In 1771 the agriculturalist and country house afficionado Arthur Young visited Halswell in Somerset. He admired the house, but admitted that what ‘chiefly attracts the attention of strangers, are the decorated grounds’. Sir Charles Kemeys Tynte (1710-1785) ornamented his park with temples, rustic shelters and elegant bridges, all of which fell into disrepair, or disappeared completely, after the Second World War. Happily, recent years have seen a major programme of restoration, which continues apace.
In May 1950 the estate was dispersed at auction ‘by direction of Lord Wharton & his trustees’. Lot 26 was 750 ‘Well Grown Trees’ standing in Mill Wood. The purchaser, E.C. Wyatt & Sons of Taunton, paid £18,700 for the lot, and promptly felled the trees, leaving the ornamental structures vulnerable in a bare landscape. The Druid’s Temple, a rustic timber rotunda, is now known only from photographs, although archaeologists have discovered its site. And only one pier remains of an open arch which once sheltered a giant statue of Neptune.
There was a happier future for the Temple of Harmony, which was restored by the Somerset Building Preservation Trust in 1995-96 (in 1997-98 they restored Robin Hood’s Hut, high above the house, which is now offered as a holiday let by the Landmark Trust).
In December 2013 the house was purchased by Edward Strachan, who quickly bought back other parcels of the former estate and embarked on a huge project to bring the house and landscape back to life. The once roofless rotunda, which stands close to the house, was the first landscape feature to be brought back to its original elegant state, and more recently another ambitious scheme has seen the restoration of the beautiful and unusual Bath Stone Bridge in Mill Wood.
According to an account by the estate steward of the time, the bridge was built in 1755. Architectural historian Gervase Jackson-Stopps attributed it to the architect and polymath Thomas Wright of Durham, on the basis of a very similar sketch design in Wright’s papers.
Research continues as part of the project, and undoubtedly there will be more to report in due course, but for now we should celebrate the outstanding quality of the restoration of the bridge, which was overseen by architect Robert Battersby of Bristol based Architecton, working with the enthusiastic Halswell team.
By the time work began a fair chunk of the bridge, which is actually a dam controlling one of the series of ponds that are a feature of Mill Wood, had been toppled into the water. One of the two curious carved figures that once terminated the wings of the bridge was lost (happily the torso has since been recovered and is displayed nearby), and the other needed some serious beauty treatment. Stonemason Mike Orchard and sculptor Tom Waugh take the credit for the new stonework and carving, which blends beautifully with the old.
Waugh also included a very modern detail. The laurels planted as a backdrop to the bridge will slowly mature, and it will be hidden. In centuries to come garden historians will discover it, and ponder its meaning.
The work was recognised in the prestigious Georgian Group Awards, winning the 2021 prize for the Best Restoration of a Georgian Structure.
To see the delights of Mill Wood you will need to visit on a Sunday afternoon in summer. Halswell House and its grounds can be seen via the Invitation to View tours operated by Historic Houses. Or to have the place to yourself the Folly Flâneuse can highly recommend a stay at the beautifully restored Tudor House at the heart of the estate.
Lots of links this week, but all worth a look…
The excellent Halswell Park website has loads of interesting information, including more on staying on the estate https://halswellpark.wordpress.com
For tours of Halswell visit https://www.historichouses.org/house/halswell-house/tours/
The Temple of Harmony reopens in spring https://www.templeofharmony.org.uk/
Robin Hood’s Hut can be booked here https://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/search-and-book/properties/robin-hoods-hut-11228/#Overview
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