Still standing strong
WE'VE heard a lot over the past decade about Stoke Park's Dower House, the brightly painted mansion which dominates the skyline beside the busy M32.
Originally built for the Berkeley family in the 16th century and then given its Gothic Revival "Folly" look a century later, the former mental hospital, now Grade II listed, has been converted into 13 luxury apartments.
In the 1990s many allied hospital buildings, including the Burden Neurological Unit, were demolished and a large area behind the mansion cleared.
A whole new community, 500 brand new homes next the University of the West of England, has now been created along the hilltop ridge.
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But exactly what was in store for the 200 plus acres of rolling parkland below the houses and mansion – land which extends up to Purdown, over as far as Lockleaze and down to the M32 – has been under debate for a long time.
Despite the intrusion of the M32, the building of which in 1968 destroyed the original, much-loved, Duchess Pond, this is a Grade II-listed landscape, full of hidden treasures. It was created in the mid-18th century by the well-respected landscape designer and architect Thomas Wright, pictured right, inset. who had been given the commission by the then owner of the mansion, Gloucester MP (and later Governor of Virginia) Norborne Berkeley.
Today, Wright, who died in 1786, is widely recognised as one of the country's best visionary landscape designers and architects but it's only in the last few years that the full extent of his responsibility for the overall design and detail at Stoke Park has been fully recognised. Wright's main claim to fame – he was known as the "Wizard of Durham" – is as a designer of remarkable garden buildings, such as sham castles, Gothic follies, ornate gateways etc. constructed of rubble and rough materials.
Between 1760 and 1764 Wright also worked – possibly with the talented James Paty of Bristol – on giving the Elizabethan mansion a new, Gothic Revival, look.
While living on the estate (he was a friend of the family) this "Professor of Gardening" also redesigned the coppices as ornamental, woodland gardens with serpentine walks at Barn Hill and Hermitage Wood linked by stone built tunnels
The tunnel vaults, and the associated Cart Pond, rather lost in the woodland at present, have now been carefully restored – but with no explanation to their original purpose.
Wright also erected a tomb (sarcophagus) a rotunda, a root house, a tower, a temple, a hermitage, an obelisk, a bridge, a pond (Duchess's), water features and a lodge and a gate at the Frenchay Park Road entrance to the estate.
The estate could be entered via Coldharbour Lane as well as from over Purdown, via Sir John's Lane, an old carriageway, leading up through the grounds by the side of the mansion has recently been reinstated.
Below the heights of Purdown (where you will find some 1940 Second World War gun emplacements) is a circular tower, part of a castellated farm building which later became part of the Stoke Park Hospital complex.
Now converted into apartments, this "Castle folly" is also believed to be Wright's work.
In its heyday Stoke Park must have been an intriguing place to visit and explore, with curious "antiquities" to be discovered at every turn.
An 18th-century Wedgewood dish, commissioned by Empress Catherine of Russia and currently on display at the Winter Palace in Leningrad, shows an Arcadian landscape complete with mansion and pond.
Stoke Park and its landscape was obviously much admired, even abroad.
Such was Wright's involvement with the estate that he continued to visit and advise long after Berkeley had died in 1770 and his sister, now a Beaufort by marriage, was running Stoke Park.
Two hundred years ago, in the early 1800s, it was certainly looking its best but then, as its use by the Berkeley family declined, so did this once carefully managed landscape.
But things were kept going until late Victorian times, with the eighth Duke of Beaufort living briefly in the mansion before his death in 1899, and that of his wife in 1906.
A Bristol guide book from those days describes the estate as a "terrestrial paradise".
In 1908 the mansion was rented out to the Rev. Burden as a "Colony," an early mental hospital, and was later purchased by him when the Beauforts sold off their estates.
It remained in use until the 1980s when it was thankfully emptied of people as part of the government's "Care in the Community" initiative.
With the future of the mansion now secure, it's the estate which is the worry. It was Wright's treatment of the plantations, with their specially designed walks and woodland gardens (so-called "outside rooms") which made Stoke Park so admired.
Up and down steps, and through mysterious tunnels, the paths connected "outside rooms" which were, in their turn, decorated with flower beds, statuary, seats and urns. Planted in informal clumps around the mansion, the trees foreshadowed the later style of Lancelot "Capability" Brown.
Apart from a grove of ancient yews in Hermitage Wood (where the Root House once stood) all the original planting has now been lost to time.
But there is still hope – a list of all the plants brought over from Badminton and from London nurserymen still survive in Gloucester Record Office.
An earthwork on the estate, at one time thought to be a Bronze Age burial mound, is now thought to be part of Wright's original landscaping.
Known locally as "Muller's Mound", the earthwork was a venue for the philanthropist George Muller's annual outing for his orphanage children.
Although missing some key features, and despite the visual intrusion of the M32, English Heritage still rate Stoke Park as the, "best documented and most complete surviving landscape" by Wright in the country.
Luckily the bones, the main structural elements, of his original scheme survives with its national importance being recognised by an English Heritage Grade II listing.
In serious decline for at least half a century, the estate has suffered from a combination of general decay, lack of any coherent management policy and vandalism.
Avon Gardens Trust and the Stoke Park Preservation Trust, to give both them their due, made some remarkable discoveries and did some valuable survey and conservation work on the estate in the 1980s and 90s. And they certainly, through their talks and publications, opened up the public's eyes as to what was rapidly disappearing.
But now, with the mansion looking pristine and with the new housing finished at last, things are starting to look up.
The builders who currently own the estate, Barratt and Wimpey, have had a crack at restoring some of Stoke Park's features – the ornate stone plinth of a former 42 foot Obelisk and the Carriage Drive, for instance. But the time has now come to take the long view and find an owner who can finish the job and then take care of the park for the future.
Stoke Park could have remained an exclusive playground (albeit a very large one) for the new community – somewhere to walk the dog or just let off steam – but that's not to be.
The whole 200-acre estate will soon pass into the ownership of Bristol City Council to become, if you like, a second Ashton Court, a place of recreation for everybody in the city. It's even planned to have cows grazing here which will make for a very rural scene.
A publicity event held last Saturday by Bristol City Council has no doubt helped more people to understand what has happened here over the centuries – and why we must preserve what is left for the future.
It is, after all, as much part of our heritage as the Ashton Court estate.