In the 18th century Bank House in Wisbech became home to the Peckover family, and as well as providing a family home it housed their banking business, which became a great success. Over time they acquired further land and extended the gardens behind the adjacent properties, and built garden buildings including this striking summerhouse. In 1943 the house and grounds were given to the National Trust by the last surviving descendant, and the property was renamed ‘Peckover House’ to commemorate the family.
An exact date for the summerhouse seems hard to find: the National Trust guidebook simply states that it was built in the 19th century. It was extant by 1877 when the summerhouse, and its associated garden layout, are clearly shown on the Ordnance Survey town plan of Wisbech published in that year.
The summerhouse was described in that entertaining annual compendium of words and pictures The Saturday Book. In the volume for 1959 Olive Cook (1912-2002) wrote an article on follies in which she wrote that the Palladian temples ‘with which our island is so thickly strewn’ were too rational to be classed as follies. At Peckover however she found the quirky garden pavilion to be ‘a true folly’. The article was accompanied by photos taken by her husband, Edwin Smith (1912-1971), many of whose works are now in the collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Cook wrote of the pavilion that its ‘outline suggests the Orient’, but it was the interior which particularly caught her attention: ‘inside there is a grotesquely rusticated pedestal table in stone, with a gigantic stone melon fastened to its top’ (no, it doesn’t look like a melon – keep reading). Cook wrote that the setting too was impressive, with palm-trees, incongruous in the ‘icy winds of the Fens’, making ‘a mad attempt to substantiate this dream of the East.’
Although the exotic planting around the arbour was lost in the 20th century, historic photographs of the garden can be found in the National Trust Collections. They can’t be reproduced here for copyright reasons, but this 1904 view of a Dracaena australis in flower at the family’s neighbouring property of Sibalds Holme gives an idea of the specimens the family collected.
Barbara Jones (1912-1978) doesn’t mention the summerhouse in either edition of her Follies and Grottoes, but she did sketch the building, possibly because she always intended a companion volume on ‘Garden Temples and Pavilions’. Sadly this was never realised as Jones died after a short illness in 1978, just as she had begun to focus on the project. Her drawing includes the grotesque stone table, and the mystery table-top object.
The gardener and writer Graham Stuart Thomas redesigned parts of the grounds for the National Trust and in 1979 he described the garden in his book Great Gardens of Britain. The piece is accompanied by his own pencil sketch of the ‘painted summerhouse’, and although the curved bench can be seen, there is no further furniture. The garden writer Arthur Hellyer admired the ‘amusing little pavilion’ in a Country Life article in 1980 and compared the green and white painted arbour to a ‘gay booth at a fair’, but again there is no mention of the table.
The ornate wooden bench around the interior of the shelter remains today, but the current team at Peckover were unaware that the table had ever existed, and sadly no records seem to survive to account for its disappearance. Peckover’s Senior Gardener, the nominatively-determined Louise Gardner, did however have some interesting thoughts on the so-called ‘melon’. She thinks it looks like a coco de mer, the world’s largest seed, something the Peckovers ‘may well have had an interest in considering their foreign seed collection and general interest in exotic plants’. But sadly it too has disappeared without trace.
The arbour is not listed, but the gardens at Peckover House are listed at grade II on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England. The listing gives the briefest of mentions of the ‘wooden painted loggia’.
Wisbech is an incredibly handsome Georgian town, and well worth a visit. For more on Peckover House, which reopens in the spring, see https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/cambridgeshire/peckover-house-and-garden
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