A fascinating historical garden, situated on the southern slopes of the Quantock Hills, Hestercombe has been carefully restored to display its long history in a way which allows its visitors to appreciate the age and importance of its gardens. The garden is in two parts: the eighteenth century Landscape Park and the Formal Gardens, which are Victorian and Edwardian. Both are fascinating historically and immensely enjoyable, though contrasting experiences. It is worth taking a day out to spend here in order to enjoy both to their full extent.
Hestercombe has a long history. It was mentioned in an Anglo Saxon charter of 854 and my Lord of Hestercombe's garden is mentioned in a medieval perambulation of 1249. Owned by the Warre family for a continuous period from 1391 until 1872, what is today the restored Landscape garden was laid out by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde (1720-1791) after inheriting the estate in 1750. The Warre line died out with Miss Elizabeth Warre in 1872, and the estate was then acquired by 1st Viscount Portman. In 1903 his grandson, the Hon Edward Portman commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to create a Formal Garden.
The estate was sold to the Crown Estate in 1944, and the house and gardens to Somerset County Council in 1978. The Council began a project to restore the gardens in 1973, beginning with the Landscape Park, where trees had been felled and the lakes were dredged. From 1998, the Victorian Terrace and shrubbery were restored.
The gardens have been managed by the Hestercombe Gardens Trust since 2003, supported by a significant grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a five year restoration project, underlining the historical importance of the gardens.
To understand the history and development of the gardens, it is best to take a tour beginning with the thirty five acre eighteenth century Landscape Garden. This was created between 1750 and 1786 as a circuit around the valley, to offer a series of vistas and surprises to visitors. Views were deliberately contrived to appear as they would in a landscape painting, such as those of seventeenth century landscape artists Salvator Rosa, Gaspard Poussin and Claude Lorrain. Buildings are positioned in the landscape to afford glimpses of 'antiquity' to please the eighteenth century taste for classicism.
The circuit rises up the Hester Combe valley above the house, and begins with a path up to the Octagon Summerhouse, sited above the Pear Pond which provides views of the Arcadian landscape. From the Octagon the path climbs up the valley to the Chinese Seat, a miniature pagoda from where there are views over the Vale of Taunton. On up from here, the landscape becomes progressively wilder with a waterfall cascading down the steep bank into a stream. The theatrical effect was inspired by a visit of Bampfylde to the poet William Shenstone's garden, the Leasowes, in 1762. Higher still up the valley is another pond where the path crosses a bridge to the other side of the valley.
Emerging from the woods at the top, the Gothic Alcove, reconstructed to the 1760s style, stands on a promontory where on a clear day there are extensive views of the Blackdown Hills. Re-entering the wood and continuing along the woodland path, there is a Tuscan Doric Temple Arbour, representing classical virtue, built in the mid 1770s and now restored. Below here, by contrast is a thatched wooden Witch House, first recorded in 1761, representative of pagan ritual, from where there is a view of the cascade on the opposite side of the combe. The path runs on past the Friendship Urn, erected by Bampfylde in 1786, it was possibly his last addition to the garden, dedicated to his friends Sir Charles Kemeys-Tynte of neighbouring Halswell and Henry Hoare II of Stourhead in Wiltshire, both creators of great landscape gardens. Descending a steep path down into the valley, the Mausoleum, an alcove topped with an obelisk, provides a line of sight back up towards the Witches House, and is also a garden seat.
Returning to the Pear Pond, there is a refreshing cascade which fills the mill pond below, ending the circuit of the Landscape Garden.As if this were not enough, Hestercombe offers a further opportunity for enjoyment of its gardens. A peep through Lutyens' Chinese Gate below the mill pond will give an idea of the contrast in style, but to fully appreciate the Formal Garden, take his Daisy Steps down to the courtyard in front of the house. Designed by Lutyens, his only purely garden commission, and planted by Gertrude Jekyll, the garden is one of the best examples of their work together, and was constructed between 1904 and 1908.
When Gertrude Jekyll's original planting plans were discovered in a potting shed in 1973, they provided a basis for the restoration of the planting in the Formal garden.The path brings the visitor down a flight of Lutyens' circular steps and to the East Rill, one of a pair carrying the water down either side of the Great Plat. At the top of the rill, a hemispherical pool, over-arched by figs and vines, is fed by a spouting mask, while water plants including water forget-me-nots iris and arum lilies fill the long rills.In front of the house is the raised Victorian Terrace, designed by Henry Hall, with a central fountain, and a balustrade which overlooks Lutyens' magnificent Great Plat. This huge square sunken parterre, with curved steps at each corner, is formally divided into quarters with a complex pattern of stone paths. The walls surrounding the plat, originally planted by Gertrude Jekyll, are covered in soft silver grey and white planting including bergenia, lavender and everlasting peas. In the centre, to add some height, she used taller planting, including white lilies and blue delphiniums. Later in the summer these are replaced by the hotter shades of red cannas, gladioli and phlox.
Along the south side of the Great Plat, dividing it from the fields beyond, runs Lutyens' long pergola with stone pillars topped with wooden beams. At either end of the pergola, the rills feed water into a stepped pool planted with water lilies and filled with goldfish.Above the East Rill is the octagonal high-walled Rotunda, with a central fountain and pool, offering a symmetrically framed view along the rill and out across the countryside beyond. Designed by Lutyens to act as a pivotal point for the Formal Garden, it displays his complex design of stonework, and Gertrude Jekyll's planting of Winter Sweet still survives from 1904 in this sheltered spot.
Steps beyond here descend to the Orangery, which still performs its Italianate function of giving winter protection to the orange trees which decorate the terraces in summer. Designed in a classical style with arched windows, it uses a mellow mix of local Ham Stone and terracotta roof tiles. Climbing again on the far side of the Orangery is a raised balustraded Dutch garden. Restored using Gertrude Jekyll's planting plans, it combines silver grey and blue shades of stachys, nepeta and her Munstead lavender with china roses, rosemary and red valerian. Large stone urns decorated with putti add height and interest.These fascinating gardens are a testament to the commitment and dedication of the Hestercombe Gardens Trust to restoring and maintaining a piece of history. Do visit.