Author Archives: David Martyn

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.

Plans and photo: two new historic finds

The Miles family, who lived at Kings Weston for most of the 19th Century, were famously private, and the public were kept well away from the house, behind the parkland boundary.  Photos of Kings Weston are, therefore, surprisingly rare for such an important historic building, especially from before the 20th Century. We’ve recently uncovered what’s considered to be the earliest photograph of the house, which we reproduce here. The scene seems little changed from today, looking across the lawns towards the building, with the evergreen border sheltering the garden front from the excesses of the wind, and as such it’s difficult to date. All we have to go on is the small size of the card, a “carte de visite”, and the name of the photographer, Maurice Batiste.

The earliest known photo of Kings Weston house, Maurice Batiste, circa 1870s. 

Batiste was a Frenchman who arrived in Bath in about 1871 where he set up business in Bladud’s Buildings. His career is little documented but for several court records where his temperamental mood appears to have got him into trouble on several occasions. By 1881 he’d moved on again, so we can be fairly certain his Kings Weston photo dates to the 1870s and, but the quality of the card, probably the earlier part of that decade.

The British Library has recently published a vast catalogue of topographical drawings and plans from the collections of George III. It’s probably unsurprising that amongst the collection there’s something of the famous Kings Weston estate represented. Of particular interest is a high quality copy of a notable estate plan of 1720. Bristol Archives also holds copies of this plan, but this is the first time one has been more publically available.

Although not identified by the British Library the tiny signature of W. Hallett appears in reverse in the cartouche, so we can attribute it to this otherwise unknown engraver. The 1720 plan is the first known measured survey of the estate, and shows in detail the house and parkland, immediately before Sir John Vanbrugh began erecting new garden buildings at The Echo, and rebuilt Penpole Lodge. The detail of the gardens, courtyards, radiating avenues, and formal layout of walks through Penpole Wood have been fundamental in understanding the landscaped grounds of the park during the early Georgian era, and the context of Vanbrugh’s Baroque house, before it was de-formalised later the same century.

W. Hallett’s 1720 estate survey of the Kings Weston estate. (British Library) 


Big Bulb Plant 2020

It seems an age ago now, back in October, when we ran our Big Bulb Plant. Despite the constraints of working within the restrictions of the Global Pandemic we managed to orchestrate an event that gave opportunities for local families and regular volunteers to help plant 6000 daffodil bulbs along the ancient Lime Avenue. We had to be careful in not ordering too many bulbs, and limiting our expectations, but the turnout was good and we were forced to let some of our regular volunteers go by lunchtime, in order that there were enough bulbs left for the remaining booked families. Sorry to anyone who had to head home earlier than planned, but your hard work in the morning was gratefully received!

The area was set up with social distancing measures in place, and fenced areas for small parties to work within, and this worked effectively during the day. With the help of lots of kids and parents we have successfully filled the whole of the area. We also have to thank everyone who kindly, and generously donated to KWAG to support the project, and also to the Co-Op who have matched volunteer donations with a grant.  

Naturally we won’t know how successful we’ve been until next Spring, but we anticipate that the new area will complement that planted in 2019 around the Circle. Keep your eyes peeled for bulbs showing their heads, maybe as early as January!  

Puzzle of the Portland Stone Parapet.

Some of the stones revealed recently in the bulb plant area.

A frequent query we receive asks what are the big stones littered along the Lime Avenue and the Circle? Following our recent clearance along parts of the avenue some of these blocks have become far more prominent, and October’s Big Bulb Plant will need to take place amongst them. The blocks are huge, massive lumps of white stone that are so large they have managed to remain largely unmolested for, as far as we can tell, their entire time at Kings Weston.

Their story is unusual, and unanswered questions remain about them, but what we do know is that they are the original parapet stones of the Georgian Bristol Bridge. The once-famous medieval bridge across the Avon was replaced by a smart new one that opened in 1768. Designed by the appropriately named architect James Bridges it followed similar designs for Blackfriars Bridge being built across the Thames at the same time, and shared the same high quality Portland stone quarried from the Isle of Purbeck.

A Georgian view of Bristol Bridge from the east by John Hill (1812-1879) showing the balustrade.

The bridge served Bristol well for just short of a century, but an increase in traffic during the Nineteenth Century required the old bridge to be modified and widened. The old parapets and balustrade were dismantled in 1864 and, for some reason, caught the eye of Philip William Skinner Miles of Kings Weston House. Members of the Miles family were senior partners in a bank on Corn Street, not far from the crossing, so the work may have caught his attention and some plan come to his mind for how to recycle the stonework on his estate.

The stonework was duly dismantled and carefully transported to Kings Weston, where it appears to have been laid out along the length of the Lime Avenue and around the Circle. Miles’s acquisition is recorded in a drawing of the old bridge in Bristol Record Office with a pencil note explaining when it was moved, but, sadly, no explanation at all for what was planned for it.

Many of the stones in the parkland today are still identifiable, with mouldings, and features recognisable from James Bridges original drawings. Some are from the base course of the balustrade, some the piers, and others the copings. Some retain the square mortice holes into which the decorative balusters would have fitted, and others have a carved channels and sockets where wrought iron chain bars were intended to strengthen the structure.

Victorian traced drawing of the bridge with captions dating the transfer of the stones to Kings Weston (Bristol Archives) 
A block on the Lime Avenue showing socket holes for the stone balusters. 

The next mention of the stones doesn’t come for another century, in January 1946, after the last of the Miles family had died, and when a notice is posted in the Western Daily Press advertising “Sundial or birdbath pedestals of historic interest. Limited number of stone balusters from parapet of old Bristol Bridge. £3 3s each – apply foreman, Kingsweston Estate yard, Kingsweston”. The advert must have piqued the interest of a journalist at the paper as, six days later, a short article appeared saying that a phone message had been received from Kings Weston house stating that all of the ornamental carved balusters had since been sold, “The balusters, by the by, came to light when a workman on the Kingsweston Estate was digging for a new place for his runner beans. How thy came to be buried no one can say”. None survives in the former estate yard behind the old stables on Napier Miles Road.

Sadly the balusters and the balustrade will never now be reunited, and only the most immovable masonry survives on the estate as a constant curiosity. Perhaps there’s some local garden still adorned by an errant balustrade stone propping up a birdbath?

Balustrade stone from above one of the bridge piers with distinctive mouldings. 

Tudor stone survivals

A recent local auction brought some artefacts with a Kings Weston connection to our attention. As many people will know the present Kings Weston house was preceded by an older mansion, one swept away in 1711 ahead of reconstruction to the designs of Sir John Vanbrugh starting the following year. This earlier house appears to have been built by Sir William Wyntour.

The Tudor Kings Weston House recorded in an engraving of about 1711, just before it was demolished.

Queen Elizabeth I appointed Sir William Vice-Admiral of England, the second most powerful position in the Royal Navy, and was succeeded in that position by Sir Francis Drake. Sir William was knighted by the Queen in 1573 and was pivotal in the repelling of the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1561 William had purchased the manor of Lydney in Gloucestershire, on the north side of the Severn, and rebuilt the house there. He accumulated other Gloucestershire lands, and in 1570 bought the Kings Weston estate; As at Lydney it’s likely that he erected a grand new mansion here shortly afterwards. The recently rediscovered artifacts appear to be fragments of that house.   

Two decorated fragments from the same fire surround. The figures either side of the coat of arms in the centre suggest youth, on the left,  and old age with a scythe on the right. 

Eight decorated stone fragments make up the collection of stonework. Several can be identified as parts of decorative fireplace surrounds, one is a section of a mullion window, and there are a pair of carved stone heads. Two portions of stone have been reconstructed into a tall heraldic lion, though now heavily defaced. The lion retains an odd lead insert that might have been a lance or banner that it’d once clasped in its paws. The heads are badly weather-beaten and have been exposed to the elements longer than the other fragments, though they are still recognisable as that of two men; one with a beard and one clean shaven.

 A pair of badly weathered stone heads, supposedly showing Sir William Wyntour and his son
A heraldic lion repaired from being in two pieces. Possibly from a gate pier, or a roof parapet decoration.

When the collection came to auction it was described as “reputedly” from Kings Weston, though the circumstances of their discovery have since been established more accurately. The fragments were discovered in a boundary wall, on the “west side of Kingsweston Hill” by local amateur antiquarian Antony Scammel. Scammel was a well-known collector of historic artefacts and coins, and recorded the find in writing on the back of a print showing the old house that also formed part of the auction lot. He recovered the stones in 1967, but aside from the rough identification of the find spot we are still unsure of the exact location.

 Antony Scammel  (1937-2019) who discovered the fragments in a wall in 1967.

What we can tell from the stones is their rough date, from the style of the designs, and that they were deliberately broken up to use as building stone. Stylistically they accord with having been part of Sir William’s Tudor mansion, and the quality of the design and execution shows that they were from a high status building. Certainly a heraldic lion gate finial or roof ornament would most likely be found on a house of Kings Weston’s size and quality rather than a smaller house in the same vicinity. We must take Mr Scammel’s assessment that the wall in which they were found was Eighteenth Century on face value, but this would tie in well with the documented demolition date of the old building. Mr Scammel’s attribution of the sculpted heads as Sir William Wyntour and his son can be less certain.

Postcards from Kings Weston

A major new addition has been made to our website recently. You can now browse a collection of over 100 historic postcard images from across the Kings Weston estate.

In the early decades of the Twentieth Century postcards could be sent between towns in a matter of hours, with several deliveries a day; they were the text messages of their era. The collection dates mainly to the years before the First World War, before the telephone became the quickest way to communicate. The picturesque Kings Weston estate offered photographers great opportunities for to produce popular views for cards, and they seized on Penpole Point, the Iron Bridge, and the lily pond for their chocolate-box qualities. After the First World War postcards began a slow decline. Amongst the collection are a few representing the inter-war period, but only a couple from after WWII.

Postcard view of Shirehampton Lodge at the entrance to the landscaped parkland

Views around Kings Weston house itself are relatively rare. It may have been the retiring character of Philip Napier Miles that saw him reluctant to see his home recorded in popular postcards. But a significant number that do record the house stem from the period it was used as an auxiliary Hospital during the Great War; perhaps the cards were sold in aid of Red Cross charities that Miles keenly supported. These were published by S E Robinson who ran the Post Office in Shirehampton and record many of the wounded servicemen who were sent to Kings Weston to recuperate. 

The house in service as a WWI Auxiliary Hospital. 

S E Robinson is again well represented amongst cards of Penpole Point that appear to have been a keen obsession of postcard photographers, with the spectacular views across the Severn of particular note. Sadly these views have gone; along with nearby Penpole Lodge that’s another frequent feature of cards. Spectacular views also attracted photographers to the southern part of the estate, on Shirehampton Park, where the impressive panoramas above horseshoe bend were a popular retreat for locals. As unlikely as it sounds the driving of the Portway through the same pastoral scene didn’t diminish its interest for postcard views. Perhaps it was the marvelous feat engineering that attracted purchasers of these views, many of which feature the new carriageway as much as the views beyond it. 

The view from Penpole Point at the turn of the Century.

These postcards are an important visual and social record of the times. Many have been written and sent, and occasionally you will find interesting snippets about the estate. One written from Kings Weston house and sent in 1906 is from an unnamed young lady who wrote “This is just a view of the house, but I am living at my mother’s. I have exactly the same work to do here as I did at the Castle, the housework. Instead of this I wish myself at home. Tell Jack I wish I never saw the place.”

You can look at the whole collection one the website at:

The recently opened Portway with a train to Avonmouth passing below. Circa 1923.