Widcombe Manor 3512

Bath, England

Brief Description

Widcombe Manor has a garden terrace and landscape dating from the 18th century. It was extensively developed in the 1930s. Features include a summerhouse, a forecourt and a fountain.

History

The present garden may occupy land formerly part of the priors' deer park, while the house is built on the site of a former large farm or manor house probably dating from medieval times. Between 1727 and 1730 Philip Bennet rebuilt the house and laid out a small landscape garden. Little was changed in the designed landscape during the 18th century after its initial construction phase. Horace Annesley Vachell bought the estate in 1927 and made significant alterations to the garden layout near the house, advised by Harold Peto.

Terrain

Widcombe Manor is located near the foot of Widcombe Hill which ascends the east side of a limestone combe to Combe Down.

Detailed Description

The garden at Widcombe Manor is entered from Church Street. The Manor itself stands on high ground overlooking the garden to the west. The garden is roughly triangular in shape, shaped like a natural amphitheatre. The various garden features are mainly situated around the edges of the garden, taking advantage of this topography.

A large and elaborate series of terraces on the east of the garden overlooks the central grassed area and provides sweeping views down to a cascade at the west end of the garden. A small summerhouse stands at the southern end of the terraces, which are carefully planted.

On the northern, western and southern sides, the garden is planted with a fairly dense perimeter screen of mixed woodland, giving a sense of privacy and seclusion. Two ponds are situated in this woodland at the west of the garden, only one of them projecting into the central grassed area. Immediately to the south of the manor house is a small gravelled forecourt, centred on an elaborate fountain.

The garden is generally well-maintained. Some areas of the garden have been allowed to deteriorate since it was substantially altered in the early 1930s. The whole of this central area of the garden has become fairly rough meadow and the woodland around the southern edge of the garden has become rather overgrown. A water garden in this area has fallen out of use.

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):

www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list

A formal early 18th century villa garden, with 1930s overlay.

DESCRIPTION

LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING

Widcombe Manor is in Widcombe village which adjoins the south-east side of the city of Bath, 1km from the city centre. Widcombe Manor is located near the foot of Widcombe Hill which ascends the east side of a limestone combe to Combe Down. The grounds cover c 3.4ha. The eastern and most of the southern boundary of the property are formed by a 3.5m high stone wall on Church Street, Widcombe, which curves round the combe. The north-west boundary is defined by properties in a modern housing development. The south-west boundary is formed by Prior Park Drive. The whole of the landscape is enclosed by a belt of trees but there are long views south up the valley to Prior Park on a hillside 1km away.

ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES

A forecourt on the south side of the house is entered by a gateway with rusticated gate piers, topped by heraldic beasts, and iron gates from Church Street, Widcombe, to the south-east. The forecourt is separated from Church Street to the east by a 3.5m high stone wall, possibly dating back to the earlier house. On the west side is a stone Victorian balustrade separating the forecourt from the top terrace of the garden, with a central flight of stone steps down onto the terrace (forecourt walls, balustrade, gate piers and gates all listed grade I). In the centre of the forecourt is a bronze fountain (listed grade I), thought to be late C16 Venetian and installed in the 1920s.

PRINCIPAL BUILDING

Widcombe Manor (1727-30, listed grade I) was built for Philip Bennet, probably to a design by the Bristol mason and architect Thomas Greenway. It is a two-storey classical design of seven bays with a central pediment over the slightly projecting central three bays, constructed of Bath stone ashlar with a hipped Cotswold stone roof. It occupies a level platform on the east side of the site here registered. The south entrance front has a forecourt with a central fountain and the west, garden front, which has a C19 bay, overlooks falling ground to the west and south-west.

GARDENS AND PLEASURE GROUNDS

The gardens at Widcombe Manor lie to both north and south, but principally on falling ground to the west which contains terraces and a central meadow. The west, or garden front of the house opens onto a broad gravel walk (1727-30) which runs for some 100m north-west to south-east between grass strips planted with topiary cones of yew backed by herbaceous borders. There is a 1.5m high stone retaining wall along on the west side of the terrace. At the southern end of the terrace, 80m south of the house, is a garden house, of knapped flint with Bath stone dressings, re-erected here in 1975 from a site in Wiltshire, replacing an earlier structure at this location in the late C19. At the northern end of the terrace, 20m north of the house, a swimming pool (late C20) has been constructed behind a clipped yew hedge. Below and some 15m north-west of this is the keyhole-shaped paved surround of a former plunge pool (C19), now infilled, reached by a flight of stone steps. Below and west of the broad walk is a grass terrace bounded by clipped yews. Centrally placed is a semicircular stone-lined pond reached from the broad walk by central stone steps, both part of the early C20 improvements for H A Vachell. Either side of the pond, curving stone steps descend via late C20 timber pergolas to a third terrace with beech-hedged enclosures to either side, the northern containing a lawn and the southern containing a tennis court. In the centre of this terrace is a late C20 parterre edged with box topiary and lavender, with a curved stone retaining wall on the west side overlooking a meadow.

A winding gravel path leads from the southern end of the broad walk into a perimeter belt of mixed deciduous and conifererous trees which encircles the site. The path descends behind the garden house, passing some C18 lime trees, into woodland where there is an C18 well constructed of tufa, some 10m south of the garden house. This appears to have had an inflow from the site of the garden house as a structure on its site is shown on the OS map of 1885. Some 20m south of this is an arrangement of small pools and winding watercourses, presumably 1930s in origin, laid out under the trees in the perimeter planting.

The perimeter path continues round the garden with views northwards across a meadow, to approach a cascade and top pond located axially west-south-west of the house across the meadow. Immediately west of the pond stands a well-preserved C18 mount, ascended by a spiral path and surmounted with two C18 yews. In the C18 a chinoiserie pavilion also stood on the top of the mount (Pearson Assocs 1995), and a statue of Neptune was located on the original axis, overlooking the pond. North of this pond, and fed by a cascade is a second pond, which in turn feeds via a second cascade into a now dry stone-lined canal. In the early C18 this canal fed a corn mill and later in the C18 was used as an adjunct to commercial pleasure grounds known as Bagatelle, located on the west side of Prior Park Road (Avon Gardens Trust Newsletter, 1996). The path then winds c 120m up the north-west boundary of the garden, which is contained by thick perimeter planting of horse chestnuts, beech, yew, and laurel, backed by a 2m high rubble-stone wall.

The lower, western part of the site is grassland with flanking plantations to the north and south which are encroaching upon the open grassland. It is shown as grazing land in mid C19 engraved views (eg Westall, 1830), with railings to protect the flanking plantations. The perimeter path was designed to command views across the grazing land in the manner of a ferme ornée, while from the broad walk the park formed the setting for views to the mount.

In the current layout of garden, the axis through the steps, pond, and parterre is out of line with an original axis which ran from the west facade of the house, through the cascade to the mount. A Thomas Robins drawing of the house and garden (1750s/60s) shows a grand flight of steps leading down and west axially from the house but there is no evidence that this was ever constructed.

REFERENCES

Country Life, 82 (28 August 1937), pp 220-5

N Pevsner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol (1958, reprinted 1979), pp 125-6

Widcombe Manor: Historic Landscape Survey and Management Plan, (Nicholas Pearson Associates 1995)

M Chapman, A guide to the Estates of Ralph Allen around Bath (1996)

Avon Gardens Trust Newsletter 17, (1996), pp 19-22

Description written: November 2002

Amended: May 2003

Edited: September 2003

Features
  • Fountain
  • Description: The bronze fountain in the forecourt of Widcombe Manor is thought to be Venetian, and to date from the late-16th century.
  • Earliest Date:
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  • Manor House (featured building)
  • Description: The house was built for Philip Bennett. The architect may have been Thomas Greenway.
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  • Courtyard
  • Description: This feature is the forecourt. The walls and balustrading, the gate piers and iron gates of this gravelled area are listed Grade I.
  • Terrace
  • Description: There is a series of formal planted terraces with a centrally placed semi-circular pond.
  • Summerhouse
  • Description: The summerhouse terminates the view at the southern end of the top terrace. There is a simple pond and fountain in front of it.
  • Pond
  • Description: Two connected ponds in the west of the garden constitute the principal water feature of the design.
  • Cascade
  • Description: The large cascade forms a central feature of the garden, being visible from many different points.
  • Lawn
  • Description: The central area of the garden consists of fairly rough grass planted with a few small trees. This gives a sense of space to the garden and allows unobstructed views.
  • Pool
  • Description: A plunge pool, possibly dating to the 18th century, is almost hidden under ivy in the south-east corner of the garden.
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  • Earthwork
  • Description: This feature is the site of the water garden. Several dried up ponds and channels mark the site of a small water garden in the woodland at the south of the garden. This area is now rather neglected.
  • Outdoor Swimming Pool
  • Description: A swimming pool had recently been built at the northern end of the top terrace when the site was surveyed in 1984.
  • Boundary Wall
  • Description: The eastern and most of the southern boundary of the property are formed by a 3.5 metre high stone wall.
  • Tree Belt
  • Description: The whole of the landscape is enclosed by a belt of trees.
Authorities

Electoral Ward

  • Widcombe
History

Detailed History

Widcombe Manor was built in 1727 for Philip Bennett, once the MP for Bath. Bennett was a friend of Henry Fielding and his sister Sarah, who lived next door at Widcombe Lodge. It is believed that Fielding wrote 'Tom Jones' in a room in Widcombe Manor.

There are two sketches by Robins which show a formal garden layout at Widcombe Manor in the mid-18th century. In 1927, Widcombe Manor was purchased by the author Horace Vachell. The gardens as they appear today were laid out between 1927 and 1937 under the direction of Harold Peto. There have been some minor alterations to the garden since then.

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):

www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list

HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT

The manor of Widcombe was held by the abbots of Bath from Saxon times, with a brief interruption at the time of the Norman Conquest. The present garden may occupy land formerly part of the priors' deer park, while the house is built on the site of a former large farm or manor house probably dating from medieval times. After the Dissolution in 1534-39, Widcombe Manor and grounds were acquired by Richard Chapman, a wealthy cloth-merchant, former mayor, and MP for Bath. Fragments of stonework in the cellar of the present house, and an elaborate cobbled pavement in the forecourt, together with a notable dovecote and a garden house east of Church Street (outside the area here registered) suggest a house and garden of some substance. A drawing by Thomas Robins (about 1750s/60s) of the early house which post-dates its demolition and is therefore presumably a copy of an earlier image, confirms this, showing a rectangular axial design on the south side, with what may be the present dovecote standing to the west.

In 1702 Jane Chapman, daughter of Scarborough Chapman of Widcombe House, married Philip Bennet of Maperton, Wiltshire and after their deaths in 1722, their son, also Philip, inherited and began rebuilding the house a few years later, between about 1727 and 1730 (Pearson Associates 1995). A small landscape garden was laid out at the same time. Bennet was MP for Bath between 1742 and 1747 and was a close friend of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, whose house was located on the high ground south of Widcombe. Bennet almost certainly met Alexander Pope (1688-1744) on one of his long sojourns at Prior Park during the 1740s and may have benefited from his thoughts on garden design. By 1749, however, Bennet was in financial difficulties and he let the house to Lord Hamilton. Although the family later returned to Widcombe, Bennet's son dying there in 1774, it was sold by Philip Bennet IV in 1812. Thus little was changed in the designed landscape during the 18th century after its initial construction phase.

In the early part of the 19th century the house was owned by General Clapham, to whom are attributed alterations to the house including a bay on the west front overlooking the valley. Later in the century, about 1890s, Lord Weymouth, later Marquis of Bath, occupied the house. Sir John Roper Wright, who acquired the Venetian fountain in the forecourt, was the owner in the 1920s. He in turn sold it to Horace Annesley Vachell in 1927 and made significant alterations to the garden layout near the house, advised by Harold Peto (1854-1933). Since that date the house and garden have had a number of different owners; they remain in private ownership. The present owners (2002) acquired the property in 1994 and started a programme of garden restoration in 1997.

Period

  • Early 20th Century
Associated People

Just one person associated to Widcombe Manor

Contact
References

References