Looking at Hestercombe today, it is hard to believe that back in 1995, the spectacularly picturesque eighteenth century Landscape Garden at Hestercombe was a hidden valley entirely engulfed by trees. Even the sluggish stream that crept through the valley bottom was barely visible. Now it is one of the foremost gardens of its period in the country and is an acclaimed tourist attraction.
The miraculous transformation has taken place thanks to the dogged determination of one man, Philip White, who is the founder and chief executive of what has now become the Hestercombe Gardens Trust. Quietly spoken but with a steely vision, he recalls how the dramatic restoration project began:
“I was based at Hestercombe when I worked for the Somerset Wildlife Trust back in the early 1990s, having given up my previous life as a dairy farmer, and during my lunch hour I would walk through the overgrown valley behind the house. It had been planted up as commercial forestry by The Crown Estate in the 1960s but had become sadly neglected. Gradually I began to notice remnants of what was once an eighteenth century landscape garden, designed by a former owner of the house, Coplestone Warre Bampfylde [1720-1791]. You could just make out the edges of the silted up lakes, the broken brick leat that had once fed the now derelict waterfall and the tumbled down pillars of a lost temple. I became consumed by the idea of restoring the landscape to its original glory; somehow I knew that I had been brought here for this express purpose, and that if I did not undertake this challenge, then no one else would.”
Initial support for this project was not forthcoming from outside sources, so Philip began his campaign alone. He begged and badgered to obtain some backing and in 1995 he funded, curated and invigilated an exhibition of Bampfylde’s paintings at Christie’s which generated a huge amount of interest in Bampfylde and his garden. That summer, in July 1995 [and without telling his wife!] he re-mortgaged their house to finance the dramatic felling of trees and the dredging of lakes. Thousands of tonnes of soil were removed and hundreds of trees cut down to re-create the scene that was clearly illustrated in one of Bampfylde’s watercolours.
Slowly but surely, the long forgotten eighteenth century features were uncovered and the elegant structures that once graced the garden were either restored or re-created with the aid of detailed archaeological evidence. Today, visitors can enjoy the original circuit walk around this eighteenth century Arcadian landscape with its range of classical and rustic buildings including the Temple arbour, Mausoleum, Gothic Alcove and the spectacular Great Cascade. All of which were created to make and frame views both within the garden and out towards Taunton and the Blackdown Hills beyond just as Bampfylde originally intended.
Now, more than twenty years later, the Landscape Garden sits proudly beside the other two gardens on the site – the world famous Edwardian Garden, designed by Edwin Lutyens and planted by Gertrude Jekyll; and the Victorian Terrace. Together they make Hestercombe, not only one of the foremost historic garden sites in Britain, but also a major tourist attraction. An independent charity, the Hestercombe Gardens Trust has benefited from a wide range of generous grants from various sources including from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which funded the stylish courtyard visitor centre and the restoration of the seventeenth century watermill and barn.
Hestercombe has come a long way over the last two decades and, largely thanks to Philip White, it is now firmly on the map as one of Britain’s most important historical gardens. In 2013 Philip White was honoured with the MBE for ‘services to historic garden restoration’.