The Archaeology Of Stoke Park, Bristol

by James Russell

With additional notes from other sources


The Stoke Park estate is situated on the northern edge of the City of Bristol, lying partly within the City boundary in the former parish of Stapleton and partly in the Northavon parish of Stoke Gifford. It occupies the picturesquely scarped and indented eastern flank of Purdown, a ridge of lias limestone and clay rising to nearly 300 ft above sea level and commanding wide views over Bristol, Kingswood and the adjacent Frome valley.

While the scenic and recreational value of the Park has long been apparent, it is only in recent years that its historical significance has come to be fully appreciated, and in particular the importance of the work carried out there in the mid 18th century by the architect and landscape gardener Thomas Wright of Durham (1711‑1786) under the patronage of Norborne Berkeley, Lord Botetourt. Wright's connection with Stoke was first by Eileen Harris in the course of her pioneering research into the career of this highly individualistic designer (Harris 1971, 1979). More recently research in the archives of the Beaufort family at Badminton and Gloucester, carried out by Messrs Stewart Harding and David Lambert, as well as by the Badminton archivist Mrs Margaret Richards, has added greatly to our knowledge of Wright's activities, as well as producing much new information about the general development and management of the Stoke estate during the 18th century (Harding & Lambert 1988, Lambert & Harding 1989).

Since December 1987 this historical research has been supplemented by archaeological fieldwork carried out by the present writer with the assistance of other BAAS members. A detailed report on the first phase of this fieldwork, involving the excavation and survey of three ornamental structures in the Park, the Rotunda, the Obelisk, and the Tomb of the Horatii, has already been published (Russell 1988). Further work carried out during 1989 has included the recording of other garden buildings, a survey of earthworks in the central area of the Park (Fig. 2) and the preparation of reconstructed plans of the Park area in c. 1725 and 1768, using the 1st edition O.S. 1:2500 map as a base (Figs. 3, 4). The present article provides a summary of the results of this recent work. Research, both documentary and archaeological, is continuing, and it is hoped that in due course a more definitive historical account of the Stoke Park estate will be produced in which the information gleaned from archival sources will be fully integrated with the results of field survey.

Photo Stoke Park Rotunda plan Photo Stoke Park Rotunda

Berkleys accounts show that the rotunda cost £151 16s 3d for the Building Work and Materials. In 1756 £21 was paid to Francis Grinway, stonemason of Mangotsfield "for the Temple", and a further £21 to was paid to Wright.

Contemporary records record  ye round Temple, which consists of lonic Pillars supporting an Arched Canopy, and may be about 15 feet in diameter. An early photograph shows a simple rotunda with 10 Ionic columns,

The rotunda cost £151 16s 3d for ;the Building Work and Materials;. Berkeley's accounts show that £21 was paid in 1756 to Francis Grinway, stonemason of Mangotsfield ;for the Temple;, and a further £21 to Wright.

The direction of Pococke's circuit gives a clue to the whereabouts of another monument whose existence had not been suspected until his manuscript was discovered: "We then went to a brow of a Hill, on which his Lordship has built a model of ye Monument of ye Horatii at Albano, with four round Obeliscs upon an arch'd building adorn'd with a Pediment every way. On ye Frieze round ye four sides is lis inscription, 'Memoria Virtutis Heroicae S.P.QX On ye side upon which ye Epitaph is inscribed, ye Monument has scarce any Access to it, which may have some particular Mearting."

A survey of 1768 shows the structure on the hill facing the house at the south-cast corner of the park. Its remains were known as ;The Old Owl House; into the 1920s.

Berkeley, suffering financial embarrassment after a disastrous investment in William Champion's brass works, became Governor of Virginia in 1768. He never saw his garden again, dying of a fever in 1770. Stoke passed to his sister, and was used intermittently as a dower house for Badminton, with the park being maintained, until 1908, when it was first let, and then in 1915 sold, to the Rev. Harold Burden as the nucleus of his colony system for the mentally handicapped, It passed to the National Health Service, but since the ending of the colony system in the 1960s Stoke Park has suffered neglect and progressive dereliction. In 1968 the Duchess's Pond was destroyed to make way for the building of the M32 motorway, which cuts across the eastern part of the park. But luckily the road is well engineered and less obtrusive than it might be.

The importance of Stoke Park is clear, but if the inspector does not include it in the Green Belt a flurry of planning applications from the health authority can be predicted. As Bristol City Council is pledged to refuse any applications on the land, its future will almost certainly be settled by the Secretary of State on appeal. It would be tragic if its future as parkland is lost just as its glorious past had been rediscovered.

In the last few years uncertainty over the future of Stoke Park has caused increasing concern to local residents and conservationists alike. This concern, coupled with growing appreciation of the Park's historical and aesthetic significance, has led in April 1989 to the establishment of the Stoke Park Restoration Trust, which aims to promote the Park's preservation and, as far as possible, recreate its mid‑18th century appearance. A preliminary report detailing the Trust's proposals for preservation and restoration has recently been published (Harding 1990). BAAS is represented on the steering committee of the Trust and it is hoped that a continuing archaeological input from the Society will prove of assistance when restoration work is commenced.

The writer would like to thank the other members of BAAS ‑ Messrs lan Beckey, Mike Baker, Andy Buchan and John Hunt ‑ who have assisted him in fieldwork at Stoke Park. He is also grateful to Mr Mike Stanbrook for sharing with him his extensive knowledge of tile history of Stoke Gifford and to Messrs Stewart Harding and David Lambert for making the results of their original documentary re search on Stoke Park so freely available to him.

In contrast to other areas of historic parkland on tile outskirts of Bristol, such as the Blaise Castle and Ashton Court estates, Stoke Park has so far produced scarcely any indication of prehistoric or Roman occupation. The only prehistoric find yet known from the area appears to be Bronze Age flint arrowhead from Purdown, now in the Somerset County Museum (Grinsell 1969, 9). No finds of Roman material are so far reported, although a number of Roman settlements and burials are now known in the vicinity (see Fig. 1). From this negative evidence it maybe inferred that, with its stiff lias clay subsoil, the Purdown ridge held few attractions for early settlers and is quite likely to have remained a marginal area of woodland d waste until well into the medieval period. Strip lynchets and other field remains indicate that by the 13th century the eastern side of the present park, where the underlying geology changes from lias clay to Triassic marl and sand-stone, was being farmed by the inhabitants of Stapleton parish. By the early 15th century there is documentary evidence for a farmstead on the site of Wallscourt Farm, to the north of the present park (ST 61707801; Dahl 1934, 55, 61). It seems probable. however, that no significant ` settlement took place within the park area itself before the, erection of Stoke House by Sir Richard Berkeley in the late 16th century.

Stoke Park Context Map

The Berkeley family gained possession of the manor of Stoke Gifford around 1338, following the execution for treason of John Giffard in 1322. The manor house of Stoke Gifford appears to have changed its location at least twice between the 14th and 16th centuries. The probable site of the pre≠1322 Giffard manor house was identified in 1984/ 85 during excavations in Parsonage Field on the west side of Great Stoke village (ST 62568003; Fig. 1,A; Russell 1986, 36). Local tradition (Dahl 1934, 51) coupled with the evidence of field names, suggests that the first Berkeley manorial complex lay further south, near the present Court Farm to the east of St. Michael's Church (ST 62307970; Fig. 1,11) and was adjoined by a small park, the subject of a dispute between Sir Maurice Berkeley and the local inhabitants in the reign of Richard 11 (Evans 1958, 3). It was this establishment which was described by John Leland c. 1543 as a ;Manor Place of the Barkeleys in Ruine, and a Parke Waulle; (Latimer 1889, 256). Finally, in the late 16th century, Sir Richard Berkeley, who succeeded to the Stoke estate in 1553, built a new mansion, the present Stoke House, on the edge of the Purdown escarpment at the southern extremity of Stoke Gifford parish (ST 62207725; Fig.1,C; Kingsley 1989, 176‑178).

There can be little doubt that the most gifted member of the Stoke Gifford branch of the Berkeley family was the last in the male line, Norborne Berkeley, Baron Botetourt (1717‑1770). Succeeding to the Stoke Gifford estate in 1738, he had within a few years set about the wholesale transformation of the woods and farmland around the existing Elizabethan mansion into a landscaped park. From 1749 onwards Berkeley was assisted by Thomas Wright. Born in Byers Green, Co. Durham in 1711, Wright had initially made his reputation as a writer and teacher on mathematical and astronomical topics. Despite a humble social background, limited formal education and a decidedly eccentric personality, Wright was able to secure the lasting friendship and support of several aristocratic patrons, including Norborne Berkeley's brother‑in‑law, the 4th Duke of Beaufort. Through these patrons Wright was able to develop and practice, in a semi‑amateur capacity, his considerable skills as an architect and landscape designer (Harris 1971, 1979).

As an architect, Wright's work was characterised by a playful and idiosyncratic eclecticism; while capable of performing confidently in the prevailing classical style, he was also a pioneer of the gothic revival, and displayed a highly individual taste for intricate planning and the use of strongly textured ;natural' materials, such as tree‑roots and rough stonework. His garden layouts which, like many of his buildings, now survive only as plans and sketches, combine elaborate planning with an appreciation of picturesque informality, and occupy a transitional phase between the rigidities of the 17th and early 18th centuries and the more austere naturalism of ;Capability; Brown. At Stoke, Wright was able to refine and embellish the landscaping already begun by his patron Berkeley, laying out new gardens, terraces and complex woodland walks, as well as designing a series of ornamental buildings and monuments. He also planned and supervised the complete remodelling of Stoke House, carried out in stages between 1749 and 1764.

In 1768 financial difficulties forced Berkeley to leave England to take up the post of Governor of Virginia, where lie died in October 1770. He was succeeded at Stoke by his sister Elizabeth, widow of the 4th Duke of Beaufort, who carried on her brother's work of gardening and building, continuing to rely on the guidance of Thomas Wright until the latter's death in 1786. Following the death of the Dowager Duchess herself in 1799, the Stoke Gifford estate remained in the hands of the Beaufort family until its sale and subdivision in 1915. Although during this long period considerable resources were devoted to the rebuilding of farms and other improvements on the estate as a whole, few significant modifications were made to either the layout of the park or the structure of the house, which was latterly occupied almost continuously by tenants. From 1908 onwards the house and grounds were leased, and in 1915 purchased, by the Rev. H. N. Burden, who established there a 'colony' for the treatment of the mentally handicapped. This institution was taken over by the National Health Service in 1948 and continues in existence as Stoke Park and Purdown Hospitals and the Burden Neurological Institute Utilitarian hospital buildings now line the northern approach to Stoke House, although fortunately without greatly impinging on the landscaped park to the south‑west. In 1940 a large anti‑aircraft battery was constructed within the park boundary on the crest of the Purdown ridge (ST 61207640; Roberts 1981, 61‑64, fig. 2). Since 1945 the Lockleaze housing estate has encroached upon the south-western corner of the park, while the M32 motorway, constructed in 1968, now runs along its eastern side.

Stoke Park Earhworks Plan


Comparatively little is yet known about the history of land≠ use and land‑holding in the area now covered by Stoke Park before the park itself was laid out in the mid 18th century. The earliest surviving estate maps of the area date from around 1725; they comprise a survey of the whole of the Stoke Gifford estate made in that year by John Vascon (GRO D2700 QP 15/2) and a second, slightly later map, of superior technical quality but lacking field‑names and other captions, showing the demesnes of Stoke House on a larger scale (GRO D2700 QP 1515). Figure 3 combines the information contained in both these maps. It depicts an essentially utilitarian landscape of enclosed fields and coppiced woodland in which the only ornamental elements were the relatively modest terraced gardens immediately adjoining Stoke House and two avenues of trees converging on the mansion from the north. Barn Hill, to the west of the house, was occupied by a group of farm buildings, dominated by a massive barn some 35m long with two pairs of lateral porches (ST 62057731). To the south of this main barn was a smaller barn or farmhouse, visible in John Wootton's early 18th century view of Stoke House, now at Badminton (Harding & Lambert 1988, fig. 1). Despite the field‑names ;Park' and ;Park Gate;, there is no evidence at this date for an enclosed park with a defineable boundary.

In Figure 2 the field boundaries recorded in 1725 are superimposed on a survey of the earthworks surviving today in the central area of the present park. It will be seen that a number of banks and lynchets, for example in the area north of the present Pond Field Wood (Fig. 2,D), correspond closely with 1725 boundaries. Other earth works, however, seem to represent features which had been abandoned by 1725. The most prominent of these are two groups of strip ≠lynchets, one on the slopes below the Obelisk on Star Hill (ST 61857713; Fig. 2,A) and the other further west (ST 61607710; Fig. 2,13). These terraced features are the product of ploughing along the hillside in parallel strips, probably during the earlier part of the medieval period. On the valley floor to the south of the lynchets on Star Hill are further remains of strip‑fields.

stoke park layout