It's time to get moving on mansion works
A FAVOURITE playground for generations of Bristolians, the Ashton Court estate has seen millions of pounds lavished on it over the past decade. Now it's time for the mansion itself, parts of which date back to medieval times, to be given some much needed attention.
At present the former music room in the south-east wing of the mansion is used for wedding receptions and other functions, with parts of the ground floor used as council offices.
But surprisingly, two-thirds of the building, which is Grade One listed, remain unused.
Although watertight, many of the upstairs rooms are in a very bad way, needing millions of pounds to bring them back into use.
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The badly decayed 18th century north-west wing, which contains lavish stucco decoration, has been described as the most important surviving Gothic interior in Bristol
Now, at last, the city council, who have owned the property since 1959, are prepared to address the problems and look at ways of raising the necessary finance to complete the job, estimated at £25 million.
Restoration is in fact only one cost – the bill for maintaining the mansion could, say the experts, be a high as £1 million a year.
In fact the mansion needs £20,000 worth of work just to make it safe enough for the experts to examine the most dilapidated areas.
The estate, which has a long history, first entered the history books after the Norman conquest when it became the property, along with other extensive West Country lands, of the warrior Bishop of Coutances.
His nephew, Robert de Mowbray, then lost it in an ill-conceived rebellion and at the end of the 13th century it was sold to William de Lyons.
When he died in 1312, he left behind a large house, 147 acres of arable land, 44 acres of meadow and three mills.
In 1392, Thomas de Lyons, who also built (or rebuilt) the church at nearby Long Ashton, got permission from the king to enclose his land and create a fashionable park.
De Lyons also set up a seven-acre conygre (rabbit warren) in the grounds to provide his large household with meat throughout the year.
The deer park, which also supplied fresh meat for the table on special occasions, also dates from around this time.
Thomas married the rich Bristol heiress Margaret Blanket, whose family, we are led to believe, made a small fortune producing and selling woollen bed coverings.
The estate and mansion later had several important owners – Chief Justice Sir Richard Choke (who is buried in the church), Lord Daubney, the king's chamberlain, and Sir Thomas Arundel, one of King Henry VIII's commissioners when the monasteries were closed down.
The estate eventually ended up in the hands of up-and-coming Bristol merchant John Smyth, whose family would make Ashton Court their home for four centuries.
Law abiding John was sheriff and twice mayor of Bristol, but his son, Hugh, a wild character who got himself involved with poaching, armed robbery and assaults, was only saved from imprisonment by the regular payment of heavy fines.
It was Hugh who enlarged the parkland – a trend followed by succeeding generations.
His son, Thomas, MP for Bridgwater, was one of the last of the great estate owners to keep a resident jester.
For services rendered to the Crown during the Civil War, King Charles II made his son a baronet.
The formal gardens date from about this time, with the south-west wing, in the style of Inigo Jones, being dated 1633/4
An earlier, turreted gatehouse, adds balance the south front.
In 1802, top landscape designer Humphrey Repton was called in to see if he could suggest any improvements.
The five-mile-long wall around the estate was completed about this time, and 10,000 new trees and 750 shrubs planted.
As happens over the generations, the Smyth male line eventually died out with various descendants, including lawyer, slave trader and coal baron Jarit Smyth (born Smith) and Sir Greville Smyth (born Upton) adopting the name.
Sir Greville was responsible for bringing in many new species, such as the giant Wellingtonia trees.
On his death in 1901, the Smyth male line became extinct once more and Esme Irby decided to change her name to the Hon Mrs Esme Smyth.
During the Second World war Ashton Court was requisitioned by the military and became a transit camp, RAF headquarters and US army centre.
When Mrs Smyth died in 1946, the mansion, already in disrepair, lay empty and forlorn.
Throughout the 1950s, damp, dry rot, beetle infestations and, above all, vandalism, began to take their toll on the property.
In 1959, amid mounting public concern, the city council finally decided to purchase both mansion and estate.
In the 1970s the council toyed with the idea of selling off, or leasing, the mansion, but then decided against it.
It would, as many said at the time, have made a fine hotel.
Now the fate of the mansion is once again in the spotlight with a consultant's report on its future use eagerly awaited.
The works will include detailed surveys of the mansion, ecological and environmental studies and assessments, an options appraisal, business plan and conservation management plan.
Most of the costs will be met by English Heritage (£155,000) with the shortfall (£90,000) being met by the council.
Let's hope that this time around things can actually get moving.