The main building on the estate is, of course the imposing Hestercombe House. The Somerset County Council originally leased the house from the Crown in 1953, following the death of the last owner, the Hon.Mrs Portman. It subsequently took over the freehold in 1987 utilising the house as office space which was mostly used as the Head Quarters for the Somerset Fire Brigade who eventually vacated the house in 2006.
Subject to securing the appropriate funding, in particular a Heritage Lottery grant, the Hestercombe Gardens Trust hopes to re-furbish the house, put on a new roof and open the main rooms to the public showcasing the three periods of history that the house represents: Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian.
The house displays features dating back to Medieval times, in particular an oriel archway of c.1280 which originally led out of the Great Hall. The house underwent a significan makeover in the 1680s but it was betwwen 1725 and 1730 that John Bampfylde took down most of the early part of the house and put on a typical Georgian facade with wings on either side - which still survives. It was shortly after this, in the 1750s, tht the famous landscape garden was created by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde.
Then in 1873, after almost 450 years, in the hands of the Warre family, the house was purchased by Viscount Portman. Lord Portman gutted the house interior giving it an expensive Victorian facelift, including a portecochere at the entrance and an elaborate water tower which was typical of popular picturesque asymmetry of the day.
In 1904, the house was greatly embellished by the addition of the formal garden designed by Edwin Lutyens with planting schemes by Gertrude Jekyll.
Whilst the County Council institutionalised the interior of the house, the basic structure remained in tact and it is this that will be revealed once again during the refurbishment.
Visitor Centre Buildings
The Hestercombe Gardens visitor centre opened in May 2005, made up of a low range of seventeenth century stone farm buildings with tiled roofs and brick detailing. The upper storey of the Ticket Office was built as a dovecote in the early nineteenth century and still contains nesting holes for pigeons.
The main buildings form a compact group around a light and airy covered courtyard. The buildings had been used by the Fire Service as store rooms. The oldest element in the South Front which can be dated as over the main door is an escutcheon with the coat of arms of Sir Francis Warre quartered with those of his first wife, Anne Cuff, whom he married in 1680.
In 1873 the 1st Viscount Portman bought the Hestercombe estate and undertook considerable alterations to the house which were completed in 1878. This same date that appears on the attractive west side of the visitor centre where it was incorporated, together with the Portman coat of arms, into the newly built groom's cottage.
The two ham stone gate piers which mark the entry into the courtyard probably date from the eighteenth century and were likely to have been moved here when the Victorian courtyard was created. The traditional black stable bricks just inside the entrance have been gathered from within the courtyard and re-sited here as a decorative feature.
In 1895 a complete new wing was built off the original seventeen century building on the east side and continued along the north side of what has now become the courtyard. Into this range were built a number of loose boxes, some of the fitting for which have been retained in what is now the Stables Restaurant.
In 1904 Mr Portman bought a matched pair of Cadillacs for himself and Mrs Portman. He built a garage with an inspection pit on the site of the present picnic terrace and a fine Chauffeur's Cottage at the entrance to the courtyard - now housing the Administration Department for the Trust. On the south wall above the porch is the Portman coat of arms incorporating the motto: A clean heart and a cheerful spirit.
Throughout the garden there are several buildings known as 'seats' all affording breathtaking views across the gardens.
The Octagon Summerhouse
An Octagonal building offering framed views of the Landscape garden.
The Chinese Seat
A simple wooden building sheltering a bench in the Chinese style
The Mausoleum- dates back from the mid 1750s. The name of the building is thought to relate to its pyramidical shape rather than any use as a burial chamber. The Mausoleum's role as a garden seat is celebrated in a poem set into a tablet below the obelisk.
The verse is a quote from Alexander Pope's poem 'Windsor Forest' first published in 1713 -
'Happy the man who to the Shade retires,
Whom Nature charms, and whom the Muse inspires,
Blest whom the Sweets of home-felt Quiet please
But far more blest, who study joins with Ease'
Epitomises Sir Edwin Lutyens' classical style. Using south Somerset's yellow Ham stone to the best advantage, he created a sophisticated building that grows out of the local slate providing a link between the informal lawns and the Formal gardens. The Orangery still performs an important function in giving winter protection to the orange trees on the terraces as well as being a delightful summerhouse. The Orangery is also used for wedding ceremonies and small receptions.
The Gothic Alcove
Emerging from the dark laurel tunnel you are surprised by a panorama of the Vale of Taunton, framed by the magnificent Gothic Alcove. Fiirst recorded in 1761, the original building was taken down after 1887 but was reconstructed in 2000 using, as a model, known Bampfylde designs in the gothic taste. The roof was changed again in 2008 following the discovery of a Bampfylde painting.
The Temple Arbour
Temple Arbour - built in the 1770s, in Tuscan doric style, this building was recorded as having had two long benches and four single chairs in the estate sale of 1872. It had been almost totally destroyed before restoration commenced in 1996 but now, once again, commands a magnificent prospect with views over the Pear Pond to the distant hills.
The Witch House
The Witch House was first recorded in 1761 and was much admired by eighteenth century visitor. In 1785 Henry Hawkins Tremayne, squire of Heligan in Cornwall wrote:
"The dead branches of Trees are twisted in the most fantastic shapes two statues whose heads are just at the entrance and other such grotesque forms not copied but merely done by pieces of wood of proper shapes rudely nailed together. Inside in once division of the Octagon is the figure of an old witch with her Beard high crowned hat and Broom. In another nick is painted an Owl, and in another a Cat. On the opposite hill a beautiful cascade of several falls seems to pour out of the wood and down the opposite hill. You see nothing but this cascade for which purpose a vista is cut through the wood from the Cave. The murmur of the water the gloom of the wood the fanciful ornaments of the Cave renders this spot a piece of poetic scenery that is infinitely pleasing."
"There is one spot in particular very enchanting after walking thro' a wood some time and ascending a hill when you reach the summit being still in the wood and surrounded by it you come to a building called the Wiches Cave it is composed of Stocks and roots of Trees. It is a half an octagon on the outside."