Destinys guiding hand had a firm grip on former dairy farmer Philip White when he took
lunchtime walks in the dense woodland behind Hestercombe House. Tom Montgomery reports
The overgrown Georgian landscape behind Hestercombe House exerted a fascination Philip White couldnt explain.
He had this strong feeling he had to restore this "secret and romantic valley" because nobody else was going to do it. Only later did he discover the family thread that linked him to this beautiful corner of Somerset.
The gardens of Hestercombe, at Cheddon Fitzpaine, are one of the glories of England. The Edwardian Formal Garden, started in 1904, is famous as the creation of the revered garden designer and plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll and the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
By the 70s this garden, regarded as Jekylls masterpiece, had seriously declined. But the threat to tarmac it over to create a drill yard for the fire brigade, which uses Herstercombe House as its headquarters, prompted the county council to embark on a restoration, one of the first undertaken for a garden in this country.
A key aid in the makeover, completed in 1980, was Jekylls original plans found in a drawer. The pinholes where they had hung in the potting shed are still clearly visible. They are the only set in this country; the rest have been bought by Americans.
A decade later Philip arrived at Hestercombe to take up a liaison officers job with the Somerset Wildlife Trust based on the estate. He had been dairy farming at nearby Kingston St Mary since 1974. "But I couldnt see any way forward for a family farm with financial constraints. There is life after farming but it was a difficult decision to come out."
* Conservation advice
A degree in zoology and botany, plus his hands-on agricultural background and an active role in Young Farmers made him the ideal person to offer conservation advice to landowners.
He was immediately attracted to the other garden that lay derelict and almost forgotten in a natural pocket on the other side of the house at Hestercombe.
"In hindsight, I believe it was this landscape that drew me here," he says.
Within a short time he became convinced he could bring this garden back to life, though the task was immense. The four lakes had silted up; dam walls and water features had been wrecked. The cascade waterfall, which plunges over a 14m (45ft) high rock face, had stopped running and the original tree plantings were destroyed when the 14ha (35- acre) site was cleared for timber in the 60s and replanted as commercial forestry.
After he had started work on this Georgian landscape garden Philip discovered something in his history which, "in some way explains my overwhelming conviction to restore these magnificent gardens."
A relative showed him photographs taken about 1910 of a great uncle, who was one of the Hestercombe gardeners at the time of the Lutyens/Jekyll creation, and of his great grandfather, who was the estates shepherd. His grandfather was a ploughboy. "I was astonished because I had no idea
they had all worked on the estate," said Philip. Further research revealed a family involvement with Hestercombe going back to 1791.
"It is lovely now to walk in the fields and think my ancestors were here," he says.
The landscape garden had been created by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde between 1750 and 1786. He was a member of the family who had owned the estate since the 14th century. Philip obtained a 99-year lease on it and also took over responsibility for the formal garden, which is owned by the council.
Restoring such a faded jewel doesnt come cheap. The landscape garden has cost £500,000 so far, including £170,000 of Philips own money, from mortgaging his house in nearby Kingston. His wife, Cheryl, who was initially convinced he had "gone mad" discovered their bricks and mortar had gone into hock, through watching TV. She says Philip had forgotten to tell her.
The 10-year project has involved removing 17,000t of silt from the lakes, restoring the cascade, felling some trees and re-planting others, reproducing urns and statues and tackling the dilapidated buildings, which include a Doric-style temple and a thatched witch house.
The landscape and formal gardens are linked by a third attraction, the Victorian shrubbery, which Philip is also reclaiming.
In 1997 for the first time in 125 years, all the gardens, covering a total of 22ha (55 acres), were opened to the public. Much still needs to be done but Hestercombe is now attracting 60,000 visitors a year. A trust has been set up to safeguard its future and last year it received phase one approval for a £4.9m lottery grant to pay for the restoration and a new visitor centre in an existing stable block.
Philip is still out of pocket but Cheryl is now his biggest supporter. Their four sons, Oliver (18), Sam (16), Jack (14) and Elliot (12) are also involved. They earn spending money selling ice cream to visitors in their holidays. Oliver has been working on a farm prior to going to university to study agricultural engineering.
* Sheep grazing
With the re-introduction of sheep grazing into the 18th century landscape garden to manage the grass, Philip has turned the clock back to the days of his great grandfather George, the shepherd.
"I feel I have completed a family circle," he said.
But he is already looking to the future. In five years time he believes he will have cracked the restoration of Hestercombe where half the major projects have now been completed. An idea floating in his head is to create a modern, 21st century horticultural attraction so there will be gardens spanning three centuries on the same site.
Afterwards, who knows? He still lives in his farmhouse but has rented out his land. He enjoys new projects and if somebody came along with an exciting challenge.
Hestercombe Gardens are open every day, including Christmas Day (01823 413923).
"Its lovely to know my ancestors were here," says Philip White.