Story of a tower

“IT’S THE TOWN’S SYMBOL, you see”, we were told by a friendly young man whom we met by chance in a churchyard in the town of Bruton in the county of Somerset.

“Never been up there myself, even though I’ve been living in Bruton all my life,” he told us, pointing at a tall tower on the summit of a hill overlooking the town.

“Where have you come from?” he asked us. When we replied ‘London’, he commented:

“Never been there myself. Have a good evening.”

Bruton is about 120 miles southwest of central London. The tower about which we had asked the young man is square in plan, is built of neatly cut limestone blocks, has three layers of windows, and looks (from below) as if it is missing its roof. The top parts of each of the four walls are triangular, looking as if they were once the side walls of gabled roofs.

The tower that stands in Bruton’s Jubilee Park is known as ‘The Dovecote’. The hill on which it stands rises steeply from the almost level fields of the public park. Birds, mainly pigeons, could be seen perching on the edges of the four gables at the top of the tower. It stands on a square plot 65 square feet in area and is situated on land over 300 feet above sea level, to the south of the centre of Bruton. Although it is tall, I have not been able to discover its height by searching the internet. That it has lost its roof, is recorded.

The tower stands in what was a deer park of about 30 acres established in about 1545-6 by the canons of the long-since demolished nearby Bruton Abbey (whose remains can be seen in the town). The park was later enlarged and surrounded by a wall. In the 18th century, the deer were removed. However, much earlier, in the 16th or, 17th century (actual date is uncertain although some of the timber used in the construction has been dated as being felled between 1554 and 1586), the present tower was built by the Berkly family. They acquired the land after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The tower was built to be used as a ‘prospect’ or ‘look out’ tower.

In about 1780, or maybe much earlier, the tower was converted to be used as a dovecote. Inside the tower, which we could not enter, there are roosting spaces (nesting boxes) for at least 200 doves. Long ago, pigeons and doves were an important food source. They were reared for their eggs, flesh, and dung. In 1915, the National Trust (‘NT’) acquired the freehold of the tower from Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare (1865-1947). Not only did Sir Henry give his tower to the NT, but also, more importantly, he also donated his family estate with its fabulous landscaped grounds at nearby Stourhead to the same organization in 1946. The Hoare family, about whom I hope to write soon, is also associated with another tower not far from Bruton, the Alfred Tower, which we have visited … but more on this anon.

Although we could not enter The Dovecote tower, we did one better than the young local with whom we spoke earlier; we walked up to its base.

Two gardens: one old and one new

DURING OUR TEENAGE YEARS, my friends. Francis, Hugh, and Michael, and I used to take short trips to places of interest outside London. Amongst the many places we visited were Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury, and Winchester, to name but a few. In those days, the mid to late 1960s, none of us could drive. So, we had to rely on getting to places by public transport. On one occasion, we arrived in Cirencester, hoping to find some way of getting to the remains of the Roman villa at Chedworth, which is about ten miles distant from it. The situation looked desperate. We were worrying that we would have to walk when I spotted an old-fashioned looking bus arrive. The driver told us that he operated a once a week service that passed Chedworth. We boarded and reached our goal.

Pavilion by Smiljan Radic in the Oudolf Field garden

One place that we always wanted to visit was the garden at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Famed for its spectacular landscaping including many architectural ‘follies’, this place was, despite our extensive research, impossible to reach using public transport. It remained one of our greatest wishes to see Stourhead, as great as the Jewish people’s desire to see the so-called Holy Land. Stourhead was almost our ‘Goldene Medina’. We never managed to  reach it together.

Many years later, in the 1990s, my wife and I made our first visit to Stourhead, travelling by car. We saw the place at its best on a bright sunny afternoon. In late September 2020, we returned to Stourhead on a grey, rainy afternoon during the covid19 pandemic. Despite the inclement weather and the restrictions as to where we could walk, we had a wonderful time. Every footstep we took led to one after another exciting view of the landscaped parkland. Wherever we looked, we saw fine trees and a wide variety of shrubs and other plants. Much of the walk is around an irregularly shaped man-made lake, the shores of which are dotted with architectural ‘follies’, constructed to enhance the romantic landscape. Many of these are built to resemble Greek or Roman classical temples. There is also a cottage built in Gothic Revival style and a wonderful and rather weird artificial grotto containing statues and fountains. Words cannot begin to do justice to the beauty of the gardens at Stourhead. The place has to be seen to be believed, and the weather, both good or bad, simply enhances the delightful experience that has been produced by nature skilfully assisted by mankind.

The gardens in the 2650-acre estate of Stourhead were designed by Henry Hoare II (1705-1785), a banker and garden designer. They were laid out between 1741 and 1780 in a classical 18th century design, based on the landscape paintings by artists such as Claude Lorraine and Poussin. The Hoare family owned paintings by some of these great masters. Many of the monuments or follies that adorn the garden were designed by the architect Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769), who died in Hampstead, the area in which I grew up. The slightly over one-mile long walk around the lake was designed to try to evoke a journey similar to that of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld. The design of this path was conceived to produce alterations in the mood of the visitor as he or she walks along it, moods reflecting those of Aeneas on his journey. If that was the intention, Aeneas must have had a wonderful trip.

In brief, the grounds at Stourhead should not be missed by anyone with even the very slightest interest in gardens. In the words of the Dutchman Baron Van Spaen van Biljoen (1746-1827), who visited the garden in the late 18th century:

“Nothing in England could compare with Stourhead … we were in such ecstasy we had the utmost difficulty in tearing ourselves away from this charming spot…”

This noble Dutchman visited many gardens in England with his stepfather-in-law, Baron W. C. H. van Lynden van Blitterswijk (1736–1816) during the summer of 1791. His opinion is still valid today. The Dutch visitors would have seen Stourhead when the oldest part of the garden would have been only fifty years old. The plants would have been far less developed than they are today. As my wife said wisely, Hoare and his family were not only creating the garden for themselves but for the many generations that would surely follow in their footsteps.

On the day we visited Stourhead, we visited another garden not far away, near the charming town of Bruton in Somerset. Like Stourhead, created in the 18th century to depict nature naturally but under the guiding hand of man, the Piet Oudolf Field next to the Somerset branch of the Hauser & Wirth art gallery is a carefully curated ‘wilderness’, an attractive sea of wild flowers and shrubs. Piet Oudolf (born 1944), a Dutch garden designer, began creating the one-and-a-half-acre garden next to the gallery less than ten years ago.

The garden grows on a plot that slopes gently down to the buildings housing the gallery. At the highest point in the garden, there is what looks like an oversized donut or, perhaps, a huge whiteish mushroom (when viewed from outside it). It is in fact a structure that was the temporary summer pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2014.   It rests on giant rocks and was designed by Smiljan Radic, a Chilean architect born in 1965. Made of a semi-transparent fibre-reinforced plastic shell, it is hollow and allows the visitor to walk around in what looks like part of a large snail shell. Although it looks quite different from the plants growing around it, its fungal resemblance makes it blend with them in a remarkably pleasing way.

Incidentally, the Oudolf Field is worth visiting in combination with the spacious art gallery and its associated restaurant that provides exceptionally good food. I recommend their Sunday roasts!

Both Stourhead and the nearby but much younger Oudolf Field, are fine and beautiful examples of man’s interaction with nature. Visiting these gardens lifted our spirits despite the rain that fell almost incessantly.  I had to wait for over thirty years before my wish to visit Stourhead was fulfilled, but it was well worth waiting for.

Victoria slept here once

LOVINGTON BAKERY AND CAFÉ in Wincanton (Somerset) provides a superb range of breakfast items, all prepared beautifully. No effort was spared to ensure that we had a most enjoyable breakfast. The café, which is housed on the Market Place close to the Town Hall, is almost opposite a former coaching inn, once called ‘The Greyhound’.

The elegant three-storey building that used to be the Greyhound has a centrally located archway that has a cobbled driveway passing beneath it. There is a bas-relief depicting a royal coat of arms above the archway. A cast-iron inn sign showing a greyhound with its broad neck collar remains suspended over the pavement above the archway. An oval panel above the archway but at the level of the roof has a faded painting of a greyhound.

The Greyhound was built in the 18th century, probably by the local builder Nathaniel Ireson (1685-1769), whose impressive funerary monument, which includes a handsome statue and carvings of builder’s tools, can be seen in the graveyard that surrounds the town’s large church of St Peter and St Paul.  The building was first mentioned in parish records in 1743 and advertised as being “new” in 1760 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1238740). The greyhound is the armorial symbol of the Churchey Family of Tout Hill.

In 1825, when the future Queen Victoria was a child aged about six years, she visited Wincanton and stayed for one night at The Greyhound. This visit is recorded on a plaque attached to the building. Where she was going, I have not yet been able to ascertain, but she was not the only royal visitor to be associated with Wincanton. In 1688, William of Orange (reigned 1698-1702) not only visited the town but also his Dutch troops fought and won a battle against troops loyal to the deposed King James II in the town. After his victory, he spent a night in Wincanton A plaque attached to a picturesque old building not far from the former Greyhound inn commemorates the Battle of Wincanton (20th of November 1688).

The Greyhound is one of many pubs (former and still working) that line the main road through Wincanton. In the olden days before motor transport superseded horse-drawn transport, these inns served as staging posts for travellers, places for being fed and for resting overnight. The Greyhound no longer serves the traveller but houses a gallery and has also become part of a housing unit. We spent the night in a modern hotel not far from the modern highway (the A303), which takes traffic past Wincanton rather than through its winding hilly streets. From our bedroom window, we can see a concrete factory and a tall sign advertising a KFC food outlet. Had Victoria been staying here, I am certain that she might have said or thought “We are not amused”.