sowing the huge variety of colour and material.

When the builders of the house were looking for materials they needn’t have looked far for a strong and durable material. The proximity of the Penpole source to the house must also have been a bonus. Other mansions in the 18th Century had to pay large sums to source and transport suitable stone, particularly if they sought the harmonious smooth ashlar finish then desirable for classical buildings. Others, for example Stoke Park, accepted cheaper rubble stone, but rendered and painted it to cover up its aesthetic shortfalls. Kings Weston benefitted not just from good stone nearby, but also one that gave its house such an attractive colour.

The site of the quarry was defined by the most appropriate stone for the job. At Penpole that location remains as an obvious woodland landmark, a long deep cut into the side of the wood that follows the line of the ridge. It was later planted as a rustic garden to reincorporate it into the landscaped parkland.

The former quarry in Penpole Wood, looking westwards, towards Penpole Point. It was later landscaped as a rustic woodland garden in the 1760s.

Whether the stone was the suggestion of Kings Weston’s owner, Edward Southwell, or advised by the masons he employed it would have needed to be approved of by the architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, as fit for his work. In a 1716 letter to the Duchess of Marlborough Vanbrugh names a “Mr Townsend (who did Mr Southwells’ masonry)” as the man responsible. This was probably George Townsend, master mason of Bristol, and capable architect in his own right.

In April 1712 Southwell arrived at the building site being prepared for his new house and noted “Upwards of 60 men preparing stones and digging the foundation of the new house”. One can imagine the activity at the Penpole Quarry in this work, the cutting of the stone from the quarry face, its shaping, and transportation the short distance along the ridge to where it was needed. The quantity of stone required for the construction is indicated, in part, by the scale of the excavation, though it should be noted that much of the irregular nature of the material would have been inappropriate for fine cutting, used as infill, or discarded.

This 17th Century engraving of a quarry could almost have been intended to depict that at Penpole. Quarrymen split and roughly shape stone blocks for lifting onto the waiting wagon.

If you look at the outer walls of the house today you can see how large some of the blocks were. Some are colossal and must weigh more than a ton each. Particularly large are the single stacked blocks needed to give each of the front columns a regular appearance all the way up, and the vast shelving window cills Vanbrugh must have enjoyed drawing an exaggerated effect from. Each of these were cut and finished by hand; with such a hard stone it must have been particularly laborious.

Some of the stone blocks in the portico columns are massive.

If you look closer again you’ll spot something else; each stone is treated individually with regular ridged patterning, and a narrow grooved border in the same finish. Preparing a stone requires several stages. A roughhewn block needs to be dressed several times to get a perfectly smooth block, using different tools for each successive dressing. Here at Kings Weston the blocks have not been given the perfect smooth finish, and instead a clawed bolster, a type of wide headed chisel with teeth, used to give an intentionally grooved texture. Rather than being evidence of cutting corners the finish is deliberate and controlled, the surface of each individual block carefully articulated. This was perhaps to give a veneer of antiquity to the finished monument, or exaggerate the massiveness of the architecture so its character contributed to the “Castle air” that Vanbrugh desired of his buildings.

The subtle but clear chiseled patterns are visible on blocks around the front door of the house.

By September 1713 Southwell the house was so advanced that Southwell wrote that “by the end of next month I may have discharged my regiment of outside people”. However, masons work continued until 1716 Later the same stone went into building other buildings around the estate. In line with their status large blocks went into the ornamental garden buildings like the Echo and Penpole Lodge, whilst and the looser rubble went into other estate buildings like Kingsweston Inn and the cottages on Kings Weston Lane.

The facades of the house will reveal that Penpole stone, whilst predominating, was not the only material used architecturally. Being hard and unyielding it was not suitable for the finer ornamental work. The column capitals, pediment and cornices, urns and other intricate details were executed in softer, finer-grained, buff limestone, possibly from Dundry, south of Bristol. The difference in stone colour and texture is obvious once you notice it. Rather than being a poor match the subtle difference appears to have been used architecturally to emphasise the most civilising classical elements of the Enlightenment design, a deliberate contrast to the background rustic aesthetic.

 The difference between Penpole Stone and the paler limestone used for detailed work is clearly apparent on the main portico front 

The use of specific stone finishes for aesthetic effect is seen again in the “Back Front”, at the rear of the house. This is intentionally the  most ruggedly handled of the four great facades. Here, with its massive forms, turreted corner towers, arched windows, and oversized keystones, Vanbrugh’s castle keep medievalism is at its most developed. To add to the effect the use of stone changes. The massive single blocks of the other facades makes way for smaller blocks, with greater variety in size, and with irregular courses. Abandoned too is the regularity and order of the neatly tooled stonework; Instead the blocks are deliberately rough faced. The Penpole Wood quarry would produce plenty of other large blocks for later buildings on the estate, so the effect here is intentional, rather than the result of a dwindling supply of good stone.

The deliberately formidable Back Front of Kings Weston house exhibits the deliberate use of rough texturing and stone coursing.

Other stone was also required to serve particular purposes. Marble was imported from Ireland for fireplaces designed to impress. Hardwearing pennant stone was brought in for steps and flagstones. This was sailed across the Severn from the Forest of Dean with surprising ease, prompting Vanbrugh to write, in a letter to the Duchess of Marlborough, who was then scrutinising her architect’s work at Blenheim Palace:

”I writ to him (Southwell) and his steward both to get an exact amount of the charge of his steps, both stone carriage and work; and the account they send me is this. The steps he has are not from Ross, where my Lord Dukes came from, but out of the Forrest from whence the carriage is so easy  to Mr Southwells’ that he says they must needs cost much more to Gloucester from Ross”

Kings Weston had, by this time, become a showcase of the sort of work Vanbrugh was keen for his clients to inspect. The economy with which it had been achieved and the architectural effect would both have been features he was eager to promote. From some of Vanbrugh’s letters the Duchess had clearly been impressed when she’d visited.

A mason employs a bolster to smooth the face of a stone block in the 1700s engraving.

“I am very glad that your Grace is pleased with Mr Southwell’s House; it being the sort of building I endeavour to bring people to who are disposed to ask my advice: Tis certain his work has been cheap and a great deal of it tolerably well”

Though, not all the mason’s work met Vanbrugh’s standards, and he pointed out to the Duchess: 

“The steps in Mr Southwell’s garden are of the same stone that is us’d at Blenheim, but it cannot be had anything so cheap” “they must be better wrought and set both than Mr Southwell’s are; some of his steps being abominable.”

Perhaps we should not be surprised that these steps were replaced when the house was remodelled a generation later!

Unraveling the historic stairs

While taking visitors around the house on Doors Open Day it occurred to us what a complex history of alterations has occurred over time. There are few parts of the house that haven’t been altered over time, but the impressive stair hall has perhaps the most complicated background.

The space as we see it today is nothing like Sir John Vanbrugh, the original architect, intended. Whilst there are some remainders from his time, particularly the painted trompe l’oeil urns in their alcoves, and the staircase itself, it is virtually unrecognisable. It was long thought that the interior of the house wasn’t finished by Vanbrugh, but we now know different, and KWAG has established its original appearance through diligent research and close inspection of historic drawings.

The stair hall highlighted on 1724 plans of the first and attic floors of the house. The arcaded passages around the side of three sides of the open central stair are clear. 
KWAG’s reconstruction of Vanbrugh’s original stair design, showing the open arcades and coved ceiling.

The staircase remains in its original location, but, when the house became a home for the first time, in 1716, it was enclosed in a birdcage of stone arcades on all four sides. You would enter through a single arched door in the middle of the south-west wall. In front of you, beyond an arcaded passage the stair would have dominated the space, with a backdrop of tiered glazed arched windows reaching up to the ceiling. The rhythm of arches was repeated on the other three sides of the stair, tightly enclosing and supporting it on all sides. This formed a series of passages on all floors from which the various rooms could be accessed.

Rather than today’s arrangement, with its grid of skylights, there was a deeply coved ceiling with a solid, flat central panel; this may have been decorated with a painted allegorical scene in keeping with many important interiors of the time.

The Hall of Blenheim Palace

There are parallels between what one existed at Kings Weston and Vanbrugh’s more grandiose Hall of Blenheim Palace. Here too the architect incorporated arcaded passages that looked down into the main space, albeit on a more expansive scale. There is also the deeply coved ceiling that we know Kings Weston possessed until later alterations. A painted ceiling centrepiece like that at Blenheim would have matched the interior design approach to the painted urns that still exit.

Our computer reconstruction of the stair hall must be a relatively accurate representation of the original appearance; but what happened to it?

The house passed from the Southwell family to the Miles family in the 1830s. It was the second generation of the Miles’, with Philip William Skinner Miles, that things changed. The year following his inheritance of the Kings Weston estate Skinner Miles commissioned the architect Thomas Hopper to make huge changes. The ambition was to turn the aging mansion into a modern family home. New kitchens, enlarged reception rooms, and better sanitary accommodation were required.

Perhaps Miles found the stair hall too dark and restrictive, or maybe the space used for architectural drama was in greater need for practical purposes. Whatever the reason work began in 1846 to open out the space by removing the integral arcades around the stair. Original plans had been to replace the 1700s staircase completely, but in the event it was kept. The loss of its supporting walls meant that a new approach had to be found to hold it up. Using modern building technology the architect engineered new open galleries where the arcades had once been. These galleries were supported on composite cast iron and timber beams that spanned between the ‘tower’ structures within the space that could not be removed.

Two details of early proposals to reconfigure the stair, dating from 1847.
Left: the First floor plan showing how two WCs were squeezed between the gallery and the new alignment of the outer wall against the windows.
Right: Vanbrugh’s original coved ceiling is indicated in the sectional drawing, along with the proposed “girders” supporting new open galleries. 

The new beams, cast in Gloucester and sailed to Bristol in 1847, were erected in the space. These would now carry the load of the newly free-floating stair. Iron rods were connected through the beams and dropped down to connect with the stair landing. A secondary steel beam was threaded through the landing and bolted to the suspension rods with giant ornamental nuts formed like upturned pineapples.  

Early ideas to replace the staircase shown on an 1847 plan of the ground floor. The moving of the rear wall and windows is shown in pink ink whilst retained fabric is grey.

At the same time the whole of the back wall of the stair hall was being carefully but completely removed, along with its arched windows. A letter written by Henry Rumney, the local architect entrusted to oversee the work on behalf of Hopper and his client, says it was progressively dismantled “having properly marked the stones for refixing & the windows & other work connected also”. A temporary timber truss supported the ceiling during these works.  The care taken in dismantling the rear wall was with the intention to rebuild it on a new alignment, about 12 feet out from its original location, and the spot where we find it today. Peculiarly this appears to have been thought necessary only to allow for new toilets to be incorporated in the newly acquired space.

 the newly completed interior recorded in 1848. The doors prominent on the first floor gallery were to toilets, a rather exposed arrangement!

With toilets now blocking the old back windows another approach was required to light the stair. Hopper’s solution here was to add a series of roof lights to the existing flat ceiling to light it from above.

All these works must have been undertaken at huge expense, but the benefits look to have been meagre, especially to modern eyes that lament the terrible loss of Vanbrugh’s interior.  For the Miles family new toilets would no doubt have been an incredible relief (no pun intended!). On completion in the new room was recorded in a watercolour painting by Thomas Rowbotham. The newly acquired floorspace was quickly occupied for a fashionable billiard table shortly after; an iron bracket still fastened two thirds of the way up the stair was designed to hold suspended lights that would have illuminated the game.

Victorian sketches showing the bracket and suspension rod for lights above the billiard table. 

It no longer has the integrity of the original design, and Hopper’s changes are a bit clumsy and functional rather than beautiful. Hopper must have recognised the compromised nature of the results: As if in tribute he’d virtually reproduced Vanbrugh’s dramatic original arrangement in his own work at Amesbury Abbey.  Today the stair hall remains a grand focal space of Kings Weston House, one containing interesting and important features from several periods. Perhaps though, it is the story of how it took on its present state that is most interesting.  

Treasure of a Kings Weston nature

A recent auction at Bonhams in London unearthed two solid silver plates from a collection in the United States. They have a direct connection with Kings Weston and tell us something of the wealth and taste of the owners of the house in the Victorian era.

During most of the Nineteenth Century Kings Weston was owned by the wealthiest family in Bristol: the Miles dynasty of merchants, bankers, and industrialists. It was bought in 1834 by Philip John Miles as a family home with his second wife, Clarissa Peach. After he died in 1845 Clarissa was well provided for in his will, and she continued to live at Kings Weston as dowager matriarch with several of her eleven grown children, until her own death in 1868.

The two silver plates with wreathed borders incorporating shells.

It was during this last period of her life, after Philip’s death, that the two silver plates were commissioned. Probably once part of a much larger service these survivors were made by an important London silversmith, William Ker Reid, in 1855. Even at the time they would have been an extremely expensive luxury, testament to the incredible wealth of the family and their desire to express it.

The service was certainly commissioned for the tables of Kings Weston. We know that it was Clarissa who commissioned these plates because of the engraved arms on either side of the rim. On one side is the Miles family crest, an arm holding an anchor representing their maritime interests; opposite it Clarissa had her own family’s arms, that of the Peach family of Tockington, Gloucestershire, depicted. The shells incorporated in the border may also be allusions to the family’s connections with the sea. What is perhaps unusual is that Clarissa must have commissioned them herself for the house, rather than her son Philip William Skinner Miles as the heir to the Kings Weston estate; she clearly had a significant inheritance of her own.

The Miles family crest and shells decorate the plates. 

Clarissa is a less well-known figure in the history of the estate. We have no image of her, and there are few documented mentions. These plates show she was a powerful woman in her own right and was able to commission high status objects. After she died in 1868 she was buried with her husband at Henbury church. It was here that her family chose to commemorate her life in a stained glass window. Depicted in it are personifications of Faith, Hope, and Charity. It’s probably not a coincidence that an anchor, here symbolising hope, is a prominent motif in the design.   

Stained Glass memorial window to Clarissa Miles (nee Peach) in the south aisle of Henbury church. 


Iron Bridge planning application lodged

The Save the Green Iron Bridge campaign and the Kings Weston Action Group have submitted their own planning application to restore the Grade II Listed Iron Bridge over Kings Weston Road, and protect it from future damage from lorries and busses. Te application seeks consent to erect steel height restrictors either side of the bridge to make sure high sided vehicles are prevented from reaching the restored bridge and hitting it. It’s intended to be part of a series of traffic measures to stop vehicle strikes in future.

If you want to look at the whole application and support our efforts to find a workable solution to get the bridge restored and reopened please add your comments online via Bristol City Council Planning website and search for application number 21/02295/F.

If our application is successful we hope to establish funding for the proposals and work with Bristol City Council to have them carried out. If you have any queries please contact us via or 07811666671

Exploring Longcombe

During lockdown the cessation of golf on Shirehamton Park gave many the opportunity to take advantage of this less well trodden part of the Kings Weston Estate. Without sports being played families were free to roam across the National Trust owned parkland and take in its beauty. Shirehampton Park is often the forgotten side of the estate, but covers around a third of its area, comprising of around 90 acres. It was donated to the Trust by the last private owner of Kings Weston house, Philip Napier Miles, in 1922 with the proviso that it would be made always accessible to the residents of Shirehampton and Sea Mills for their recreation, and with the golf course’s use of it required. The original intention was expressed in the local papers in 1918, but it’s believed that the ongoing construction of the Portway through the park at the time delayed the final transfer.

Looking across Longcombe towards the opening in the hills that once led down to the River Avon. 

But the parkland here has a much longer history. Still today you can trace long ridges across the golf course that represent ancient field systems. Larger ones to the east of the area face south and are likely to have been designed as medieval rabbit warrens, a conyger, that were used to farm the animals for food; coney is an obsolete historical name for rabbits. The long-disused name of a nearby outcrop, Conger Hill, is likely to derive from the adjacent coneyger.  

Lidar map showing the historic  lumps and bumps of Shirehampton Park, and some of the golf course’s making,  stripped of trees and other structures.

In the Seventeeth Century Sir Robert Southwell set out to establish groves of fir trees here both for pleasure and for timber, and keenly improved the land through careful management. It remained a largely agricultural landscape until the 1720s. By the time of the estate survey at the start of that decade Edward Southwell, Sir Robert’s son, was keen to capitalise on the park’s picturesque rolling landscape, riverfront, and spectacular views across to Somerset. Soon after the completion of Kings Weston house he threw the boundary of Kings Weston’s estate out as far as the Avon and began incorporating it into the landscaped grounds.

At the heart of Shirehamton Park is Longcombe, a deep hidden valley almost completely enclosed from the outside world, and with considerable picturesque value. There are two early signs of Southwell’s ambitions for this long combe which are included in the Kings Weston Book of Drawings, an album of historical plan and drawings held by Bristol Archives. There are many sketches and drawings for garden buildings amongst its pages, and two of these relate to structures around Longcombe. Both appear to have been designed to capitalise on the topography, focused on aligned views and distant prospects.

Landscaping project for Conger Hill, Longcombe, 1724 (Bristol Archives)

The first is, conveniently, dated to 1724, when other parkland developments were already underway elsewhere on the estate. It is a design for a viewing mound with eight individual prospects cut through the trees to focus the eye on distant landmarks. The mound was to be framed with a grove of elms and topped with a cabinet of yew trees accessed by means of a ramped walk from the east. From the mound views were aligned down Longcombe, and towards neighbouring estates at Charlton (Somerset), Leigh Court, Sneyd Park, Cote – an important house on the Downs, as well as views to the river and Westbury on Trym. Exploring the location today there remains an obvious circular prominence amongst the trees, but any framed views have long since been lost.

The octagonal plan for a small lodge in Longcombe or Conger Hill. (Bristol Archives)

A second, undated, plan shows an octagonal lodge backing onto woodland with views identified in the direction of “the Dock” at Sea Mills. The location for this proposal is less certain. Under the description of “Plan for Longcombe Lodge” there is an addition scrawled in a lighter hand suggesting that an alternative site could be on Conger Hill, one supposes the same spot as the design for the viewing mound. The original intention for this building could have been to command the view along the length of Longcombe from a spot at the head of the valley somewhere. The truth is that we don’t know if either of these designs was executed, but there is some indication that something was made on Conger Hill from a later estate plan of 1772. Its author, Isaac Taylor, illustrated a circular open feature within the woods here, with a linear path approaching it from the high ground to the east, and a viewing corridor cut through the trees looking up Longcombe. Was this the vestige of the many-spoked design of 1724 or something else? There is no sign of the octagonal lodge. A tantalising 1759 memo authored by Edward Southwell II in the interim period notes “The ash trees and the seat in Long Combe to be taken away”; was this connected with one of these features?  

Longcombe shown on Taylor’s 1772 estate plan with the viewing mound shown amongst the trees on the right. 

 By the later Georgian era Shirehampton Park was much admired for its views of the Avon. Although the park offered extensive landscape pasture its main value was as a wider picturesque setting for the mansion house. This continued into the Nineteenth Century long after the estate passed to the Miles Family. A notable event was hosted in Loncombe in 1868 at the behest of Philip Skinner Miles. He was particularly keen on encouraging his tenants to grow their own produce and improve their properties with flowers. His family were instigators of the local horticultural society in the 1850s and flower shows became a regular feature on the estate. These were sometimes held close to the house, but more often in Shirehampton Park. In 1868 the Shirehampton Flower Show was held in the pastoral setting of Longcombe. To serve visitors to the show a temporary railway platform was erected where the recently opened railway crossed the foot of the combe and special trains ran throughout the day from Bristol.

Looking up Longcombe to the west on an early 20th Century postcard
The view east down Longcombe today with the site of the viewing mound in the far distance, to the right of the pines. 

Celebrating our first decade: Part III – To Celebrate!

In the final part of our tenth anniversary review we look at how KWAG celebrates the historic estate. When we established in 2011 it was to try and share the amazing history of the estate with as many people as possible. KWAG’s founders, Tim Denning and David Martyn had long puzzled over why the grand house appeared to sit in the corner of an open field surrounded by woods and set out to piece together more about the history of the house, landscaped gardens, and the families who lived there. Some of the discoveries that were made in the early days added some astonishing new background to Kings Weston, overturning decades of wrong assumptions and misunderstanding. KWAG was formed in an effort to share the importance of the estate with others and spread the word about the incredible history now discovered.

Below; where it all began; KWAG’s first exhibition  held in the Echo to coincide with Doors Open day in September 2012. This was our first public event. 

It remains a key ambition of KWAG to promote the history of the estate. Working with Bristol City Council we ensured that all of our research and knowledge was made available in the creation of a Conservation Management Plan for the estate. This continues to form the road map for the future of the estate and for all KWAG’s work. This was adopted by the Council in 2014 and is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Kings Weston. We also worked closely with the Council to help identify important sites and monuments within the estate and help mould council policies that would cover their protection and conservation.

KWAG volunteers pose with Councillor Anthony Negus on the Council’s adoption of the Conservation Management Plan in 2014

Probably the most important discoveries KWAG has made relate to the history of the house itself. Although its architect, Sir John Vanbrugh is one of the most nationally important architects his work at Kings Weston was surprisingly poorly understood. Most researchers had guessed at when it was built, and you will regularly read 1710 as the assumed date. KWAG undertook extensive research, mainly using original documents in Bristol Archives and the British Library to finally establish an exact date, the 17th June 1712, for the commencement of the present building. In the process we uncovered the intriguing story of the demolition of the old building with no firm plan for its replacement, the anxiety that the owner, Edward Southwell, felt over what to replace it with barely a month before the new house began, and the long discourse between him, his architect, and other acquaintances during the construction. We’ve also established that Southwell finally moved into his new house in 1716.

This 1724 engraving was one key piece of evidence that led us to an exact date for the commencement of the rebuilding of Kings Weston House.
A full height portrait of Elizabeth Southwell by Sir Peter Lely in 1680 is the largest item collected to date.

Some of these correspondence have since been lodged as part of the collections of Bristol Archives following KWAG’s actions. We were grateful for the public response to a call for donations in 2018 to secure an important letter about the house from Sir John Vanbrugh. In 2013 we also secured the transfer of a large and important archive of family papers that were still held by the descendants of the Southwell family and amongst which are fascinating details about the house and estate in the Eighteenth Century.

As well as contributing some documents directly to pubic collections we also hold a growing collection of original material and artefacts ourselves. Historical paintings, photos, documents and ephemera that relate to Kings Weston and the families who lived there have all been collected when the opportunity has arisen, and we’re grateful for members of the public who have added to our collection through donations. Our research has been used in other ways. In 2013 we used it to apply to Historic England to get the historic Georgian viewing terrace Grade II Listed. In 2015 we managed to get Shirehampton War Memorial, an important feature in the park, Listed too.

This 1724 engraving was one key piece of evidence that led us to an exact date for the commencement of the rebuilding of Kings Weston House
KWAG volunteers pose in front of our WWI exhibition in costume as part of a schools day commemorating the use of Kings Weston house as an Auxiliary Hospital between 1915 and 1918.

Of course KWAG’s ambition has always been to share the history of Kings Weston and we’ve found many ways to accomplish this. We’ve published a wide range of guides, articles, and, of course, the monthly newsletters for our members. The majority of these focus on the estate’s history. Walks, tours, exhibitions, and public talks are all ways that we try and promote Kings Weston across the city and beyond. We’ve also run major events and a programme of schools engagement. It’s always been at the heart of KWAG to make history as accessible as possible. By reconstructing some of the lost buildings and house interiors using 3D computer modelling has been one way we’ve tried to illustrate how the estate has evolved. Of course our website has become an essential one-stop shop for anything to do with history, nature, and our activities, and is an ever growing archive of fascinating information and images.

One of KWAG’s computer reconstructions, this one of the original Tudor house that preceded Sir John Vanbrugh’s building

Not all discoveries have been found in archives however; KWAG has run several archaeological explorations to uncover more about the parkland. Several Geophys events have identified lost features including the original Great Court at the front of the house as well as some other intriguing features that we may explore further 2012 we uncovered ruins of Sir John Vanbrugh’s Penpole Lodge and recorded them in measured drawings.

Marble fragments discovered in the cellars of the house were identified by us when they came to light in 2012. Piecing the fragments together on the floor of the cellar we recognised them from photos from a 1927 article in Country Life as being from the Eating Parlour, now the Canaletto Room upstairs. We also managed to find it referenced in archival material and could date it to 1764. It was cleaned and restored by Norman Routledge before being reinstated as the centrepiece to the room once more.

KWAG volunteers are supervised during the archaeological recording of Penpole Lodge in 2012
Fragments of the 1764 eating parlour fireplace on the cellar floor when first identified. 

Rather than detail it in full here a story about another recent find, a painting in the collections of the architect Sir John Soane RA has been published on our website. The painting brings to light the influence of Kings Weston on later generations of architects and the admiration, and occasional vitriol the house provoked! 

There are still people who come to us today saying they’ve lived in Bristol all their lives but never visited, but these days there are fewer who say they’ve never heard of Kings Weston. It can’t have escaped notice by anyone walking the park over the last ten years how many more people are enjoying it. We hope that KWAG’s influence and efforts have helped raise the profile of one of Bristol’s most important historic sites and will continue to do so into the future.

Below: Kings Weston house, or is it? Find out more here

Sir John Soane and Kings Weston.

A drawing has recently come to our attention in the collections of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Soane (1753-1837) is one of the UK’s most important and influential architects and he greatly admired the work of Sir John Vanbrugh. Soane had been appointed Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, and had drawings specially produced to support a series of lectures he gave there between 1810 and 1820. The drawing in question, of the main front of Vanbrugh’s Kings Weston, was one of a thousand used to illustrate these Lectures.

Portrait of the architect Sir John Soane aged 76 by Thomas Lawrence. (© Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Vanbrugh’s architecture had fallen out of favour as fashions changed over the Eighteenth Century, from the drama of the Baroque to the formality of Palladianism that, in turn, developed into an icily uniform Neoclassical age. His designs, including Kings Weston, were criticised as being heavy and un-academic. Even as late as 1802 Kings Weston was being described in unflattering terms, with the Reverend Richard Warner condemning it in a stinging attack as “disgusting the eye, both within and without, by its weight and clumsiness”. Soane was amongst a new generation of architects who were reappraising Vanbrugh’s work and delighted in its imagination and drama that accorded with the new age of Romanticism. Early in his lecture series he extolled Vanbrugh’s “bold flights of irregular fancy, his powerful mind rises superior to common conceptions, and entitles him to the high distinctive appellation of the Shakespeare of architects”; high praise indeed!

The drawing of Kings Weston was used in Soane’s eleventh lecture, given in 1815. The lecture was varied in its topics, with disparate aspects of design covered, largely concerning decoration and composition. It was illustrated with a wide array of examples, both good and bad. The context for including Kings Weston is curious, and it’s important here to focus on the drawing itself and the others that were used to illustrate the particular point being made. Kings Weston is joined by Cholmondeley Hall, Hampton Court in Herefordshire, and Eaton Hall, Cheshire. All were seemingly taken from volumes of the seminal Vitruvius Britannicus, a monumental series of books produced by Colen Campbell illustrating British architecture at the start of the Eighteenth Century. Curiously all the drawings have been heavily edited from the source material and some in most alarming ways.

The facade of Kings Weston house as drawn by Sir John Soane’s office for use in his XIth lecture. (© Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)
The source for Soane’s lecture drawing is this page from Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus from 1715.

The façade of Kings Weston received perhaps the most slighting amendments: the omission of its characteristic chimney arcade and even its top storey. For the purposes of the lecture these distinctive elements were replaced by a pitched grey roof. Dr Frances Sands, the Curator of Drawings and Books at Sir John Soane’s Museum, notes that Soane was keen on accuracy in his Royal Academy lecture drawings and has expressed surprise to find these obviously deliberate alterations to the drawings. In his lecture Soane even states, somewhat misleadingly, that the drawings are “of buildings actually erected”. It seems particularly odd too that Soane would have altered the Kings Weston drawing to omit such a signature flourish from and architect he so admired.

Eaton Hall in Cheshire as depicted in Vitruvius Britannicus, and as adapted for Soane’s lecture a century later.

To explore the reasons for this we need to go back to the original lecture. On the face of it the four façade drawings, and a fifth of Devonshire House, Piccadilly, are used to illustrate different formulaic arrangements of bay and window rhythms for houses. Soane observes that a simple house will typically have a central door with a window symmetrically arranged one on either side, a larger house with two either side, and Kings Weston forms the next in the series, where a wider façade is divided into a three-aperture central portion with a pediment with outer bays each with two windows. The other illustrated examples show iterations of the same formula carried over ever wider facades with further bays added to the extremities of a pedimented classical centrepiece.

It is this exact formulism that Soane is actually railing against in is lecture. He suggests foreigners complain “Architecture in England is so very deficient in variety, as if all our architects had but one mind and manner” that there is “such a deficiency of variety in the outlines of the exterior”. He complains further of the “neglect of distinctive character” in many houses. These charges against lesser architects could hardly have been reasonably levelled at such idiosyncratic a building as Kings Weston, or of much of Vanbrugh’s output.

Top from left to right: Kings Weston presented alongside Eaton Hall, Cheshire, Cholmondeley Hall, and (Lower line) Shobden Court (mistitled as Hampton Court, Heredfordshire) as they were in Soane’s 1815 lecture. The final image is of Devonshire House that Soane marked out as being “inferior in magnificence” for its variation on the same themes. (© Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Soane required the drawings omit the more distinctive architectural elements that would otherwise have contradicted the point being made in his lecture; certainly the arcade of Kings Weston house would not have fitted comfortably into a talk on sameness and monotony. Striped of their uniqueness the four drawings are given a false consistency, emphasising points in the lecture about the use of a central pediment and bay rhythms that Soane considered generic, repetitious, and without imagination. Perhaps his source books, particularly Vitruvius Britannicus, failed to provide him adequately mundane examples to use, and he was forced to adapt what was available.

Sir John Soane’s designs for his own house on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, london, now the home of his museum. Stacked arcades were once a feature of the stair hall at Kings Weston. (British Museum)

Within just a few paragraphs of his lecture Soane is again celebrating Vanbrugh’s work “who, for invention, has no equal in this country. Boldness of fancy, unlimited variety, and discrimination of character mark all his productions”. By association this must have included Kings Weston that had been visually maligned only shortly before. Had anyone in the lecture recognised the house, noticed the distortion, and known it to have been Vanbrugh’s design they might have been left particularly puzzled.

It’s not known whether Soane ever came to Bristol to see the house for himself. His closest commission was at Piercefield Park near Chepstow. In 1785, when he was working up drawings for Piercefield, Kings Weston would have been on a well-trodden tourist path between the spa towns of Bristol and Bath and the Wye Valley. Excursions across the Severn were well published. In fact, on a clear day, one can look south-west from Piercefield and the Kings Weston escarpment is clearly visible in the distance; It’s quite possible that Soane could have crossed to Gloucestershire to see it. If he visited it would be impossible to say what impact Kings Weston could have had on the 32 year-old architect. On Vanbrugh Soane said “the young architect, by studying the picturesque effects of his works, will learn to avoid the dull monotony of minor artists and learn to think for himself, and acquire a taste of his own”. One might hope that Kings Weston has helped to inspire successive generations of architects in his wake.

Today Sir John Soane’s Piercefield Park house is in ruins

Celebrating our first decade: Part II – To Enhance

In January we began reflecting on KWAG’s achievements of our first decade. This month we look back again to see what’s been achieved in enhancing the estate. Rather than last month’s focus on conservation works these projects have added to and improved the historic estate from where we found it in 2011. Much of this has been achieved thanks to the generosity of our volunteers’ time but sometimes has relied on equally generous financial donations. Again, we don’t seek to make an exhaustive list of everything the group’s achieved, but remember some of the highlights here. 

Volunteers labour through the hard rock to install a bench overlooking Shirehampton Park

A simple insight into the impact we’ve made is demonstrated by the difference in bench numbers. In 2011 there were just two benches within the park, one on Kingsweston Hill and the other close to the Iron Bridge. At one of our early consultation events the need for benches was eagerly expressed by park users, particularly the elderly. To respond to this need we agreed a schedule of new bench locations with Bristol City Council and multiplied two benches into fifteen. We’re grateful to anyone who has sponsored one of these benches, and also to the team of volunteer who have often struggled with rocky ground to install these. Less glamorous, but just as valuable, has been the provision of three new litter bins where only one existed before. The decline in dog waste has been marked and in no small part thanks to the bins we’ve supplied.

One of fourteen new oak benches installed by KWAG volunteers, here on the South Walk

KWAG doesn’t work alone, and where we can we look to work with partners with similar objectives. One of the park’s new benches departed from the standard oak seat and was an artistic celebration of Kings Weston and its place within “A Forgotten Landscape”. This 2018 project was a Heritage Lottery Funded focus on the land along the Severn Estuary and we worked with them to secure an appropriately celebratory design incorporating historic and natural features associated with Kings Weston. It included the arm and anchor of the arms of the Miles family who owned the house and much of the land below it.

The arms of the Miles family integrated within the A Forgotten Landscape bench.

We work in other ways to improve the experience of park visitors old and new, and help share the historic importance of the parkland. In 2012 we began with our first leaflet dispenser at Shirehampton Road car park. This was followed two years later by the map board highlighting the historic landmarks of the estate. This was installed with the assistance of the Avon Gardens Trust. We’re glad to announce here that they have kindly granted money for another in the park which will arrive soon.

Volunteer working parties aren’t just focused on conservation work and some of our biggest enhancements to the estate have been thanks to their efforts. An early success in 2013 was the removal of the derelict tennis court alongside Shirehampton Road, opposite the war memorial. This seems a distant memory now, but at the time it was an unsightly blight of decaying steel fence and undergrowth right at the front of the park. It took a couple of sessions, but its removal opened the park up and allowed the Council to start reincorporating the land back into the grassland.

In 2013 KWAG volunteers removed the disfiguring tennis court from the front of the park. 

Amongst our biggest and most physically challenging achievements must by the flight of 61 steps installed through Penpole Wood. This sought to restore an historic connection between the carriage drive and one of the historic Georgian pleasure walks below. The latter had been formed in the 1760s, but the connection had become impassable. The formation of steps restored an important circular walk. The first three months of 2015 saw most of the work finished, but the need to pile some of the steps into the bedrock required a return the following year to finally complete the job using a different approach. Already popular even before we’d finished building them we hope they will continue to be of benefit for many years yet.

The revived pleasure walk in Penpole Wood fitted out with new steps in 2015. 
A serpentine set of steps gave new accessible access between the Echo and the historic terrace behind.

The skills we’d picked up on the Penpole steps were reemployed in 2017 when we installed another short, but important stretch linking the Echo to the viewing terrace behind it. Although an historic path had existed it had long since vanished, and the going was steep, muddy and impassable for anyone with a wheelchair or unsteady on their feet. A new serpentine set of steps created an accessible route for everyone to enjoy, followed the Georgian path closely, and reconnected two important historic features. We’re grateful for all the volunteers who have helped in these projects, and particularly to Jim Ellis who has organised and provided logistics for many of our grand projects.

As well as installing new infrastructure we’ve enhanced the park in softer ways. In partnership with One Tree per Child we’ve planted hundreds of new saplings within Penpole Wood to help regenerate native woodland. Particular thanks are due to Celia Ellis who has helped coordinate these works and has taken such an active role for both our organisations.

Families came out to help KWAG plant 8000 daffodil bulbs on the Centre in 2019.

Every year since 2013 we’ve carried out our annual Big Bulb Plant, strengthening native wildflower populations and enhancing the park for visitors. In the last eight years we’ve planted over 64,000 bulbs, from daffodils to bluebells, cyclamen, and fritillary. Woodland areas have benefited from bluebells where the choking cherry laurel have been removed, and new displays of daffodils have become a highlight of the Kings Weston year. It’s at The Circle that our efforts to conserve and enhance have converged with greatest effect. In 2011 it was in a poor state, engulfed in brambles with laurels hard behind them. Conservation work pushed back the undergrowth, we followed through with grass seed and diligent maintenance until 2019 when it was planted with 8000 daffodils. The results have been inspiring and we hope for a similar display this year.

Daffodils burst to life on The Circle in March last year

However, probably our greatest planting achievement was the reinstatement of the avenue of lime trees framing the main front of Kings Weston house. This was replanted as a memorial to KWAG’s co-founder, Tim Denning who died in 2012 and was completed as a schools project in January 2014. The avenue of seventeen new trees restores some of the formal relationship between house and grounds, balancing out the existing ancient lime avenue, and restoring a long lost landscape feature.

The memorial avenue planted in 2014 in memory of Tim Denning, one of KWAG’s founders. 
one of three Scots Pines planted last month to replace the historic Sentinels below the Echo.

As part of our tenth anniversary events we will be planting more trees around the estate. In January three new Scots Pine saplings were planted to replace some of the mighty “Sentinels” in the woodland below the Echo. The original trees were planted perhaps two centuries ago, but some are now succumbing to decay. We hope that these three new sentinels will grow to continue the species’ vigil over the estate for many years to come.  

KWAG’s first decade: Part 1 – To conserve

Volunteers attending our first official working party in Jan 2012

The New Year brings with it the tenth anniversary of the Kings Weston Action Group. This is a good moment to look back and reflect on our achievements, especially when there is so little else to be able to report during this bleak month. In 2011 David Martyn and Tim Denning realised a mutual passion for Kings Weston, began researching its history, and realised the perilous state of the important landscaped parkland. Fortunately that passion was soon shaded by hundreds of people across the country who became our supporters and from the local community who wanted to help conserve the estate.   

It’s not until we sat down to review exactly what we had been doing over the last decade that the startling scale of volunteer efforts became clear. Some of the figures speak for themselves. Where in 2011 there were just two benches on the whole 300 acre estate, there are now 17; a single litter bin is now four and have had a big impact on litter and dog waste; working parties have covered literally acres of land. Volunteers have valiantly removed 7.7 acres of invasive cherry laurel, and a colossal 11.3 acres of woodland has been managed through natural spacing. 2.3 acres of scrub and bramble encroachment have been pushed back including around the ancient lime avenue, the slopes around Shirehampton Park, and the Circle where a fields of daffodils is now the crowning achievement of the clearances. This map charts many of our volunteer’s achievements.

Since 2014 all of our work has been governed by a Conservation Management plan published by the City Council with input from the interested parties around the estate. This is our road map for the future preservation of the historic landscape. Over the next few months we’ll take a look at some of our achievements under the umbrella of KWAG’s mission to “conserve, enhance, and celebrate the historic estate.  

Part I: To conserve…

Conservation is core to KWAG’s role, of both the historic and natural environment. Conservation as we think about it here is about managing what we already have , and ensure the future preservation of the estate for everyone to enjoy. This work seeks to reveal the historic value of the estate whilst ensuring the health of its woods, grasslands and other habitats. It was recognised at a very early stage that the condition of the  estate had declined badly since WWII with features lost, and the landscape neglected and overgrown. We established the action group to literally take action to help reverse that decline. When we were setting out a few of us began informally clearing areas around the ancient lime avenue, pushing back brambles and felling self-seeded saplings that had been encroaching on the it. For several Saturdays in 2011 this work attracted a good deal of interest and helped us raise the profile of the embryonic group.

Informal clearance on the lime avenue in April 2011 where KWAG leaflets and a sign-up form attracted a lot of interest. 
KWAG volunteers woking to remove self seeded saplings in Jan 2012
KWAG volunteers woking to remove self seeded saplings in Jan 2012

Many of our projects have revolved around woodland management, and in fact it was with natural spacing along the Echo path that we began with our first official volunteer event in January 2012. We’re delighted that some of our volunteers for that first Working Party are still regularly attending today! This work removed hundreds of saplings that threatened to inundate the wood and challenge the more established trees. The event set the model for all subsequent working parties. These have continued every month with little interruption since then until the advent of Coronavirus. Even so we’ve clocked up  around 100 working parties with an estimated four-and-a-half thousand man-hours of work undertaken!

We don’t have space here to detail all of our working party projects over the years, but it’s worth noting some of our major projects. We like to set clear goals for working parties and projects can be planned to last several months at a time. Naturally we love to record everything we do with our popular before-and-after photos. There have become a unique record of the decade’s achievements.

Efforts to reveal the Georgian viewing terrace were a great success in 2012 and the structure was Grade II Listed shortly after.
Efforts to reveal the Georgian viewing terrace were a great success in 2012 and the structure was Grade II Listed shortly after.

Later in 2012 we set ourselves the task of clearing the Georgian viewing terrace behind the Echo. Before we started work the views from it were blocked be an impenetrable hedge of undergrowth and the terrace wall itself invisible from outside. Over several months we gradually cleared both sides to reveal the spectacular views once again which, we’re glad to say, are still a highlight of the park. We were glad to have been supported by Bristol Parks who came along behind us to clear the larger trees that were threatening the stability of the wall. It was the success of the clearance that led us to seek national Listed building designation for the terrace as an important feature of the landscape design. Work continued nearby to open up the copses below the terrace to reveal the expanses of daffodils that are such a feature of the slopes here.

Conservation work hasn’t been restricted to tree felling and underbrush. In 2013 we attacked the derelict tennis court alongside Shirehampton Road. This had been abandoned for decades before and had become unsightly and dangerous. Again over several months we pulled down the steel fence and trimmed out the undergrowth that had pushed its way through the tarmac. The impact was striking and our efforts were followed up by the Council who have begun re-naturalising the area back into the important grassland around it. The “shop window” for the estate has been much improved by this removal, especially on approaching the estate from Shirehampton.

Removal of the old tennis court from Shirehampton Road opened up the parkland from the road and removed an eyesore.
Removal of the old tennis court from Shirehampton Road opened up the parkland from the road and removed an eyesore.
The Council remove the brambles below the house (Bob Pitchford)
The Council remove the brambles below the house (Bob Pitchford)

After much lobbying of the council 2013 was also the year that the brambles engulfing the meadow below Kings Weston house were finally removed.

Our first experience with cherry laurels saw us return to the Echo Walk in 2014. From memory this may have been some of our most challenging work to date, with huge and tangled masses of choking undergrowth that had starved the native woodland of light and nutrients. The ambition here was to both rid the woodland of the invasive plant and to open up the route of the Georgian pleasure walk as a more accessible path between Echo and house. By now we had a good idea of how amazing our working party volunteers were, and quite how much our team could achieve in relatively short time and the whole area was tackled in just four months events. The Council Parks team never fail to be amazed at how much KWAG volunteers can do, and were happy to follow behind us poisoning the stumps we’d left.  

Laurel clearance below the Echo restored the pleasure walk passing behind the woodland and opened up the understorey for native species.
The Lifting the Curtain project opened up views from the South Walk on the main walking circuit
The Lifting the Curtain project opened up views from the South Walk on the main walking circuit

Our next major project christened Lifting the Curtain was the biggest we’d taken on at that point. Our goal was to clear undergrowth along the entire length of the South Walk and to open up views towards Kings Weston house from this important section of the main walking circuit. The walk had in places become a green tunnel through the undergrowth. Seeing the opportunity of visually reconnecting the path and house we felled self-seeded saplings, brambles, and undergrowth, seeking to restore lost prospects. In the process we discovered another planted line of mature trees that had been planted as part of the landscape design and a set of WWII concrete steps which, once restored, form an important and well used part of the walking routes through the park. Work close to the steps also uncovered some historic finds from the same period which are now part of KWAG’s collections.  Most of 2015 was taken up with the South Walk project, but we returned again a couple of years later to open up sections of the southern side of the walk, looking over Shirehampton Park. This work too restored some fine views to the park.

Views from the South Walk were restored across Shirehampton Park
Views from the South Walk were restored across Shirehampton Park
KWAG volunteers at the end of a day's work at the walled gardens in 2016.
KWAG volunteers at the end of a day’s work at the walled gardens in 2016.

Conservation work has sought to reveal and celebrate some of the better and less well known monuments of the estate. We’ve been particularly keen to save the glasshouse wall in the walled gardens. At 54ft long it was once one of the largest in the country when it was erected in 1763, but is now reduced to a short section of wall behind the old stables. To coincide with the pubic opening of the gardens around Kingsweston School in 2016 we undertook to open up the historic glasshouse structure that had once housed some of the finest exotic specimens in Europe. Undergrowth was removed from the wall, and saplings that threatened its stability and survival pushed back. Whilst our work over two months has improved the condition of the structure this remains a feature in dire need of conservation. A couple of months later we also opened up views to the Grade I Listed Loggia from the parkland below.

The Georgian glasshouse wall is revealed from behind the choking undergrowth. Hopefully this work has prolonged the life of this important structure
The Georgian glasshouse wall is revealed from behind the choking undergrowth. Hopefully this work has prolonged the life of this important structure
 Laurels give way to a long view down the newly revealed oak and yew walk in Penpole Wood.
Laurels give way to a long view down the newly revealed oak and yew walk in Penpole Wood.

Cherry laurel occupied us for months afterwards, and much of our time into 2020. We were working with the Council on Forestry Commission sponsored work to improve the health of the native woodland by removing the invader and opening the forest floor for natives to thrive. The dark overcrowded and impenetrable laurel thickets have been a startling contrast to the open woodland that we’ve managed to reveal. This laborious task took us from The Circle, right through the woodland almost as far as Penpole Point. In the process we revealed the woodland avenues, majestic specimen trees, parts of the Victorian pinetum around Jubilee Clearing, and a long path lined with oaks and yews, probably part of the Nineteenth Century landscaping of the woodland. To learn that almost eight acres of laurel has now been felled is simultaneously surprising for its extent, but unsurprising for the effort it took to fell, but there remains much more to deal with.  The removal of laurel has been controversial for the sudden change in appearance, but has been essential to protect the biodiversity of the ancient woodland and we’ve sought to offset the impact by planting hundreds of natives in their place, but more of that when we celebrate the enhancement of the estate in next month’s newsletter.    

A small example of the change from dense dark laurel to open native ancient woodland that KWAG has dealt with in Penpole Wood.

As ever thanks has to go to everyone who has come out to help  our working parties, past and present, and we hope to see everyone again in the not too distant future.   

If you’re eager to hear more about our first ten years you might be interested in watching this recent talk given to Stoke Bishop Local History Group:

Where KWAG's laurel felling, woodland management, scrub clearance, and planting combine the impact on the Circle has been transformative. The change in the entrance to the park between 2014 and 2020.
Where KWAG’s laurel felling, woodland management, scrub clearance, and planting combine the impact on the Circle has been transformative. The change in the entrance to the park between 2014 and 2020.