Fighting to preserve a hidden architectural gem
THE much-neglected, but historically important, Kings Weston estate has been playing second fiddle to its much- vaunted neighbour, Blaise Castle, for many years.
While Blaise has seen many millions of public money invested in its conservation and preservation over the last decade, Kings Weston has seen very little – perhaps because the 300- year-old Baroque mansion is in private ownership.
Most of the well-wooded estate here, much-loved by locals as a place to stretch their legs, or take the dog for a walk, is in fact owned by the city council and the National Trust.
In fact, the Trust also owns Shirehampton golf course, once part of the Kings Weston estate, which stretched down to the river here.
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A small group of conservationists felt that something had to be done before this historically important park – and its hidden architectural treasures – were lost forever in a tangle of trees and undergrowth.
Now that the mansion, and some of the land, has been put up for sale the issue has, perhaps, become more urgent.
The Loggia, or Banqueting House, plus the Brew House and Bakery, once an integral part of the estate, are already in private ownership leading to fragmentation.
The Kings Weston Action Group (KWAG), led by architect and Vanbrugh enthusiast David Martyn, was set up 12 months ago to help protect the house and estate, fight for it's future, and protect it's past.
"The volunteers are local people, users of the parkland, and indeed anyone else interested in the conservation of the park and house." explained the group's chairman, David, as he showed my around.
"Working with the city council, we would like to draw up a new conservation plan for this much-neglected, although Grade II-listed, estate.
"Between us we could then try and find the money to develop the grounds into a first class green space for everyone to enjoy."
A nationally important building, the house was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, one of this country's greatest architects, and although currently leased as a conference and wedding venue, it remains at the heart of the estate.
"KWAG is committed to raising the profile of both the house and estate – both of which Vanbrugh was very proud," says David. "The parkland – 300 years of history – has been neglected for far too long."
In fact, many of its historic features, such as Penpole Lodge, a Breakfast Room which was needlessly demolished after being vandalised 50 years ago, are already lost. Work has started on clearing away some unwanted trees and undergrowth and KWAG has revealed much that has been hidden, or lost, over many generations.
A fine stone balustrade, which once traversed the whole length of the gardens in front of the mansion, gave visitors a fine, wide vista to the mouth of the Avon, over the Severn and of the distant Welsh hills.
That sadly, is long gone, crumbled away into the nettles and briars below what were once well laid out, extensive walled gardens.
"There are many small quarries along the ridge below, linked by a footpath and overlooking today's Lawrence Weston," explains David.
"They would appear to have been an integral part of the gardens – certainly a feature – and possibly by Thomas Wright, who also worked at Stoke Park. Some of the lime trees which link the walk, experts tell us, date back to the 1740s.
"Another area here, a circular platform on the hill slope, was, in more recent times, used by local Scouts as a meeting place. It could have functioned as a kind of viewing area for visitors.
"I've had Bob Jones, the city archaeologist, have a look at it but it really needs a proper investigation."
As we struggled through the undergrowth on a little-used and slippery path, David showed me another long-lost treasure: a finely worked, but moss-covered stone finial, lying forlornly on its side.
"This probably came from the demolished Breakfast Room," he explained. "It's rolled all the way down the hillside and ended up here, hidden from view. If we could move it – it's very heavy – it would make a fine focal point in an exhibition. A dream, of course, would be to re-build the Lodge with the finial on it."
The finial's discovery just goes to show how much has been lost over the years – but could be revealed if all the undergrowth was cleared away.
"A gardener was once employed specifically to show visitors around the estate, as well as the house and its paintings," says David.
We completed our circuit of the estate via The Echo, a fine piece of architecture designed by Vanbrugh as an ornamental garden feature. After the mansion, it's perhaps the estate's most well-known landmark
"This is where Southwell and his guests would come to talk, drink wine and relax," explains David.
"As you can see it's now a roofless, empty shell, but once housed a marble statue on a plinth – possibly brought back from a "Grand Tour" of Europe – and once approached by a walk through the woods."
As at Stoke Park (now also in the hands of the city council), we owe it to generations to come to try and preserve this wonderfully rich landscape.
KWAG have now bravely taken the first steps on what will no doubt be a long, but rewarding, road.
An exhibition featuring the work of KWAG, and in celebration of Kings Weston's 300th anniversary, will be held at Bristol's Central Library from Wednesday, June 20 to Friday, July 20. KWAG is keen to welcome people from across the city but also, in recognition of Kings Weston's national importance, members from across the UK.
Please get in touch and together we can try and save the mansion and estate for posterity.
For further information please see the group's website, telephone 07811 666671 or email KWaction group:gmail.co.