Bil Mount: the right man in the right place
- Written by Sarah Jackson
Somerset and the Hestercombe project
It is possible that without the intervention of Bil Mount, the iconic Edwardian garden at Hestercombe in Somerset designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll would simply no longer be there.
Bil was the chief landscape architect at Somerset County Council in 1972 when he recalls a request to tarmac the formal garden at Hestercombe crossed his desk. This was during the Cold War period, and the house was the control centre for the civil defence of Somerset, as well as the headquarters of the County Fire Brigade.
Knowing nothing about the garden, but feeling that the matter needed further investigation, Bil was shown around the site by Laurence Fricker, a lecturer and researcher in landscape architecture who had grown up locally and who had a long-standing interest in Hestercombe.
‘We went round the site and I realised there was something out of the ordinary here. The framework survived and showed great craftsmanship. It was architecture with some feeling,' recalls Bil.
The fact that the celebrated partnership of Lutyens and Jekyll had been behind the garden added strength to the case for restoration that Bil began to build.
The early 1970s were a lean time in local government, with funding being cut back everywhere. Added to this was the fact that the concept of historic gardens was scarcely in its infancy, and there was very little knowledge of their conservation, particularly by local councils.
Nonetheless Bil persisted, starting (as he puts it) to ‘tinker' with the site in his spare time. He assessed the stonework himself, and put a member of his team on to unofficial plant research. A chance meeting with the chief fire officer, Aubrey Bullion, at a children's birthday party gave Bil the chance to begin discussions about a possible restoration of the garden.
Eventually he gained the co-operation of the fire brigade and council for a pioneering restoration project that finally got the green light in 1973.
Bil began to implement the project, working to a tiny budget of £750 a year. His ability to engage people's interest and enlist their help was crucial to the success of the restoration. He assembled a committee of people to oversee the project, all of whom could contribute in some way, as well as approaching individuals personally.
The oak crossbeams for the pergola had originally come from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Bil visited the chief forestry officer, who agreed to supply new beams from offcuts free of charge. Similarly, staff and students from Somerset College of Agriculture and Horticulture helped to restore the Jekyll planting.
‘There was a great deal of goodwill and people chipping in to help. It was the only way it could be done because we had such a limited budget. There was simply a feeling that this garden had to be saved and put back on the map,' says Bil.