Somerset is still a county of deep-delved country lanes, textured manor houses and small market towns which remains agrarian, patrician and refreshingly old-fashioned. Apart from the National Trust’s Montacute, with its twin banqueting houses, it is not rich in Elizabethan or Jacobean gardens, for the gentry preferred hunting. So early landscapes tend to be deer parks, like the horseshoe-shaped, paled enclosure at Poundisford Park, just south of Taunton. But what the county lacks in early gardens it more than makes up for in a brilliant cluster of eighteenth-century layouts set around the Quantocks. In the mid century a group of friendly aesthetic rivals competed to create eclectic circuits at Halswell, Hestercombe, Fyne Court and Crowcombe. These were enlivened by a range of exotic garden buildings that included a Witch’s Hut, a Robin Hood’s Temple and a convent of recycled medieval stone. Even the great politician William Pitt laid out an escarpment garden overlooking the wastes of West Sedge Moor at Burton Pynsent, lining its grandstand walk with a Blackbird Haunt, a Temple of Pan, the oddly styled French’s House, climaxing in Capability Brown’s Column.

Later in the century Humphry Repton was commissioned to draft Red Books for three new landscape gardens at Newton Park, Leigh Court and at Ston Easton, where he dramatised the valley behind the house with a nine-step water cascade. As nearby Bath continued to develop, towered and belvedered Italianate houses rose from conservatoried gardens studded with ornamental flowerbeds. Moving on from Gothick Fonthill that arch outsider, William Beckford, created a terraced Tuscan garden of fruit and flowers en route to his Lansdown Tower. Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the county around Frome, new wealth resulted in a series of troglodytic grottoes at The Chantry, Hapsford House and Pondsmead at Oakhill, proving that Regency industrialists had as much artistic sense as a desire to make money. A more earnest, religious propaganda underpinned the contemporary Bone Caves under the hill at Banwell with their collections of pre-Ice Age animal remains.  

Artists and intellectuals of the elite group of the Souls haunted the walled enclosures at Mells Manor, where Frances Horner’s friend Norah Lindsay laid out a dreamy, flower-filled garden. But the greatest expression of that pre-First World War period of weekend parties with their aesthetic longeurs is Francis Inigo Thomas’ series of garden rooms at Barrow Court. Consciously planned to recapture a lost cultural heritage, they are symptomatic of the county’s longing for the past. These Edwardian gardens are as characteristic of Somerset, a largely undiscovered and often passed-by county, as the vale of Avalon with its sentinel Tor, Glastonbury’s own Chalice Well Garden and the 1990 stone circle in the King’s Meadow at Michael Eavis’ Worthy Farm. In Somerset, New Age spiritualism chimes perfectly with a reverential nostalgia for an England that never was.

Redcliffe Press, Bristol ( May 2010)

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