Being a flâneuse is harder than it sounds, and occasionally one needs a little help from one’s friends. So introducing the first of a series of occasional posts by guest writers. Susan Kellerman, aka The Couth Companion, recounts the history of a garden ornament built for puddings and panoramas.
A typical feature of the grander formal gardens in Elizabethan times was the banqueting house. Such buildings are a rarity nowadays as most Elizabethan gardens have disappeared, having fallen victim to changing fashion. The late 16th century/early 17th century Banqueting House at Weston Hall is not only a rare surviving example, it is also a very handsome one- indeed it is listed Grade I. Frustrating, then, that so little documentary evidence has been found about its origins and subsequent history: no indication of architect or mason, no accounts connected with its construction or maintenance and no record of early use, despite determined trawling through the Weston papers
The Banqueting House (also referred to as a summerhouse or casino) was probably built around 1600 by Sir Malger Vavasour and his wife Joan (née Savile). Originally at the corner of a small walled garden, it has fine mullioned and transomed windows and is decorated with roundels containing the Vavasour cock and the Savile owl. The windows were originally fitted with stained glass featuring the arms of the principal local families, attributed to Bernard Dinninckhof (or Dinninghof). After several of the windows were accidentally destroyed the surviving glass was removed by William Vavasour in the early years of the 19th century to embellish ‘the windows of his hall’. Some of the armorial glass was probably reused in the windows of All Saints, Weston, when it was restored in 1819.
There is no access from the ground floor of the summerhouse to the upper floors. Both of the principal rooms, on the first and second floors, are entered through a substantial protruding stair turret at the rear of the building. These rooms have fireplaces, which indicates that use of the Banqueting House was not restricted to summer days. The spiral stone staircase continues on up to the roof of the building, where external steps lead to a square gazebo, or lookout tower, which crowns the turret. This has windows extending the full width of each wall, giving panoramic views over the gardens and parkland.
Banqueting houses were usually situated close to the main house, within a formal garden, although some were to be found on the roof of the main house itself. Our 21st century understanding of the word ‘banquet’ may be misleading here: the banqueting house was a place for small, informal parties, and typically where guests would withdraw for the pudding course of a meal, perhaps after a gentle turn around the garden. This was a more private, intimate space, a delightful contrast to the grandeur of the main house and its dining hall. The architecture tended to reflect the sweet dishes themselves: highly decorated, fanciful, whimsical.
As an accompaniment to the dessert, the gazebo would offer a prospect: views across the pleasure grounds and estate. Together with the expensive sweet delicacies, this panorama testified to the wealth and status of the host, an important element of entertaining.
As is so often the case with follies and garden buildings, there is a legend that a tunnel links the Banqueting House with the mansion. The story is seldom true, but who knows what’s behind the blocked up arch in the lower room…
Weston Hall is a private home.