Looking north from the house today it’s difficult to reconcile the Lawrence Weston housing estate with the Kings Weston historic parkland. The Lower Park on which it was developed was once a key component in the designed landscaped grounds, dropping away to reveal the spectacular views across countryside towards the Severn, and acting as an artificially picturesque setting for the house in the opposite direction. It’s harder still to conceive that the designers of the post-war estate acted with sympathy to the historic setting they were provided with.
Immediately after WWII there was a housing crisis that dwarfs the scale of todays. Swathes of Bristol homes lay in rubble, others were unsanitary and decaying slums, and an influx of servicemen returning from war exasperated an already difficult problem. Just a year after the end of hostilities squatters were already taking up residence on some of the abandoned army huts elsewhere on the Kings Weston landscape. Recognising the urgency of the problem the city Corporation took the decision to lay out a large new estate to the north of the city, across the Lower Park of Kings Weston. The Scouts camping fields were acquired by compulsory purchase in 1947 and the rest of the land below the house secured for development.
Although it never hosted any ornamental parkland buildings the land added to the picturesque effect of the estate. By the 1770s it had been laid out in the picturesque Landscaped Parkland fashion, with clumps of trees artfully positioned in the naturally undulating land to frame views or catch the eye. The Tump, a natural hillock immediately to the north of the House, was planted with specimen trees, and some of a much older avenue trees retained and interspersed with these new specimens. Most of these trees remained after the war, and the Capability Brown-style landscaping remained intact.
Looking at the Lawrence Weston estate today you might think that it was imposed on the landscape without much thought beyond utility, but look closer and you can see its designers were sensitive to the task set of them. The City Architect of the time, Nelson Meredith, was particularly alert to the city’s historic buildings and unique character, and often worked with an ambition to reveal and respond to historic buildings, albeit in a way we might think insensitive today.
Meredith’s team of architects and planners set out the road of the estate in a way that maintained unobstructed views up to the mansion from Mancroft and Barrowmead Avenues, and from Long Cross. To ensure that new building had as minimal an impact as possible a flat-roof house type was developed and located where a traditional pitched roof would otherwise have interfered with these protected views.
The designers recognised the importance of the many mature parkland trees on the estate and sought to incorporate them within the overall design. Where possible they were retained as part of main road frontages, with clumps being given greater emphasis as the focus of new park spaces. Broxholm Walk was aligned to respond to the line of the early Georgian avenue, “Wilcox Avenue” that once linked the house to the Tump, and some of whose trees still survived. The Tump was initially retained as an enclaved vestige of the open parkland, complete with trees an open grassland, though this was, in part, due to the impractical nature of the hilly ground. Today it is part of the Grade II Registered Historic Parkland along with the rest of the estate.
Sadly, over time the mature trees have gradually died and been replaced with more municipal style tree planting. Later houses like those on Sadlier Close have been less sympathetic to views of the house and tree-lined horizons of Penpole Wood. Even those built a short time after the original phases lacked the same understanding of the historic landscape.
The construction of Lawrence Weston did reveal something about the Kings Weston estate, hidden for many centuries: the Roman villa. When in 1947 Long Cross was constructed as the main arterial route through the new housing estate it sliced through part of an important villa dating to the 3rd century BC. Between 1948 and 1950 it was excavated, and the designs of the housing estate adjusted to protect it.
It would once have been the home of a prominent local family who likely depended on a sizable agricultural estate around it for their wealth. The villa faced uphill, southwards, towards what is now Penpole Wood, with an ornamental symmetrical façade. It was furnished with ornate mosaics, its own bathhouse, and later under-floor heating. It’s impossible to know the extent of the Roman estate, but it’s not impossible that ancient land boundaries persisted long after the abandonment of the site in the 4th or 5th Centuries AD, morphed into the Saxon manor, and that Kings Weston house is the direct descendant of the same Roman villa.