On Thursday 18th August , Halswell House hosted a visit by members of the Weston Super Mare U3 (University of the Third Age) Architecture Appreciation Society
Russell Lillford, Chairman of the Somerset Building Preservation Trust had given a talk to their members last winter and suggested that this was followed up with a visit to Halswell. The visit, led by Martha Perriam, proved very popular with a full contingent of 30 turning out.
The group were welcomed by Mark Lidster and Sam Foster of Corbel Conservation and Ann Manders of the SBPT.
Following a short site Health and Safety induction from Sam, the group took the opportunity to view the display of maps, photographs and other historical documents set up in the meeting room. Ann then gave a brief talk covering the history of the site which was followed by a guided tour of the house, taking in the main staircase, the Chinese wallpaper room, the ballroom, the master bedroom, the back stairs and finally up out onto the roof.
During the tour Mark spoke about the various aspects and challenges of restoring and conserving the fabric of the house and the important historical features. Once on the roof the group were able to view the surrounding countryside and historic parkland, they were also treated to a wonderful birds eye view of the recent roof restoration works to the Tudor range.
Following their rooftop descent the group took the opportunity to wander around the garden and woodland surrounding the house and especially enjoyed visiting the newly restored Rotunda.
The group expressed their thanks to Mark, Ann and especially the owner, Edward Strachan, for a very interesting afternoon and hoped that they would be able to visit again as the restoration work progresses.
Part Three: The Rockwork Screen, or Grotto
Halswell: The Grotto (or Rockwork Screen) of c. 1754.
The history, purpose, later uses and relative obscurity of this fascinating feature makes it one of the most interesting of the eighteenth-century architectural additions to Halswell by Sir Charles Kemeys-Tynte.
William Kent (1685-1748) was England’s first great landscape designer and his influence throughout the eighteenth-century was immense. In many ways he was a man before his time but his insights into the Arcadian Landscape were taken up by other great designers who came after him, such as Capability Brown (1716-1783). His work on such grottos as those at Burlington House and Rousham had a direct influence upon Halswell’s Grotto which served as a dam, grotto and, originally, a water cascade.
William Kent’s 1738 cascade for Lord Burlington at Chiswick House, London.
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.
Charles Kemeys-Tynte chose to have himself depicted with books on gardening and his prised Bath Stone Bridge being built behind him.
William Hogarth, detail of the construction of the bridge from his portrait of Sir Charles, c. 1753.
Arthur Young, 1771
Part One: Kemeys-Tynte, Wright and The Druid’s Hut
Was Wright responsible for designing Mill Wood and its buildings?
In this regard the comparison with Wright’s documented work at Stoke Park in Bristol is enlightening, the similarities are so close as to make a full attribution to Wright’s guiding hand at Halswell’s gardens tantalisingly close, as many people now believe.
Historic England’s listing for Stoke Park:
“Barn Wood contains the Beaufort Memorial (Wright 1756, listed grade II), the cold bath (Wright c 1750, listed grade II), a stone tunnel (Wright c 1750, listed grade II), and the surviving footings of the Rotunda (Wright 1755-6). In Hermitage Wood, yew trees mark the site of Bladud’s Cell (Wright 1750), a root house which has disap fpeared. Hermitage Wood is linked to Long Wood via a partially derelict stone tunnel with rusticated entrance arches (Wright c 1750, listed grade II) which runs beneath a track.”
The individual buildings here by Wright, and their interrelationship within a sculpted landscape, bear close comparison to those at Halswell, though many have been lost at both sites. The Rotundas at both estates were nearly identical; Bladud’s Cell, a ‘root house’ similar to Halswell’s Druid’s Hut; Stoke’s Beaufort Memorial shared a similar ethos to Halswell’s Horse Monument, etc. Wright’s work for Norborne Berkeley, 4th Baron Botetourt (1717-1770) at Stoke Park is well enough documented that there is no question of his involvement in that estate. However documentary evidence of his work at Halswell has not been found and therefore establishing connections between Wright and Halswell in other ways must be sought.
Part of the Mill Wood Restoration Scheme
Opposite the Temple of Harmony and sitting in a high position on the southern bank of Mill Wood’s final pond is a stone-faced bridge of three arches. Built between 1756 and 1771 when the northern most end of Mill Wood, along with the temple itself, were added to the earlier phase of the landscape, the bridge straddles the water below at a particularly interesting visual stop. Unlike many of the original room-like eighteenth-century spaces created within this landscape the bridge was intended to have clear sightlines in all four directions.
Standing on the bridge the four views include the Temple of Harmony to the west, the Rotunda to the east, the flow of the ponds to the north and to the south, noisily cascading over a mossy and rusticated rockery below, is the water that finally rests in a large still pond, these days with an island at its centre.
Restoration of the Mill Wood lakes outflow
The water that springs up in the cold bath at the south of Mill Wood flows through various lakes, over many waterfalls, through and under wonderful eighteenth-century bridges and leaves the wood at its southern end where it then flows beneath a man-made culvert and out into the fields opposite where it retakes its form as a natural stream.
This was the grand plan of Sir Charles Kemeys-Tynte (1710 -1785) and, almost certainly, his landscape designer the famous astronomer, mathematician, architect and landscape designer Thomas Wright (1711-1786), of whom a lot more will be written in these pages in due course.
1771 Estate map by William Day. The roadside cascade is on the southern side of the road that passes the northern end of Mill Wood, near to where the Temple of Harmony is marked on the left of this map.