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Archaeology in the View Garden: the report

This month our regular working party update takes the form of a report on the archaeological exploration volunteers undertook in the View Garden in January. This will be just a summary, our full report gives much greater background and detail on what we discovered. 

At the start of the year KWAG identified four areas for investigation in the View Garden, the area of the walled gardens to the north of Napier Miles Road. Our ambitions were to understand more about some lost garden structures and their appearance. Just behind the gateway into the area from the east was a raised bank coinciding with the location of a small building at the head of a long axial path on the historic Ordnance Survey maps. A few well-aimed kicks at the ivy had shown there to be something here, but only a concerted effort might uncover more. The location of Bewy’s Cross was entirely lost, and it was impossible to visualise where it once stood. Here then, was another target for exploration: to locate the location on the ground. Finally, two areas of the woodland floor where ornamental stonework stubbornly clung on were likely the sites of two sets of steps set out along the axial path heading in the direction of a former viewing point at the far west of the garden. The two sites together offered a good opportunity to get a glimpse of the intended ornamental aspirations of the garden’s creators. 

Our ambition has been simply to uncover and record rather than to make more invasive investigations into lower levels, adding “flesh to the bones” of the Victorian era gardens, giving them a new and amplified significance as part of the Grade II Listed Registered Historic Landscape.

Mr Elms stands resting against Bewy’s Cross in 1950, shortly before it was dismantled and moved.

Bewy’s Cross:  
The week before the work started a new photo was discovered in Bristol Archives. Showing the site in 1950 the figure posing on the steps of the cross is Mr W T H Elms, Avonmouth Churchwarden, who had freshly uncovered the cross by pulling ivy off. This was undertaken as part of the final, ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to have the cross moved to the churchyard in Avonmouth. This is the only known photograph of the cross in its View Garden location, but so little recognisable detail in the background made it difficult to pinpoint where the cross had stood. Instead, we relied on a rough measurement taken from the historic maps, a small raised area with a number of self-seeded sycamore trees surrounding it. Digging quickly revealed  a regular gravel surface just 6 inches below the ground.. this was matched on the other side of the small mound by another gravel surface. When excavated further, both these areas terminated at pronounced edges running  parallel to each other and demarking an area  about 10ft 9inches between them. Digging down further in the eastern trench this clean edge continued beneath the gravel, bottoming-out 11inches at a hard flat reddish-brown clay surface assumed to be the natural earth. The area between the two surfaces was characterised by lots of loose rubble stone and dark mulchy earth.

A cross-section of the excavation.

We can be confident from the location and alignments that the gravel surfaces are likely to be the garden paths shown on the 1884 map that once ran around the cross. The space between them was where the cross was removed in about 1952, and the rubble infill probably to level the site again afterwards. Sadly, there was no other evidence that could help date when the cross first came to the gardens, and no sign of any earlier structures. The dig here has identified the location and orientation of the Cross within the View Garden, shown how the paths around it were simply formed around it, and provided answers on how it was left after removal. Finding the exact location has assisted in understanding how it related to other features, particularly the rockery to the east which was encountered as a feature along the path culminating at the cross. It may be that evidence of foundations, dating evidence, or of the features survive beneath the rubble stone pile, but the likelihood is that everything was removed.

Scale drawing of the excavations around the site of the lost cross.

The Garden Building:
The garden building is the most complex and enigmatic of the structures explored as part of our dig. There’s scant documentary evidence for it, the only record of it having existed at all being three consecutive editions of the Ordnance Survey map between 1884 and 1916. These show it was a small structure set close against the Georgian wall defining the east of the garden, and at the head of a long formal path, since vanished. The site remained as a pronounced bank just to the east of the Georgian gate piers, and between two mature yew trees. An idle poke about ahead of December’s working party identified the potential for the survival of structures here, and its significance at the head of the axial path through the garden indicated it was of some importance in the garden design.

The foundations of the garden building with the steps in the foreground and the floor platform beyond. 


 The excavations identified the base of the with a monolithic stone and mortar feature forming the foundation of steps once aligned to the axial path, and a raised platform behind it from where an excellent view could be had down the length of the garden. The floor was laid with a lime mortar base of about 4 inches in depth, and later topped with a thin cement layer in which the pattern of tiles remained. The platform was laid on poor foundations and apparently directly onto the earth mound that ran along the Georgian Garden wall at this point. It has subsided to the rear and disintegrated closer to the wall. The remains delineated a square area roughly 7ft 4 inches wide, but sharply angled to the steps with a chamfered edge against them.

Excavations around the edges of both steps and floor platform provided no evidence of side walls or foundations for them, only loose infill not unlike the surrounding garden soils. The lack of foundations and roof or wall debris poses a puzzle. There are two possible explanations: Firstly, whatever superstructure there was may have been dismantled and taken away in its entirety, maybe for sale or reuse elsewhere. The very poor condition of the monolithic step base shows that the original stair treds and risers have been removed with considerable effort. These would likely have been of high-quality hard-wearing stone that had monetary value to whoever took them. Had the walls of the building been of high-quality materials these may also have succumbed to the salvage man, but this would not fully explain why no obvious foundations could be identified during excavation, there was no evidence of a systematic demolition process. 

Measured plan of the garden building foundations


 The other possibility is that the building was fabricated from timber and other organic materials; these would require a less substantial foundation and decay to nothing over time. Many garden buildings of the 18th and 19th Century were built in this way, with some making deliberate use of the rustic character of natural logs, boughs, bark, and thatch for picturesque effect. The slumping of the floor and disintegration of the edges could have begun early in the building’s history, without the support that more durable structures could have provided.  The cement floor surface illustrates that efforts were made to repair the building at a time in the late 19th or early 20th Century when Portland cement became more commonplace. From the variation in thickness, the cement looks to have been applied as a levelling screed to compensate for the slumping floor level. Care appears to have been taken in the restoration, with the original floor tiles lifted and re-laid on the new surface. However, most of the subsidence should be attributed to a time following the building falling out of use and its walls and floors vanishing. The nearby yew tree may also have accelerated the disturbance of the structures.

3D scale model of the garden building suggesting its appearance as based on the excavated remains. 


 With its dominant position raised up at the commencement of the axial path this building had a key role in the design of the View Garden. Its generally small size limits likely uses to which it could be put, so the likelihood is that it was a covered garden seat from which the Italian-style gardens could be enjoyed at leisure.  It’s likely to have continued in use as part of the View Garden, “the gem of the whole garden”, until the first quarter of the 20th Century, after which it probably decayed and was abandoned. The removal and salvage of valuable materials is unlikely to have preceded the death of Sybil Napier Miles, who delighted in her gardens and maintained ownership of the area until her death in 1948.

The steps: 

Section of the decorative limestone edging, showing sockets and pegs in the end used to connect to the next section in the chain. 

Two sets of steps appear on the Ordnance Survey maps set out towards the west end of the axial path through the garden. Fragments of masonry on the surface showing where volunteers should dig to uncover more. The lower set were heavily damaged and robbed-out, but the upper steps survived in better condition. Both sets provided important evidence of the intended appearance when built. Excavations at the upper steps revealed clear gravel surfaces at the top, and lower level, separated by roughly mortared brick and rubble stone foundations where three steps once descended. Another mortar area at the western end of this area, roughly in line with the end of the decorative edging, represented a final step set away from the main trio. The steps and gravel path were about 8ft 2inches wide,  lined either end by decorative limestone edging stones. The edging was carved with a simple curved moulding. It had been robbed out almost entirely against the south side. Edging stones ran the length of all four steps, turning to terminate against a pair of limestone blocks at the top end. Beyond these blocks were further square stone slabs set at angles to the steps geometry.  

Scale plan of the excavations at the upper steps. 


 The function of the limestone blocks is unclear. As found, with a smooth and level top surface, there were no indications that any of these blocks ever had any structure built upon them; Nor were any of the blocks of adequate depth to support anything of any scale or weight. Had they been the bases for garden urns or statues a degree of differential weathering would have been expected, highlighting the outline of any permanent feature stood upon them. The proximity of the Georgian glasshouse in the View Garden, the knowledge that the Miles Family took great pride in growing exotic plants, and the notion that the View Garden was set out as an Italianate garden, all suggest that these blocks could have formed seasonal platforms for the display of tender potted plants or citrus trees.

Looking east across the upper steps. The two levels of gravel path surface can be seen separated by the brick and rubble stone steps. Decorative edging survives on the left and the stone blocks are visible at the very top.  
A cross-section showing the excavated features. 


The lower set of steps was of the same design. The edging here showed an elegant curve to the design at the bottom of the set of three steps. Evidence for the actual steps came exclusively from this set. A few fragments of pennant stone remained following theft and damage in about 2011, but enough to understand the character and dimensions of the large stones.    The evidence uncovered allows us to make an accurate reconstruction of the two sets of steps. Remains indicate the View Garden was laid out to a high quality design, requiring the use of expensive materials and significant building work. They show the importance of the axial path through the gardens, adding emphasis to the viewpoint found at its western end and the lost building at its east. The importance of the viewpoint, the raison d’etre of the garden, has been largely lost by the gradual growth of trees obscuring the views once celebrated. The design of the garden and other anecdotal evidence suggests that it was laid out in the 1860s. It incorporated the existing Georgian walls and glasshouse, and Bewy’s Cross into its design, adding the new formal path to focus attention on views. One reference to this as an “Italian” garden would fit the Victorian obsession with the Italian Renaissance and the design features introduced at this period. 

An impression of how the view along the axial path might once have appeared. The lower and upper steps are lined with potted citrus trees and in the distance the garden building presides over the whole scene.

 Next month we’ll report on a few surface finds from the area, but if you can’t wait until then, you’ll find everything in the full report now available on our website
If you’d like something more interactive, you can explore our 3D scans of the excavated areas:

Bewy’s Cross base
Garden building
Lower Steps
Upper Steps

More volunteer work in the View Garden

The last volunteer working party of 2023 continued work around the View Garden adjacent to the old Stables on Napier Miles Road. Cherry laurel was again our target and the dense thickets along the west side of the lost garden area as well as another spot of interest; this was what looks to be another designed rockery area next to the original viewpoint at the far north-west of the garden site.

The thicket of laurel along the edge of the path to the viewing platform (on the left) taken looking north-west from the sweet chestnut tree.
The same cherry laurel disappears to reveal the impressive sweet chestnut. 


It’s been satisfying to address the encroachment of the laurel across this area, where felling gives such an instant impact. Volunteers worked quickly on the area around the viewpoint, transforming it before lunchtime and revealing a huge sweet chestnut tree that much have once formed part of the  Victorian garden design. Sadly, any prospect from the viewing point across the Severn would be impossible to restore for the number of trees that now obscure it.

Animation showing the impact of removing the invasive cherry laurel from the road junction between Kings Weston Land and Napier Miles Road.

Work along Kings Weston Lane Removed the errant laurels that threatened to push out across the road. The removal of these has also improved the visibility on the awkward junction with Napier Miles Road and the entrance to Kings Weston house itself, the removal of the dense shrubbery having opened a clearer view in the mirror used to check oncoming traffic coming up the hill.
 
The open space now restored on this corner still retains the native trees that have seeded themselves through the laurel, but the rest would be a good spot for the grubbing-up of brambles and reseeding with meadow grass. The now-open bank along Napier Miles Road also offers an opportunity for bulb planting in the Autumn.  

Clearance of the area seen looking from the south, with the Victorian rockery in the middle distance.


Reconstructing the Walled Gardens 

With a renewed focus on the area, it’s worth looking again at the history of the View Garden, once referred to as “the gem of the whole garden”, and lilypond to understand their significance. There’s enough map evidence provided by two important estate surveys of 1720 and 1772 to appreciate the colossal scale of the works undertaken from 1763 to transform the area into the walled garden and stable complex that survives today as a series of Grade II-Star listed buildings split across Napier Mile Road. To help understanding and appreciation we’ve created a short series of sketch views of the area at key moments in their development. Each image has a numbered key with the individual points described below…   

1720

Halett’s estate plan of 1720 is an important record of Kings Weston just as the mansion had been completed, and before new garden works were begun. Although broadly accurate it provides scant information on the appearance and use of the area east of the main house. A later engraving gives a bit of detail, but the reconstruction here can only be described as speculative despite being based on these sources. Our reconstruction depicts an agricultural landscape with fields, orchards, and gardens separated be dry stone walls and hedges, with a few scattered traditional vernacular styled buildings. One of these was perhaps the source of a carved window stone, later built into the glasshouse wall in the 1770s.

1. The road entrance to Kings Weston house approaches from the east as it does today. The present gatehouse and wall are Victorian and of 1903, and it’s not clear what the gates would have looked like at this time.

2. The present Napier Miles Road is a rural track leading from Kings Weston House to Henbury, and the parish church there.

3. Kings Weston Lane is another agricultural track, leading to a few scattered cottages and farms. The lane passes through an ancient hollow-way where centuries of water have washed off the hill and created a gully. Several gullies like this are distributed along the escarpment edge.

4. A number of houses occupy plots of land to the east of Kings Weston house. Most will have been for labourers tied to the estate. This house was on a roughly east-west alignment, and possibly reused the manor’s medieval chapel that would have fallen out of use at the Reformation. Another medieval chapel survived as a cottage in nearby Lawrence Weston until the mid 20th century.

5. A larger house stands above Kings Weston Lane, uncomfortably built into the steeply sloping land that descends towards the north. From its size it’s likely to be a higher status house than those around it. Could it have been an earlier site of the manor, before the current site was established in the Tudor period? A fragment of stone salvaged from the glasshouse wall was recorded by us in 2016.

6. A smaller building in a small plot in this location may have been a barn or other agricultural structure.

7. Shown on the 1720 plan is a large natural pond to the south of the lane to Henbury. This ill have provided a useful resource for the farms, and likely produced ice in the winter for the earlier ice house behind the mansion.

1772

Isaac Taylor’s comprehensive estate survey was undertaken between 1771 and 1772 and includes a number of radical changes east of the house, a striking transformation from rural backwater to thriving estate hub. There are, in fact, two maps of the area drawn by Taylor, each showing slightly different features, perhaps finished at slightly different times. Both show how the old houses and boundaries were largely erased. From 1763 onwards the architect Robert Mylne enacted the third Edward Southwell’s ambition to clear away all the old stables and service buildings from beside Kings Weston house and extend the landscaped parkland to fill their space. Together, architect and client instead created a new set of buildings set in a series of rectangular walled compartments on a grid plan, providing an ambitious integrated design accommodating key estate functions, various gardens, glasshouses, and an impressive carriage house and stables complex. This was all to serve the main house with produce and flowers and service the estate’s transport needs.

8. The lane to Henbury has been realigned to become a broad straight road with grassy verges either side. The new road is designed to have a visual impact when viewed from the gates to Kings Weston house from the west.

9. The natural pond is formalised into a square pond which could be stocked with fish for the kitchen as well as providing water for the gardens and stables. Ice would be collected here in the winter for storage in the icehouse. Ramps and a platform below water level are designed to wet carriage wheels to prevent them from shrinking in hot weather and losing their metal rims.

10. The centrepiece of the new complex is the grand and formal carriage houses, with stables in the wings beyond the archway.

11. Matching the stable block in style are two lodges built framing the pond; One provides a gardener’s cottage and the other a seed house.

12. Paddocks for horses are probably intended for the north-eastern quarter of the complex.

13. Set in its own compartment and angled to maximise exposure to the sun, the glasshouse at Kings Weston and was one of the largest in the country was built in about 1771. A tall masonry wall at the back incorporated a hidden hot air heating system powered by a furnace at the back. The glasshouse quickly became a focus for Sophie Southwell’s interest in horticulture and where she nurtured her interest in growing exotic plants and flowers. It became a much-remarked feature of the estate during the 18th Century.

14. Produce gardens were kept to the southern compartments behind the pond and this walled area. This area with better access to Kings Weston house was a flower garden, laid out on a broadly regular plan but with eccentric windy paths adding interest. Flowers would have been grown to supply the house with attractive displays and perfumed blooms, but also offered a more intimate garden experience to the landscaped parkland then laid out around the mansion. An oval pond at the centre would have ben used to help watering and create an attractive centrepiece to the garden.

15. One plan of this date shows a cross here and describes a “site of an old church”. Later maps show “Bewy’s Cross” standing here. In 1720 the site was that of a building, so it’s unlikely that the cross was there at the time. It’s speculated that an ancient cross at the mouth of the Avon was relocated to Kings Weston as a garden ornament, though perhaps intended to mark the site of the old chapel. What evidence existed to suggest the church, more accurately chapel, stood here is unknown and lost when the standing buildings were demolished.

16. To create a regular new road to the stables and improve the way down the hill parts of the hill are quarried out and pushed back to leave rugged rocky cliffs against the road. New plantations are planted above them to naturalise their appearance and as a setting for the cross.

1884

The rigid Georgian plan and ambitious scale of the walled garden complex provided well for Kings Weston for over a century, with little change. The ownership of the estate had passed from the Southwell to the wealthy Miles family. Changing fashions in garden design and use and a greater demand for service buildings saw some blurring of the rigid boundaries and expansion into the surrounding landscape. The biggest change was the creation of the View Garden, probably laid out in the 1860s. The name is first recorded in 1916 when it was described as “the gem of the whole garden” at Kings Weston.

17. By the 1840s the wall of the north-east compartment is thrown down and the glasshouse and cross brought into a single garden space. About 20 years later a long axial path is laid out on the same alignment as the glasshouse, with two sets of stone steps. Fragments of these survive today. The lawns either side of the path were probably set out with ornamental flower beds. The new garden is christened the “View Garden”.

18. The Georgian glass house is passed its prime and has been rebuilt on a less ambitious scale against its original. The parts no longer covered are turned into more planting beds. 

19. A covered garden seat or alcove is built at the head of the axial path, just to one side of the entrance gate, and from which to enjoy aligned views through the gardens. Yews and box trees are planted to lead the visitor along the paths and line the back of the main garden wall.

20. Another path is laid out on a more picturesque winding course, taking in a large new rockery on its way to a small clearing around the medieval cross. It may have been whilst creating the rockery or the axial path that foundations of a building were uncovered again in the 1860s and again thought to be the chapel ruins. In 1868 the cross was described and illustrated as covered in ivy, perhaps planted for picturesque affect? The view through the trees here certainly had eye-catching views to the Severn.

21. The axial path culminated in a circular viewing platform elevated above the slope of the hill. It enjoyed distant views across the Severn and Avon towards Portishead and Wales beyond, giving the View Garden its name.

22. The old icehouse behind Kings Weston house was done away with, probably in the mid-Victorian era, and relocated to behind the old glasshouse. It was covered in earth to provide added insulation and planted around with yew trees to protect it from the sun. One yew tree was planted at the very summit of the domed icehouse and remained there until it finally fell in the 1980s, pulling the earth covering with it.

23. The original Georgian rear wall was pushed north with the land built up to form a flat platform, falling away with a steep embankment beyond. The additional space accommodated the icehouse and more paddock and building space.

24. Fox hunting had become a popular recreation activity for the Miles family and more buildings were needed to stable horses and provide storage and dog kennels. These were added to the north of the stables. A woodyard and sawmill were also added in this area.

25. The flower garden had become more formal and less focussed on providing for the house. It’s dominated by four conifers planted around a now-rectangular ornamental pond. Like the View Garden, the lawns were likely planted with floral displays of seasonal bedding plants in the Victorian fashion. This garden would shortly be transformed again, with the conifers felled and a more informal pond and rockery.