Dairy farmer to the rescue

24th July 1998 at 01:00
The early 20th-century garden at Hestercombe was restored in the 1970s, but its 18th-century garden was neglected...until Philip White came along. Stephen Anderton reports

One of the most talked-about garden restorations of the past two or three years is taking place at Hestercombe, near Taunton in Somerset. It is remarkable in that, in most people's eyes at least, the Hestercombe garden, designed by landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll in association with the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in l904 and Grade 1 on the English Heritage Register, had already been restored 20 years ago. Now suddenly a whole new 18th-century landscape garden is being repaired.

So why the wait? And why was the work not completed all in one go? As is so often the case with neglected gardens, the problem was divided ownership, lack of willpower and lack of funds. Then in 1991, Philip White, who happened to be working for the county Wildlife Trust based at Hestercombe House, arrived on the scene.

He came across the 18th-century garden, which had been neglected in the Seventies restoration, in the coomb above the house, and from then on was fired with a mission to see it returned to its former glory. This happens to people. They fall in love with the romance of garden-making on the grand scale and cannot help but push until the object of their romance is restored. It happens to the most unlikely people: Philip White had been a dairy farmer for 17 years; Tim Smit, who drove the restoration of Heligan in Cornwall, was a composer in the rock music industry.

But significantly these are people with drive. At the start they may know nothing at all about the business of gardens or garden restoration, but they know they want to do it. They also tend to be good self-publicists, fixers, people with a gift for enlisting support, people who can manage to make unlikely or unwilling partners co-operate in the cause, people who can find money.

And in reality that is how great gardens are made in the first place - by people who know what they want, and will find help, or even just inspiration, from artists, designers, architects and craftsmen to see the thing to fruition.

The older, landscape garden at Hestercombe was made in the 1750s by Coplestone Warre Bamfylde. A man of substance, Bamfylde was a soldier, a talented water colourist and cartoonist. His circle of friends included the painter Thomas Gainsborough, Henry Hoare, who made the garden at Stourhead, and William Shenstone the garden at The Leasowes, both hugely influential gardens of the day.

It is likely that all the garden buildings at Hestercombe, such as the temple and mausoleum, were made to Bamfylde's own designs. Within his 35-acre landscape, Bamfylde made a pond and a grand cascade, and many interlocking vistas and views out to the vale of Taunton, all of which are now being carefully restored.

In 1904 the formal garden beside the house was added by a later owner of the property, Mrs Portman. But by 1952 the whole estate had been sold to the Crown Estate, which replaced Bamfylde's garden with forestry. The house was leased from the Crown by the County Council and set up as the headquarters of the County Fire Brigade. In the 1970s the Fire Brigade bought Hestercombe House cheaply, as sitting tenants, and set about restoring the JekyllLutyens garden that came with it. Half of Gertrude Jekyll's plants were found lying in the potting shed, and the other half in Berkeley, California. Meanwhile, Bamfylde's 18th-century garden languished next door until discovered by Philip White.

He took a lease on Bamfylde's landscape garden, and set out to restore and market it. The project cost him great personal expense and an outrageous overdraft.

Gradually, by means of encouragement, cajoling and perhaps a little embarrassment, Philip White managed to get the County Council, the Fire Brigade and the Countryside Commission to collaborate. (The Fire Brigade was not best pleased to have competition on the doorstep, but Philip White had what they lacked - a car park.) Now the two gardens are marketed as a single experience, as they ought always to have been. And visitor numbers have soared.

"You have to be absolutely focused to do this," admits Philip White. "You have to side-step all the problems, and keep moving forward, coax people along with you. Then, when you succeed, everyone says 'Haven't we done well!', and you think 'You bastards!'." There speaks the farmer, used to handling the herd. The committee of one.

Hestercombe Gardens, CheddonFitzpaine, Taunton, Somerset TA2 8LG, tel: 01823 413923.Open every day from 10am until 6pm (5pm last entry). Admission: Pounds 3.25 for adults, Pounds 1 children aged from five to 15. Groups by arrangement

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