Restoration of the Venison Hut
The Venison Hut, located in the South meadow of Halswell Park between the house and Robin Hood’s Hut on the crest of the hill, had all but disappeared completely by 2010. All that remained was a broken up flagstone and red brick floor and a pile of rotted eighteenth century timbers, some with paint fleck and old nails. Luckily these few remaining fragments were enough to piece back exactly the dimensions of the original building as well as its wooden structure. Enough remained that our on-site carpenter, Mr Mike Bridgwater who lives in Dormer House within the old Halswell estate, was able to precisely reproduce the building using traditional methods, materials and to the original specifications. Though the building does not appear on the eighteenth-century estate maps this seems likely to be an oversight due to its size and location under the large branches of some very early chestnut and oak trees. The building is due to be completed in the more clement weather of next spring, 2016, when its traditional weatherboarding is attached and the thatched roof is completed. The park may one day again see deer roaming through its fields, however the venison hut’s function as a larder to hang slaughtered deer is unlikely to see such a revival. The hut is in an ideal location as a viewing folly, commanding wonderful views over the Halswell estate and across the countryside out over the Bristol Channel and beyond to Wales. As such it will become a resting place hung with antlers for walkers or riders on their tours of the parkland.
Historic lore from King Alfred’s time in the ninth century has been attached to the old medieval Royal Park which stretched from North Petherton to the Quantock Hills. Though by the thirteenth century most of the Royal Park had been gifted away by successive post-Conquest kings, at Halswell memories of this survived well into the nineteenth with parts of the park ‘still’ being named The Royal Meadow, as one 20 acre field was titled in the 1597 survey of the Halswell estate. Those field boundaries were mostly removed as the eighteenth century parkland swallowed them up, but the importance of a deer park, and the only building associated with it, the Venison Hut, remains as important for local history today as ever. The hut will have appeared as an ideal marker to the historical and pastoral idyll that Sir Charles Kemeys-Tynte was creating when the great travel writer Arthur Young wrote of the park in 1768:
“What chiefly attracts the notice and attention of strangers are the decorated grounds. The riding which leads to the principal point of view crosses the park from the house, commanding a fine view of the rich vale of Bridgwater. It then runs by the side of a woody precipice and up through some new plantations, from a dark part of which you entre through a door into a temple dedicated to Robin Hood; upon which a most noble prospect breaks at once upon the beholder. The ground shelves from it in front and to the right gradually, but to the left in bolder slopes where the dips are beautifully grouped with woods, and the hills above them rise in waving enclosures. As we advance the character of the ground changes most happily. A break through the trees to the right lets in a view of the rotunda. Passing to the Ionic portico, which is excellently placed, the scenery in view is truly enchanting: the lawn is gently waved; the water seems to fall naturally through a falling vale; and a swelling hill crowned by the rotunda forms a complete picture. The whole scene is really elegant; every part is riant, and bears the stamp of pleasure.”
Game Larders in the English Country House
Venison Huts, or Larders, were usually built of stone or brick, though a few were wooden, as at Audley End House in Essex, Sherborne Castle in Dorset and Halswell House in Somerset. Most were functional in appearance, while others – such as at Uppark in Sussex – were quite decorative. The following group of buildings were built for decoration as well as function. The Halswell Venison Hut, like the Halswell Gate Lodge in Goathurst Village, was thatched on top and had cobblestones outside, styled to evoke the rural pastoral idyll so fashionable in the eighteen and early nineteenth centuries.