The Gardens of the Hall

Walter de Aula (of the Hall) is recorded as the miller of Bradford in 1170. The Hall family held the mill and the neighbouring house from the Abbess of Shaftesbury throughout the Middle Ages. The family prospered, acquiring property in Bradford, Bradford Leigh and South Wraxall, so that by the 14th century their estate had become a sub-manor. A reconstruction of the manor house by Martin Valatin appeared in the Guardian Angel (Bradford-on-Avon Preservation Trust Newsletter) No 49 in Spring 2006. Hall’s Manor continued in the family after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. John Hall succeeded to the estate in 1597; it was almost certainly he who transformed the manor house into the elaborate mansion we see today. His master mason is thought to have been Thomas Arnold, who also worked at Montacute. The last of the Halls died in 1711, leaving his estate to Rachel Baynton, believed to have been his daughter by an illicit union with Elizabeth Baynton of Little Chalfield. Rachel married the 1st Duke of Kingston; their son succeeded to the estate in 1726. His bigamous marriage in 1769 to Elizabeth Chudleigh, the notorious Countess of Bristol, was the scandal of the day. Despite being found guilty of bigamy by the House of Lords in 1776, she held on to the property until her death in Paris in 1788, her husband having died in 1773. It then reverted to the niece of the Duke of Kingston, who married Philip Medows, later Earl Manvers. During much of this period the house was let and had probably lost its position as the best house in the town (it had been described by John Aubrey in 1686 as “the best house for the quality of a gentleman in Wiltshire”). The main entrance to the house was then from the south, through what is now the garden. A flight of fourteen steps led up to a broad terrace with a pierced stone balustrade running along the south side of the house. A map attached to a deed of 1797 shows an arched gateway on the road to the south and a path rising with an intermediate set of steps to the main flight up to the house. The area to the right (east) of the path is labelled ‘Garden’, the part to the left ’Orchard’.

In 1802 it was sold to Thomas Divett, a London factor, who built the five-storey Kingston Mill on land to the south. The house and the mill were let in 1836 to Samuel Pitman who is said to have installed hand-loom weavers in some of the house’s best rooms. An etching from the first half of the 19th century (reproduced in Country Life on 25th October 1962) shows the approach to the mansion through a yard with a single-storey cottage. The reconstruction (right) shows the probable appearance of the house and its gardens up to 1848.
1848 was the year in which Stephen Moulton, armed with Goodyear’s patents for vulcanising rubber, bought Kingston Mill for his India rubber factory and set about rescuing the house from dereliction with James Long as his builder. He probably commissioned Mrs Elizabeth Tackle to paint the view from across the river showing how it looked before he started work. She shows the outbuildings in the foreground and the tenements behind the house, and gives prominence to the Dower House (then known as Kingston Cottage or Villa) in which Stephen Moulton and his family lived while he restored the house. His work was praised by Tunstall in Rambles About Bath (3rd edition):

“Mr Moulton… is carrying on repairs in a manner worthy of his taste, restoring each individual sculptured stone and ornamental moulding with a fac-simile of that which he removes…”

A second painting by Mrs Tackle, dating from 1850 or soon after, shows the factory with its smoking chimney in the foreground and the house on its own, the outbuildings and tenements having been swept away. Among his alterations to the house, Stephen Moulton made the main entrance from the north, with a new drive leading down to it from the Holt road. A new boundary wall was built along Holt Road / Woolley Street and down Mill Lane, the corner being squared off from the rounded corner shown on Ashmead’s Tithe Award map. South of the house, the steps from the terrace led down to a circular path around a formal lawn. A wall still separated this from the small garden to the east sloping down to the octagonal building commonly known as the dovecote, where the bushes and trees shown on Mrs Tackle’s earlier painting had been cleared and straight paths laid out. Another of her paintings can be dated to after 1854 as it shows Bradford’s new town hall. Her viewpoint for this is the Tump to the east of the house: Stephen Moulton and his wife and daughters are surveying the scene. In the foreground is Kingston Farm with its corn stacks just below them. Little can be seen of the gardens but there is dense tree planting to the north of the house along Holt Road / Woolley Street, and more trees along the wall down to the octagonal building.
It is not known how the garden developed during Stephen Moulton’s lifetime, though it is understood that the Californian Redwoods were planted by him. However, one could guess that it was only after his death in 1880 that the gardens were transformed with formal terracing and stone retaining walls, and much new planting. A beech tree in the south-west corner which had to be felled in 2007 proved to be 130 years old. Allowing for it being a five-year old sapling would give a planting date of about 1882. Stephen Moulton had died in 1880; besides his widow the house was then occupied by her second son, Horatio, and his wife. The elder son, Alexander, who took over the running of the rubber works, lived as a bachelor at the Dower House (Kingston Cottage) until his death in 1885. The new work to the garden, for which Horatio was responsible, must have involved considerable earth moving and building work. The lawn to the west of the house was extended, with a pre-existing(?) garden temple at its north-west corner and a retaining wall supporting its south side To the east of the house was a walled garden, but what had previously been a separate enclosure with the octagonal building (‘dovecote’) at its south-east corner was now incorporated into the main garden. Below the house’s main terrace, the steps led down to a level grass platform, above the level of the main lawn. On either side of the house the upper level stepped down to an intermediate terrace and then down to the main lawn, supported by stone retaining walls. Steps led down from each side of the grass platform to a path backed by herbaceous planting and marked off from the lawn by a row of Irish yews. Along the south boundary trees were planted which would eventually screen the view of the rubber works. To the east a separate walled garden was laid out, screened from the drive at the top by a shrubbery where the map shows a small building, probably a garden temple. A meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held at the house in 1888; a photograph of the members gathered on the main lawn shows the Irish yews as still quite young. It is interesting that the garden had become known to Reginald Blomfield, the architect who was the champion of the formal garden, designed to reflect the formal lines of the house, as opposed to the loose layout of a ’natural garden’. In his book The Formal Garden in England (Macmillan, 1892) he illustrates it as a successful example of coping with a big difference of level by the use of a terrace at an intermediate level. He also comments on the grass platform at the foot of the main flight of steps: “Where a grass slope is used, the point to aim at is to keep the verge of the terrace [i.e. platform] well defined, and to ensure this the slope of the bank should form an unmistakable angle with the ground both at its top and its base.” (The slope has since been softened).
A wider public would have become aware of The Hall (called by its old name rather than Kingston House since 1894 when John Moulton became the owner following the death of his older brother Horatio) by the publication of an article on it in Country Life on March 11th, 1899 [Vol v, p 304]. The photographs show the profusion of planting and the high standard of upkeep. The article gives an extensive description:

“…The upper lawn, devoted to tennis courts, is a pleasant resort. At the back of the flower border, on the upper side, are several rows of ornamental shrubs quaintly trained, with elms, pines, and other trees behind.
“Some 10ft. below is another lawn, devoted to bowling, a fine old English game that is becoming more popular every year. Here the terrace wall is covered with peach trees perfectly trained and in full vigour. The wall was rebuilt about fourteen months ago, when a new border was made for the trees…
“Against the lower terrace walls are several noble pear trees horizontally trained… The borders by the lower terrace walls are filled, like the others, with hardy flowers, their brilliant colour in summer-time relieved by standard and other roses. The walls themselves are architecturally beautiful, and enriched with vases excellently carved in stone.
“On the lowest lawn is a fine specimen of yew, and in the belt of surrounding shrubs many choice kinds of conifers have been recently planted. Along the side of this lawn next to the terrace stands a row of beautiful Irish yew and adjoining there is a small orchard and fruit garden laid out in squares planted with standard trees and surrounded with horizontally trained apples, pears and other fruits on wire trellis. The whole character of this feature is made quainter still by three squares being edged with box in the bygone manner now revived. On the right hand [east] of the Hall is the slope garden, where are standard apples, plums etc. and trees horizontally trained on trellises, whilst the squares and borders are used for the growth of flowers and vegetables. At the top of the garden stands a noble specimen of the catalpa which will arrest attention being a handsome leafy tree. Its bold leaves are very beautiful while in summer appears a wealth of flowers resembling those of the horse chestnut. Leaving the slope gardens, we come to a Dutch garden recently laid out on the site of an old factory and only just completed. Here the yew hedges are as yet but 2 1/2 ft. high and as they were only planted two years ago have done well.

“There are vineries, peach, orchid and other plant houses in the wonderfully compact garden. Though opportunities are fewer here than in many places for elaborate and extensive gardening, the gardens of the Hall, Bradford, may be classed amongst the most interesting of their kind in England and afford an excellent example of what intelligent and loving care can accomplish, where casual interest and indifferent attention would have achieved very little.”

This is strong praise for John Moulton’s stewardship of The Hall. In the following years he was to make his mark by the rebuilding of the old barn, stables and other buildings of Kingston Farm and the creation of a landscaped garden down to the mill leat. He appointed Harold Brakspear of Corsham as his architect, who made an album of photographs showing the progress of the work in 1901-02. The old farm road became a new entrance drive off the Holt road down to a stable yard with a new range of buildings, including a ‘motor house’. A new drive led through the wagon entrance of the barn up to the forecourt on the north side of The Hall. The wall that had separated the gardens from the farm was removed, getting rid of the separate garden (‘slope garden’) shown on the 1887 Ordnance Survey. A little temple (previously standing at the top of that garden?) was moved to a new position against the rock face of an old quarry, with a rockery beyond it. This was south of the stable yard and the pleasure grounds were extended that far, with tree planting along the north side of the mill leat. A new boundary wall was built along the Holt Road as far as the new entrance. Against it a large glasshouse was constructed. An avenue of trees lined the new entrance drive.

John Moulton died in 1925 but his widow survived until 1942 and continued to ensure that the garden was kept up to a high standard, though call-up for the Second World War dispersed the garden staff, and in 1939 the house was used for evacuees from the East End. Later it became an RAMC Officers’ Mess and finally was requisitioned by the Admiralty as stand-by premises following the air raid on Bath. After the war, The Hall and its estate had been left equally to John Moulton’s grandchildren, the youngest of whom was Alex; he acquired it and has lived there and conserved it since. He established a Development Workshop in the Stables leading to the creation of automobile suspensions and the Moulton bicycle, which is now manufactured there.
In 1962 Country Life published three more articles on The Hall (vol cxxxii pp 840, 900 and 1020). The gardens appear beautifully kept, with fully mature planting. The articles are mainly devoted to the history of the building, but there are some references to the gardens, including an attribution of the intermediate terraces to John Moulton, though the Ordnance Survey of 1887 proves them to be before his time. The long lawn to the west of the house is mentioned, bordered at this date by box, catmint and climbing roses. There were also floribunda (Queen Elizabeth) climbing roses on the walls at the back of the intermediate terraces.
“To west and east, where one drops down short flights of steps, there are herbaceous borders on one side, and on the other, lines of sentinel yews growing out of the grass… An orchard with box-bordered paths lies west of the great lawn.
“All the area to the east of the formal lay-out is a landscape garden stretching away to its natural termination, where the ground begins to rise sharply. Here one finds another little garden temple, half hidden by the trees forming its canopy… After more than a hundred years the trees are of a size to form a grand background to the lawns, which here follow the natural line of the ground. In the views back towards the house individual trees, like the great lime [on the south of the landscaped lawn], or the solitary acacia [Robinia pseudacacia] on the lawn, particularly when in flower, take on added significance. Stephen Moulton’s and his son’s choice of trees was indeed catholic. The screen contains horse chestnuts, limes, beeches, maples, sycamores, hornbeams, poplars and, to maintain seclusion in winter, ilex, cedars, yews and a variety of firs.”

(It is surprising that no mention is made of the Californian Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) which are such a prominent feature of the gardens).
In 1956 the Spencer Moulton Rubber Works was taken over by Avon Rubber. Production continued to expand, with a number of new buildings. In the 1960s Alex Moulton had a fence erected along the south boundary to protect the privacy of the garden. With the construction of another large building on the site of Kingston Mill in 1972, the height of the fence was increased, leaving the southern tree belt and shrubbery in permanent shade. The fence is made of steel tubes and cedar boarding 27ft high and is quite a considerable structure. In 1986 members of the Wiltshire Gardens Trust made a garden survey, the photographs (by Ian Laurie) following in 1988. The recorder (Daphne Butler) noted that Dr Moulton “recently decided to rationalize the design and maintenance of the garden, with a twofold object:- 1) to restore the layout to its original period design, 2) to do without regular gardeners and to employ a contractor with a team of men and sophisticated machines one day a week during the spring and summer months… The garden is now mainly grass and gravel with a few old climbing roses underplanted with a succession of spring bulbs. There are some fine old trees and a few shrubs. Four large chestnut trees planted in the 1850s have recently been felled. They were reputed to be unsafe.” Among the outstanding plants she noted nine Irish Yews (1850), Fagus heterophylla asplenifolia (1850), Cercis siliquastrum (1956), Robinia and Acer negundo (1850).

In 1959 the gardens were opened to the public under the National Gardens Scheme. This continued each year until 1993, when a thousand people came. But following this some items were stolen from the garden, so the openings were discontinued, although the grounds were still used for the Christchurch fetes and the annual meetings of the Moulton Bicycle Club. Dr Moulton has recently laid out a cycle path which makes a circuit of the garden and is used as a test track for his bicycles. Over the years the planting has been simplified and is now mainly notable for its fine trees. Before the Second World War there were six full-time gardeners. Now it is in the skilful care of Richard Cook as a contract gardener employing additional people as required. The mason looking after maintenance of the stonework is Mike Lintern; the metalworker attending to railings and the fence is Bert Knight. Members of Bradford-on-Avon Preservation Trust, of which Dr Moulton is Honorary Vice-President, were recently able to appreciate their work at a garden party held in the grounds.
Pam Slocombe has produced a comprehensive architectural history of The Hall for the Wiltshire Buildings Record. Of the garden buildings she notes that the three-storey octagonal building (‘dovecote’) was almost certainly a drying stove associated with the neighbouring dye house. By the mid 19th century it had been converted into a cottage (on the 1924 Ordnance Survey it is labelled ‘Lodge’). The two small classical temples she considered to date from the late 19th century, re-using older fragments (the west one is shown in the present position on Ashmead’s Tithe Award map and the east one, later moved to the old stone quarry, appears to have been in the enclosed garden east of the main garden on the 1887 Ordnance Survey). The old cattle byre with its tapered stone pillars, dating from 1700 or earlier, survives but with the spaces between the pillars blocked in. The barn of similar date was adapted and linked to the stable buildings by Harold Brakspear. These, with his whimsical round turret, have already been mentioned, as has the glasshouse, which is dated 1901.

For the Royal Pavilion which was to be the centre of the British section of the Paris International Exhibition a building committee was formed in 1898, consisting of Major-General Sir Arthur Ellis, Colonel Sir Herbert Jekyll (brother of Gertrude Jekyll), Sir John Murray Scott and Professor Aitchison, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. They decided that the pavilion, which was to be used by special visitors, most notably the Prince and Princess of Wales, should be an attractive English house filled with the finest furniture and paintings. Jane Brown describes this in her book ‘Lutyens and the Edwardians’ (Penguin Books, 1997): “The solution was plainly hatched up on a weekend at Mells, and in Frances Horner’s presence the genial, elderly Aitchison, … had no difficulty in agreeing that Mr Lutyens should be the architect. The ideal house was discovered at Bradford-on-Avon, and flavours of Blickling and Knole were to be added.” By this time Lutyens was friendly with Edward Hudson, the proprietor and editor of Country Life, and it was doubtless on his suggestion that Hudson featured The Hall in his magazine in 1899.

According to Maggie Campbell-Culver in ‘The Origin of Plants…’ (London, Headline, 2001) p218, the Sequoia sempervirens was introduced to Britain in 1853. It became a popular tree with Victorian gardeners. The trees at The Hall are usually referred to as ‘Wellingtonias’ though this is the name for another large conifer, Sequoiadendron giganteum.

Gareth Slater