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.
Becoming a landscape architect
Born into a family of Kentish fruit farmers in 1925, Bil had a lifelong affinity with the land. On leaving school he was expected to join the family business, but the outbreak of the Second World War changed that. He joined the army and saw active service, being wounded during the Rhine Crossing in 1945.
After the war Bil attended lectures by the late Clifford Tandy, who was then President of the newly formed Institute of Landscape Architects, and who later became a long-standing personal friend.
‘His philosophy and aspirations concerning the need for the urgent designation of national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty were inspirational,' recalls Bil.
My choice to study and work in this system for 30 years has not been a disappointment, and has more than repaid the joy I might have missed from picking cherries and scrubbing the hop's stain from my fingers!'
Bil took an external Masters degree in Landscape Architecture at University College London, graduating in 1968. He followed this with a Diploma in Arts from Somerset College of Art.
Working for Somerset County Council from 1962 until late 1974, Bil moved on to become the chief landscape architect at East Sussex County Council, although he returned to Hestercombe on several occasions - once in 2002 to meet HRH The Prince of Wales.
Work in Sussex
At East Sussex, Bil continued his pioneering work in heritage conservation. He was aware that there were many historic parks and gardens in East Sussex under threat from developers, while others desperately needed finance to halt their decay. In 1979, he persuaded the council to back a programme of restoration work. This was agreed on the condition that the owners of the properties involved would allow public access to their estates, and that private funding could be found.
Again, Bil's lucky knack of connecting with the right people at the crucial moment came into play when in 1980 he was by chance introduced to John McCarthy, a wealthy American living in England for part of each year. Talking over lunch, John McCarthy got interested in what Bil was doing and offered to help.
Together they founded The Historic Gardens Trust (Sussex), to work with the county council on saving some of Sussex's most important gardens. John McCarthy chaired the trust, with Bil acting as professional adviser.
Bil used the experience he gained at Hestercombe to good advantage, forming a committee of influential people who could provide contacts and practical help. Countess de la Warr took care of governmental liaison, plant advice came from the director of RHS Wisley, Christopher Brickell, and author Arthur Hellyer, while Mavis Batey from the Garden History Society provided historical advice.
The first task was a survey of historic designed landscapes in East Sussex, which involved locating and assessing each garden in some detail. The completed county register revealed a hugely varied and valuable landscape heritage, from medieval sites to a whole range of 18th-century parkland.
From physic garden to follies
With extraordinary energy, the Trust implemented a number of restoration projects over the next 15 years, backed by benefactors introduced by John McCarthy.
The first, in 1981, was the creation of a Physic Garden at Michelham Priory, founded in 1229, to complement the Tudor kitchen garden and stew ponds, which had been restored by the Sussex Archaeological Society. This was funded with a personal donation from John McCarthy. Bil designed the concept for the garden, which was constructed by five young men on a youth training scheme.
The second project was of an entirely different order, restoring the 18th-century follies built between 1797 and 1810 by Sir Robert Smirke for ‘Mad Jack' Fuller at Brightling Park. Between 1981 and 1985, the Trust brought the semi-circular Coade stone summerhouse, a Doric temple, an obelisk (the Brightling Needle) and a hermit's tower back to life.
At Brickwall House in Northiam (one of Sussex's finest timbered Tudor houses), Bil designed a new garden that paid tribute to the 300-year tradition of topiary on the site. Home to many generations of the Frewen family, the house had become a school in 1918, and the Trust, as well as helping to preserve the existing topiary heritage, wanted a new design that reflected more recent scholastic tradition.
Bil's design for a ‘Chess Garden' used a grid of Sussex bricks set with black and white gravel in alternating squares. The black chessmen were represented by Taxus baccata, while Taxus aurea was used for the white pieces. More than 20 years on, the garden still proves a draw for many visitors under the National Gardens Scheme.
Other gardens given help by the Trust include Bateman's and Great Dixter , but the project closest to Bil's heart was the creation of an appropriate setting for the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The pavilion itself was being restored in the early 1980s, but the surrounding gardens were distinctly ‘municipal' in character and bore no relation to the building.
Two schemes had been drawn up for the grounds originally, one by Humphry Repton and the second by John Nash, who had designed the building itself, but neither plan had ever been carried out. It was, as Bil puts it: ‘A jewel without a setting.'
After much deliberation, Nash's flowing plan in the English landscape style was chosen, and work got under way in 1984, led by Bil. The project had a working committee of its own, and Bil's ‘people' skills again came to the fore in handling the differing interests of all those involved - six of whom came from different departments of the borough council alone!
Alongside their restoration work, the Trust held conferences to spread good practice. Those at Kew and West Dean College attracted many representatives from other county councils and heritage bodies, and before long, Bil began to field requests for guidance and assistance in forming other trusts.
The foundation of the Historic Gardens Trust (Sussex) was a spark to a flame, and within four years another 17 county gardens trusts had been established as the national movement for the conservation of historic gardens took shape.
Bil left East Sussex County Council in 1987 to go into private practice. By this time, he and his team had almost completed the layout and planting of the Nash garden. His one regret is that he was not there to see the lifting of a black tarmac road, which had been laid in front of the western side of the Pavilion, bisecting two great lawns. This was later removed, and the work completed in 1990.
One of Bil's final projects while in private practice was Rotherfield Hall, an extended Tudor mansion with formal gardens, terrace and kitchen garden by Inigo Thomas. The garden had become derelict due to years of neglect, and Bil spent several years coaxing it back to life. The ironstone used to construct the garden had been quarried on site, and Bil opened up new seams in the old quarry, with a mill to cut the stone, a bankering shop and two masons dedicated to the task.
Bil retired in 1992, and now lives in Eastbourne, where he is fulfilling another of his talents by writing a novel. The only other ambition he lists is ‘to carry on breathing'.
He counts himself as lucky to have been involved with the restoration of gardens of national importance. Undoubtedly, it is the gardens themselves that have been lucky: without Bil's quiet dedication and his extraordinary gift for making the right connections, our landscape heritage today would be that much poorer.
Mount, William. Personal interview, 27 February 2008.
Mount, William, ‘Hestercombe Renascent' in Gertrude Jekyll: artist, gardener, craftswoman, ed. by Michael J. Tooley (Witton-le-Wear: Michaelmas Books, 1984).
Mount, William, Historic Gardens Trust (Sussex) 1980-1996 (Florida: Kinane Corporation, 1996).
Hinze, Virginia, ‘The Re-Creation of John Nash's Regency Gardens at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton', Garden History, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Summer, 1996), 45-53.
Pryce, Roy, Rotherfield Hall: History and Renaissance (London: AGL Wright, 2002).