It is April 2020 and the country is under lockdown. Luckily we are allowed out for daily exercise and I have been able to spend time exploring the Stoke Park Estate which is in walking distance from my house. The familiar yellow castle which I can see from my bedroom window is one of Bristol’s most familiar landmarks. If you look to the left you can see it from the M32 as you enter the city from the east.
The Stoke Park Dower House
I thought I would share some of the history of the area. I must admit that although I live so near and even worked at Stoke Park hospital which was built in part of the estate for a couple of years I learnt some new things.
The land round Stoke Park was owned by the Berkeley family who built Berkeley castle in Gloucestershire. In 1338 they gained possession of the manor of Stoke Gifford which included Filton, Stapleton, Downend and Kingswood. In 1562 Richard Berkeley built a hunting lodge high on the hill so he could look over his hunting ground. In 1736 the estate was inherited by Norborne Berkeley who rebuilt the house in the strawberry gothic style. ( I had to look up strawberry gothic.)
Strawberry gothic was a style made popular by Hugh Walpole the first British prime minister which combined elements of castle and cathedral architecture to create medieval looking buildings without a medieval shell. It was named after his house in Strawberry Hill London. It was supposed to combine “gloomth” inside with “riant” outside in other words darkness and light.
Norborne Berkeley invested much of his fortune in William Champion’s brass works in Warmley and when Champion went bankrupt, Norborne fled to America and eventually became governor of Virginia. The house passed to his sister Elizabeth Beaufort the Dowager Duchess of Berkeley and was known as the Dower house. His niece Elizabeth was killed in a riding accident when she was only 18 and is said to haunt the terraces.
Stoke Park hospital
In 1909 the house was sold to the Reverend Harold Burden who together with his wife Catherine converted it into a hospital for children with mental health issues and learning disabilities. When I worked there in the 1990’s some of the children were still there. I went to a ninetieth birthday party for a lady who had spent eighty years in the hospital including living in the Dower house as a child. This hospital was closed in 1996 and the house has been converted into upmarket apartments
The history of the Stoke Park landscape.
‘The importance of this distinctive landscape was overlooked until the 1980s when garden historians recognised Stoke Park as the largest surviving example of the work of Thomas Wright (1711-86) – a ‘polymath’ now considered a leading 18th century landscape gardener. Thomas Wright is an interesting figure who is credited with recognising that the shape of the Milky way is an optical illusion due to looking at a flat plane of stars a long way off.
Wright’s design consisted of sweeping vistas, carriage ways and paths which would lead visitors past tunnels, tombs and temples. He incorporated three areas of woodland, Barn wood, Long Wood and Hermitage wood, and two large ponds. The largest which is really a small lake is known as Duchess Pond and is popular with anglers and water birds.
After the hospital closed the estate became very overgrown. In 2012 it was acquired by Bristol City council who plan to reinstate the 18th century landscape and have opened it as a park for the public to enjoy.
Wright could not have known that the pastoral quietude of his design would be destroyed by the M32 motorway which bisects the bottom of the park but visitors can still enjoy woodland walks and sweeping grass land. From the top you can experience panoramic views over Bristol and if the wind blows in the right direction it is a favourite place to watch the balloon fiesta. It is popular with dog walkers.
It is free to enter but there is no car park or toilets. Bristol city council have mapped out a series of walks for visitors which can be downloaded here.
Other things to look for are a tree sculpture trail in the woods, Purdown Percy an old world war 11 anti aircraft battery and the distinctive former BT communications mast.
The number 5 or 48A bus pass the lower gates.