Pleasure grounds, park, and arboretum, largely of c 1830-60, associated with one of the most expensive of the Victorian country houses.
The manor of Westonbirt was held in the Middle Ages by the Clerke family. By the early C17 it was in the possession of the Crews, and in 1665 the heiress Sarah Crew married Richard Holford, a lawyer. She died childless and Richard's heir was a son by his second wife, Elizabeth Stayner. During the C18 the family's wealth was increased through a London legal practice and by income from the New River Company, which supplied London with water from aquifers on the family's land, of which Peter Holford (d 1803) was a governor. Robert Stayner Holford, MP and Sheriff, born in 1808, succeeded to the estate in 1839 on the death of his father George Holford. In addition to his father's estate he also inherited that of his uncle, Robert (d 1838), who left him several properties and more than a million pounds. From the time of his majority R S Holford - also a great collector of books and paintings and a founding member of the Burlington Club - indulged an interest in planting and gardening; the arboretum was begun in 1829, the park expanded and Italianate gardens laid out from the 1840s, while in the 1860s he replaced the Regency house built during his boyhood with the present structure. Holford died in 1892. His son, Sir George Holford (1860-1926) was also a gardener and, like his father, a grower of orchids. At his death the estate passed to his nephew Lord Morley, who in 1927 sold Westonbirt House and most of the lands to the Martyrs' Memorial and Church of England Trust. In 1928 the Trust established the girls' public school which still (1999) occupies the House and grounds. Lord Morley (d 1951) retained the arboretum which in 1956 passed to the Crown in lieu of death duties and thence to the Forestry Commission which remained the owner in 1999.
LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING
Westonbirt House stands in level countryside in the southern Cotswolds on the county boundary with Wiltshire. Its designed landscape is bisected by the A433 connecting Tetbury, 4km to the north-east, to Bath, 32km to the south-west. South-east of the road is the School and its grounds and park, to the north-west Westonbirt Arboretum. Unclassified roads ring the rest of the park, whereas the boundaries of the Arboretum follow wood and field edges. The area here registered is c 475ha.
ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES
New drives, with lodges which were complete by 1853, formed part of W S Holford's expansion of Westonbirt Park. The main approach is from the north-west, from elaborate gates and Elizabethan-style lodges (listed grade II) of 1853, and probably by Lewis Vulliamy (d 1871) on the A433. This drive runs in a slightly curving line over the level parkland to the large forecourt car park on the north side of the House. Two drives approach the east side of the House from the road down the east side of the park. One gate, with Cotswold vernacular lodge (East Lodge, listed grade II) probably of c 1860 by Vulliamy, is on the north side of the kitchen gardens. The other (Pickards Lodge, listed grade II), of 1848 and also probably by Vulliamy, stands at the end of the main back drive, 350m to the south-east.
Westonbirt House (listed grade I) was built 1863-70 and was designed by Lewis Vulliamy. It is in the early Renaissance style and was modelled on Wollaton Hall (Nottinghamshire, qv). At its centre is a five-storey tower surmounted by an ogee-shaped roof; the skyline is further punctuated with obelisks, finials, and octagonal chimneys. At c £200,000 it was one of the most expensive houses constructed during the C19 and was equipped with every kind of modern convenience. Projecting from its west end is a large orangery. Two earlier houses are recorded: its immediate predecessor, on the same site as the present House, was a neo-Elizabethan structure of 1823. That itself replaced what was probably a late C16 structure of three storeys, which was used as a farmhouse in the C17 and C18 and was demolished in 1818. That lay east of the church, on the site of the garden terraces.
The contemporary stone stables (listed grade II), adapted and enlarged for school use in the late 1920s, lie c 100m east of the House. Various mid to late C20 school buildings stand to the south, between the stables and the Italian Garden.
Some 100m south-west of the House is the church of St Catherine (listed grade II), of C12 and later date.
GARDENS AND PLEASURE GROUNDS
Extending along the north front of the House is a balustraded forecourt, in the late C20 a car park. This looks northward over a level playing field, c 200m across and well planted around the periphery with mature specimen trees. These partly screen sports facilities including a swimming pool and tennis courts.
The main formal gardens (listed grade II) lie to the south of the House and comprise a series of low terraces, with elaborate stone and Pulhamite architectural detailing, which carry a grid of paths leading to seats and other gardens around the periphery. Flanking the paths are lawns with informally planted specimen trees and shrubs; parterre beds were confined to the discrete Sundial, Italian, and Mercury Gardens. It seems likely that R S Holford was in part his own garden designer, possibly taking inspiration from W S Gilpin's Practical Hints upon Landscape Gardening of 1832 (CL 1972), while architectural details were supplied by Vulliamy's office and horticultural ones by Broderick Thomas (d 1898). Work began c 1840, with the removal of the kitchen garden to the east of the House. The gardens were essentially complete before the House was rebuilt in 1863.
A gravel walk runs along the Upper Terrace, against the south front of the House. The walk extends from the West Lawn, with its informal planting of trees and shrubs, which lies west of the House, to the north side of the Italian Garden at the north-east corner of the south gardens. On the north side of the gravel walk, in the south-east angle of the House, is the Sundial Garden, with deeply scalloped, stone-kerbed flower beds around a sundial (listed grade II). The rest of the Upper Terrace, south of the gravel walk, follows the plan of the House. South of the terrace wall, which is only c 1m high is the South Lawn. On this, to the west of the axial path, is an ancient yew, the one element of the older gardens retained in the works of c 1840 and later.
Leading at a right-angle off the gravel walk along the Upper Terrace, from the centre of the south front of the House, is the 150m long path which runs axially down the garden. Elaborate flights of steps carry the path down the several terraces, the path ending at a circular fountain pool with, on its south side, a large and ornate stone bench seat giving a view back up the path to the House. The view is framed by some of the largest trees in the south garden, notably a pair of cedars. Behind, and now largely screened by planting, is the ha-ha (listed grade II) which curves along the south edge of the garden. An iron estate gate and iron stile give access to the park.
The axial path is bisected by three east/west gravel walks, parallel to that along the Upper Terrace. The first, 100m long and with a low, pierced, gothic balustrade, runs east from the north-east corner of the churchyard, against which there is an apsidal stone seat. The second, along the Lower Terrace, is the principal east/west walk. Again it begins at a stone bench seat - one of several with detailing which employs Minton tiles - and extends for 300m to end at the Mercury Garden. Lawns flank the walk, planted with shrubs and specimen trees. The third east/west walk, also extending east from a stone bench seat, is c 100m long.
The Mercury Garden (when constructed in the 1840s known as the Circular Garden, and by 1900 the Sunken Garden), at the east end of the Lower Terrace and south-east of the Italian Garden, consists of a circular hollow surrounded with rising grass banks (originally with flower beds) with a circular stone lily basin at the centre with Mercury statue (listed grade II). At the top of the east slope of the garden, looking back along the Lower Terrace to the church, is the most elaborate of all the stone seats, with Hindu-inspired carved and tiled decoration. Behind the seat is the screen of trees and shrubs, predominantly dark and including a cedar of Lebanon, yews, laurels, and Scots pines, which runs down the east side of the garden.
The Italian Garden (originally the Flower Garden, listed grade II*), occupies the east end of the Upper Terrace, c 150m east of the House. It is rectangular, 85m east/west by 65m, with domed brick and stone pavilions at the two northern corners and stone arches surmounted with shells and obelisk finials at those to the south. Drawings by Vulliamy's pupil Henry Edward Hamlen for its pavilions are dated 1843. The garden is bordered to the north by a heated brick wall for vines and flowering climbers with stone piers and capping. At the centre of the wall is the exuberant stone facade of the Camellia House. Internally the Italian Garden is divided into an upper and a lower parterre. The former has curving, stone-kerbed flower beds in a complex symmetrical pattern and a central line of tazzas, while the lower, originally long beds, is now lawn. On the centre of the south edge of the Italian Garden is its most architecturally elaborate element, a round basin supplied with water from grotesque heads to either side. A third head, on the outer edge of the south side of the basin, carries water down to a lower basin.
Leading west from the south-west corner of the Italian Garden is an iron pergola. To either side are rockeries, perhaps by Pulham, planted with bamboo. From the west end of the pergola a path curves north-east to the Upper Terrace.
West of the church is a less formal pleasure ground, 300m long from east to west and 150m wide, with specimen trees and shrubs ranged around a lake of the 1860s with Pulhamite cascade. This was part of the area occupied until the 1850s by Westonbirt village, and the lake apparently originated as the village pond. On the north edge of the pleasure ground is a Pulhamite quarry grotto and rockery of c 1870 which replaced an earlier rockery of the 1840s. On the south edge of the ground is the Amphitheatre, a shallow flight of grass steps constructed in the 1920s.
The House stands in the centre of a roughly circular park c 1.5km in diameter. The parkland, mostly permanent pasture with few internal divisions, is fairly level, and is well studded with trees, both deciduous natives and exotics. Earthworks - field boundary banks and ditches, and ridge and furrow - of the earlier agricultural landscape, open fields inclosed in the mid C18, is visible in many parts of the park. The south part of the park also contains several old quarries. South-east of Westonbirt village is a small golf course; this retains its parkland trees. At the north corner of the park (outside the registered area) is the Home Farm.
The park adjoining the manor house had been created by 1674, and had been divided into two parks by 1700. Its extension in the 1840s by R S Holford, advised by William Sawrey Gilpin (1762-1843), involved abandoning the old approach road in place of the two drives, completed by c 1853; demolishing the eastern part of Westonbirt village which stood south-west of the church and rehousing its inhabitants in the present settlement c 300m to the west in cottages (outside the registered area) probably by Lewis Vulliamy completed by c 1856; and finally, closing the Easton Grey road across the park c 1868. The golf course was laid out on the old village site before 1936.
The A433 separates the park from Westonbirt Arboretum, which lies to its north-west. The Arboretum, c 117ha, has c 4000 different trees and shrubs, and is reckoned (guidebook) one of the world's most complete collections of exotic trees. It is known especially for its conifers and maples. The Arboretum is divided, roughly into two, by the Downs, a shallow valley which originally formed its south-west boundary. The late C20 Visitor and Education Centres, and other buildings, facilities, and car parks, stand midway along the north-east edge of the Downs. To the north-east is the Old Arboretum (or Down Plantation), where the earlier plantings were made. South-west of the Downs is Silk Wood, which was incorporated into the Arboretum at a later date. Within Silk Wood are several specific collections, such as the Douglas Fir and Lime Plantations and the National Japanese Maple Plantation. Silk Wood also contains an ancient lime stool argued (Mabey 1997) to be possibly the oldest living thing in Britain.
The character and appearance of Westonbirt was transformed by R S Holford, who in 1829 founded the Arboretum on what had once been common downland and laid it out with broad rides aligned on Westonbirt House. Plant hunters were commissioned to find new species, while ones already introduced were acquired by purchase. Planting began in the Savill Glade, north of the Visitor Centre. Here rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and camellias were planted among evergreens. Radiating rides, now (late C20) called Jackson Avenue, Holford Ride, and Morley Ride were added by Holford in 1855, the first two aligned on the site intended for his new house. Acer Glade and Colour Circle were added between 1850 and 1870. In the later C19 Holford and his son cut swathes through the semi-natural oak and hazel of Silk Wood to create Waste, Broad, and Willesley Drives, mixing conifers with native species. The collection continued to be added to during the thirty years after Lord Morley came into the estate in 1926; he appointed W J Mitchell curator, which he remained for thirty years. In 1956 the arboretum was acquired by the Forestry Commission and opened to the public.
In the 1830s and 1840s, Tithe maps (Garden Hist 1990) show an octagonal enclosure, probably a walled garden, in the area of the Italian Garden. New kitchen gardens were constructed 1839-40 and 1851-2 on the east edge of the park. There are two separate garden compartments, divided by the public road which in part forms the north-east boundary of the park. That to the west is (1999) largely overgrown, its remaining glasshouses and other structures derelict, while that to the east is a paddock, devoid of internal structures.
When the kitchen gardens were removed from the vicinity of the house c 1840 the Camellia House was incorporated in the new Italian Garden. This, c 30m long and with two distinct compartments and a central lantern, was rebuilt c 1910. It now (1999) serves as classroom. Other hot houses were erected, principally in the 1830s and 1840s behind (north of) the Italian Garden: an azalea house, four vineries, and nine other span houses. Two span houses, probably of c 1900 survive, and the base of a third.
The Garden 29, (1886), pp 156-8
Country Life, 17 (25 March 1905), pp 414-23; 21 (22 June 1907), pp 911-16; 140 (15 September 1966), pp 620-2; 151 (25 May 1972), pp 1310-13
Victoria History of the County of Gloucestershire VI, (1965), pp 283-93
M A Freeman, Weston Birt (nd, c 1975)
Garden History 18, no 2 (1990), pp 155-73
Westonbirt Arboretum, guidebook, (Forestry Commission 1995)
R Mabey, Flora Britannica (1997)
OS 6" to 1 mile: 1st edition surveyed 1881, published 1889
3rd edition published 1923
Description written: May 1999
Amended: May 2001
Register Inspector: PAS
Edited: April 2003