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Ashton Court: Past, Present and Future

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November 2014

Ashton Court: Past, Present and Future

Could a weekend trip to a park start you on a seven year crusade to protect and renovate a stately home? That is what happened to Peter Weeks when he was admiring the magnificent visage of Ashton Court House and by chance got a glimpse of the terrible dilapidation inside. It prompted him to find out about the house's past and play a major part in its future; he shared the story with the Thornbury History and Archaeological Society on Tuesday 11 November 2014.

In 1390, Henry II granted a license to Thomas de Lyons to enclose lands and build a house in the area we now know as Ashton Court. The original cross beam roof is still there, and strangely enough visible in the men's cloakroom. In 1546, John Smyth, Alderman and twice Mayor of Bristol took ownership, and the land would stay in his family's possession for the next 400 years.

Ashton Court House is sometimes described as an "architectural mess", and with help of Peter's extensive collection of photos it easy to see how several styles have been collected together. The short answer to how this is happened is that whenever the Smyth family were feeling flush they built more house in whatever style was fashionable at the time. In 1590, John added a Jacobean style south west wing; in 1685, Thomas Smyth MP added a wing in the Palladian style; in 1770, Sir John Hugh Smyth added the north west wing in the Early Gothic style; in 1810, the right hand side of the gatehouse was added in the Victorian Gothic style; in 1803 the west side gate house was built by the same architect as Bristol's St James' Priory; and in 1885 the winter garden was added with a cast iron and glass ceiling that was subject of substantial architectural praise at the time.

The long period of expansion ended in 1949 when Esme Smyth died without any heirs. Ten years later Bristol City Council bought it for £130k. However, they were only interested in the park and the house lay forgotten for everyone except squatters and vandals, until a group of architects and the Council secured some funds for restoration in 1974. Unfortunately, once the work commenced they realised that the south front wall was leaning dangerously forward, by the time that was fixed the budget was used up.

There are parts of the house which are now in a good state and used for weddings, meetings and as a café; however, none of the upstairs or any of the north west wing have been touched and they are really in a poor state: a full restoration would cost £20m. Peter and his colleagues are looking at a range of different ways for raising money and making the building relevant for Bristol in the 21st century.

What do you think should happen to Ashton Court? Should it be held in trust? Do you have any experience getting grants that could be used to protect and renovate it? Or do you have any stories about its history that could be used to promote it? You can let us know on our facebook page at www.facebook.com/thornburyhistorysoc and we'll pass any messages on to Peter Weeks.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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