Part Two: The Bath Stone Bridge
“One of the most curious and obscure garden buildings in the country – the 1750’s rockwork and shell encrusted Bridge at Halswell. It formed part of Sir Charles Kemeys-Tynte’s freemasonic-inspired circuit of garden buildings in Mill Wood”
So wrote Timothy Mowl and Marion Mako in their book The Historic Gardens of England: Somerset, 2010 about the Bath Stone Bridge of c. 1755 at Halswell’s Mill Wood.
According to Richard Escott, Charles Kemeys-Tynte’s estate steward at the time, the bridge was built in 1755, the same year as the Rotunda to the north of the Baroque wing of the house. The name we use today, the ‘Bath Stone Bridge’, is taken from Escott’s own reference but how it was referred to by Sir Charles or others at the time we don’t yet know. The Temple of Harmony’s architects are known, but beyond that we have no documentary proof of other architects working at Mill Wood. Escott makes no mention of the architect or builder of this or any other features of Mill Wood – except the Druid’s Hut which he records as being build by Jacob de Wilstar, from the designs by Thomas Wright of Durham.
However this hand of Thomas Wright seems to pervade all of Mill Wood. Timothy Mowl and Marion Mako see strong Masonic influences throughout the landscape and its buildings, with Druidic and ancient motifs and Wright’s own preoccupation with the ‘tripartite’ in his views of science, the world and the universe. While this is all very esoteric and precision in understanding these eighteenth-century guiding principles is opaque, what can be said of this renowned astronomer and mathematician is that in 1750 his most famous work An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe was published. He was at the height of his academic fame and influence in the 1750’s: Emmanuel Kant even based some of his work of Wright’s New Theory, and so the notion that he would not have applied his universal theories to the design of these buildings and landscape seems unlikely.
Lord Botetourt employed Wright for his landscape at Stoke Park, now within Bristol city, and its similarities with Halswell were striking. Wright’s influence at Halswell can be proposed in the three arches of the ruined Roman Bath-style structures that surround the spring head that creates the Mill Wood stream and ponds, as well as other structures that we will discuss in other articles. But it is the Bath Stone Bridge for which we have a known preparatory sketch by Wright.
The significance of these two term figures is unknown, various theroies have been mooted, Ann Manders has suggested the following:
“The statues as a pair may represent Salacia and Venilia, the wives of Neptune representing the ebbing and flowing of the tide, in Greek mythology they are one and the same. Batty Langley states ‘There is nothing adds so much to the Beauty and Grandeur of Gardens, as fine Statues; and nothing more disagreeable, than when wrongly plac’d . . . to prevent such Absurdities, take the following directions . . . For . . . Fish-Ponds . . . Salacia Goddess of Water;’. Tynte’s diary entry of 3rd August 1756 records ‘very early in the wood with Lady Tynte to fix the Homogenius’. Local historian Jo Silby has suggested that the ‘Homogenius’ are perhaps the statues on the Bridge. The reed decoration at the base of the half figures matches that used in the frieze of the master bedroom in the house.”
Both figures were covered in waving reeds and foliage: waving reeds that are by no coincidence repeated in the plasterwork of the grand first-floor bedroom on the northwest on Halswell’s Baroque wing, the closest room to Mill Wood. Judy Preston in her great study A Polymath in Arcadia: Thomas Wright (1711-1786) confirms that Wright completed at least three separate plasterwork commissions or designs using Masonic, Zodiacal and Chinese motifs for other houses. The plasterwork in this bedroom at Halswell dates from the period of Wright’s activity so it is within the realms of possibility that this plasterwork constituted part of his design, tying in the motifs of the caryatid-like terms on the Bath Stone Bridge with the bedroom plasterwork. Why this bedroom should be connected in this way to Mill Wood isn’t clear, a constant interior reminder of the landscape, or perhaps something more.
But it is not just the terms and their plant motifs that are mysterious. At the centre of the bridge stands a semi-circular niche which creates a perfect magnifying acoustic when stood opposite, like a miniaturised Roman amphetheatre. To the left and right of this are slopes up to a pediment which was renewed in c. 1900, on these slopes are eighteenth-century carvings. As Mowl & Marko point out, the carvings include classic elements of the period:
“This is the epitome in stone of the twin charictaristics of mid-century rococco: roccaille (rockwork) and coquille (shellwork).”
However these scuptures also hide representations of broken and falling gothic arhitecture. This is a completely idioscycratic design that we have not seen anywhere else, easily overlooked but highly specific in their design, and therefore it follows, in purpose and meaning. Does it represent some sort of destruction of the gothic and christian amidst the re-assertion of the classical and pagan? Another Masonic reference?
Right now this is still a riddle, one whose answer has probably been lost since Sir Charles and Lady Tynte’s demise at the end of the eighteenth-century. Suggestions on a post card please.
The restoration of the bridge and dam is now underway. Under the guidance of Mrs. Ann Manders the Bristol firm Architecton has been appointed to create a full plan of works for restoring the buildings and waterways. The Bath Stone Bridge is one of the most complex of these projects, but also the most urgent and important. The dam structure below lets a great deal of water through which will be undermining everything above. The rear of the apse has for many decades had serious structural issues due mainly to ivy and other growth breaking apart its fine ashar dome. This decline requires immediate action and to that end, until the complex dam issues below are rectified, the visible structure above ground has now been temporarily stabilised with a wooden structure and the invasive trees and their roots are being dealt with. Simple maintenance has resolved the issue of the attached pond overfilling and putting undue pressure on the sturctures and with the structural engenieers, ecologists and architects that are now engaged in tackling the complex and interconnected issues that effect the bridge it shoud not be long before the visible and working elements of the bridge once again function and look as they were intended.