architecture, bridge, country house, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape, Somerset

The Bath Stone Bridge, Halswell, Somerset

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.

Halswell House.

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).

The Rotunda.

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.

Early photograph of the bridge courtesy of Halswell local resident Di Earl.

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.

The restored bridge. The orange barriers are a temporary measure to protect the bridge from the grazing sheep which have been enriching Mill Wood aesthetically and physically.

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.

The restored figure (with passing buzzard and curious sheep).

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.

The Temple of Harmony reopens in spring https://www.templeofharmony.org.uk/

Robin Hood’s Hut, now in the care of the Landmark Trust.

Robin Hood’s Hut can be booked here https://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/search-and-book/properties/robin-hoods-hut-11228/#Overview

Please scroll down to the very bottom of the page to share any thoughts or comments. Thank you for reading.

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10 thoughts on “The Bath Stone Bridge, Halswell, Somerset”

  1. Gwyn says:

    Wonderful to see such meticulous, sensitive and witty restorations. When I first visited Goathurst (as I knew it) it was a scene of chaos, ruination and despair. What a transformation.

    1. Editor says:

      It is wonderful to see the restoration progress in such capable hands. You will be pleased to hear that a copy of Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings can be seen in the hall!

  2. Roger White says:

    As Secretary of the Georgian Group I took the artist John Piper and his wife Myfanwy to visit Halswell in 1986. This resulted in two paintings, one of the cascade bridge and another of the curious architectural wall fronting the ha ha below the house. These were included in an exhibition of Piper’s views of Georgian garden buildings held at Marlborough Fine Art in 1987 to mark the Group’s Golden Jubilee.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Roger. I knew you had taken Piper there, for which many thanks as the resulting paintings are wonderful. I really wanted to include the view of the bridge in this post, but sadly the copyright and image fees requested were beyond the means of my small non-commercial enterprise. The curious wall is secure, and can hopefully be restored/consolidated before too long. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  3. Julia Abel Smith says:

    Fascinating and encouraging post, thank you FF.

    What is the house used for now? I had forgotten the very large (Victorian?) wing behind.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Julia, and thanks. The house is being restored as a private home. The buildings behind the 18C block are older, and one section is Tudor House which you can rent for holidays. The FF and family stayed there recently and can highly recommend.

  4. Christine Beevers says:

    Really enjoyed this article. Many thanks. The Piper Exhibition of views of Georgian garden buildings sounds wonderful.

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Chris. Piper’s views of garden buildings are always a complete delight, and his photographs are a great visual record.

  5. Gail Falkingham says:

    Such beautiful temples, just gorgeous 😍! The rotunda reminds me of a certain other structure & happy days of ‘templing’ at Leases/Croft!

    1. Editor says:

      Halswell is certainly blessed with fine buildings. I can’t see a rotunda without thinking of you, Gail!

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