19 March 2013
My social calendar is usually a rather sparsley populated thing but this weekend was jam packed. Along with the Saturday Care For A Walk and the Sunday morning Eastleigh 10k there was a rather special open day I really didn’t want to miss on Sunday afternoon. For a long time now I’ve known there is a boundary stone hiding in the grounds of what used to be Townhill Park House, in fact I’ve even glimpsed it through the thick holly hedge. The problem is the stone is out of bounds behind large, locked gates.
Back in 1536, when the Manor of Townhill was granted to Sir Wiliam Paulet by Henry VIII, the area was mostly farm land, known as Townhill Farm. In 1787 Nathaniel Middleton spent some of the fortune he made with the British East India Company to purchase the farm, revamp and enlarge the farmhouse and turn it into a villa. These days the area’s called Townhill Park and is a sprawling estate of mostly modern housing and low council flats that are in the process of being demolished. It nestles between the river, Bitterne Park, Midanbury and West End, with lots of little copses and Cutbush Lane, a thin line of greenery, snaking through the middle.
This afternoon the grounds of Middleton’s villa were open to the public, although it’s changed a bit since the eighteenth century. CJ and I were so eager to get there we strode along Cutbush Lane hardly looking at our surroundings. We did, however, look at the sky. There were dark clouds and a threat of rain, not the best conditions to be visiting a garden. Still, as long as we saw the boundary stone it was probably worth getting wet.
We did stop to look at the fancy wrought iron gates topped with golden spikes. When we’ve passed by before they’ve always been firmly closed. Now they were open. As soon as we were inside though we headed for the car park rather than the big house in front of us. Anyone watching might have wondered what on earth we were up to but we knew the illusive boundary stone was somewhere on the edge of the car park by the hedge. The gardens could wait.
It was a simple matter to locate the stone and there weren’t even any cars parked in front of it. CJ and I gleefully took pictures and mentally ticked number five of twelve off our list. Luckily no one was around to see two seemingly grown adults unaccountably doing a happy dance around an old, moss covered stone. If there had been they might have called in the authorities to get us locked up.
With the really important business of the afternoon out of the way we could safely turn to anciliaries like the house and gardens. Heading back along the drive we stopped to look at an old horse chestnut tree so huge its lower branches had to be supported by pieces of wood.
“I wonder how old it is?” CJ asled.
Unfortunately I didn’t have an answer for him but it was obviously pretty ancient. What I did notice though were new leaves, covered in orange hairy coats, bursting from their sticky buds like alien eggs waiting to open. When the sticky buds open I know spring really has arrived.
Then we were standing in front of Twonhill Park House. Of course it’s come a long way from the sixteenth century farmhouse Nathaniel Middleton turned into a villa, in fact his villa is just the three arched central portion. It’s changed hands a few times too. In 1808 Middleton sold it to Willam Hallett who in turn sold it to Caleb Gater of Gaters Mill in 1842. It was when Samuel Montagu, first Baron of Swaythling, bought the house in 1897 for his son Louis, that the biggest changes began. In 1910, shotly before Louis became the second Baron Swaythling, he hired architect Leonard Rome Guthrie to extend the building. Not many of the manor houses of Southampton still survive but this must surely be one of the best examples.
The next year Louis asked Gertrude Jekyll to work with Guthrie and design gardens to complement the Italian styling of the remodelled house. It was these we’d come to see. We were in front of the north side of the house, facing roughly towards the Swan Garden Centre. In front of it was an interesting looking stone gateway leading to football pitches but it was shut. Obviously this was not the way for the garden tour.
Looking around we spotted a decorative wrought iron archway with the words 1912 2012, Townhill Park House Gardens. Beside it was a small sign, ‘entrance to gardens,’ we’d found the way in. Passing under the arch and through a gap in the tall hedge we were greeted by a couple of jolly looking ladies who directed us left onto a large patio.
“There’s tea and cakes,” one said, “so don’t be shy.”
“Mum hates tea,” CJ told her, “but she doesn’t mind cake.”
There were stalls selling plants and CJ had to hustle me past quickly in case I started buying things. In front of the west face of the house I had to hustle him past the cakes with a promise to come back when we’d seen the gardens. Further along, a band were playing old time songs. As we headed off down the steps into the garden the music drifted after us.
“It must have been like this back in the day when this was someone’s house,” CJ said.
He was right, it did seem a little like a ninteenth century garden party.
A little way down the lawn we stopped and looked back at the house. This west side is Guthrie’s twentieth century addition, built in the Italian style so fashionable at the time. We walked past clipped hedges and beds laid out with plants that will probably be lovely in a month or so. Right now a few Rosemary flowers are all that brighten it.
Further on, a path led to a more formal garden surrounded by pairs of columns echoing the house, clipped box hedges and mounds of plants not quite ready to throw off their winter slumbers. Ahead was a small pond and a pergola with a tiled roof. Beyond I could see houses.
Rather than walking through the centre of the garden we decided to walk the flagstone path around the perimeter. There were lavender, cordylines and clumps of things beginning to poke through the ground but, apart from beaming daffodils, not a lot was in flower. Of course it didn’t make it any the less interesting. Every garden has four seasons and this threshold of spring shows the bones of it, the framework the flowers bloom on. It’s a time of anticipation where the true shape, the knolls of greys and greens, the spiky clumps and the contorted branches are the beauty if you care to look. Later in the year it will be full of colour and these bones will be upstaged and unnoticed.
We worked our way around to the pergola and looked back at the house. What must it have been like to live there and stroll each day through these gardens spotting a new bloom here and there like familiar friends? Back in the Montagu’s day there would have been far more land to roam. Their property covered two hundred and ninety four acres.
Behind the pergola we found another, hidden, garden with clipped box pyramids. There were benches and the daffodils here were still in bud but the hellebores were putting on a lovely show. We wandered off to the right now and found tennis courts. Lord Swaythling was involved in tennis and table tennis at a national level and Dan Maskell, the tennis player was a frequent visitor to the house. Another visitor was Queen Mary, who was a friend of Lady Swaythling. There was a cricket pitch too and a funny little club house, although I doubt it dates from Lord and Lady Swaythling’s day.
I had an idea we might have been able to get onto River Walk from this side of the garden which would have given us an alternative walk home. Sadly, although there was a gate, it was locked so we retraced our steps to the pergola. We found a ladybird asleep on a choisya then we walked along the central path for a closer look at the pond. We tried to imagine water spouting from the cherubs in the centre.
After a few more photos of the details, a deep purple hellebore and a spike of euphorbia, it was time to make our way back to the house because CJ felt he was overdue some cake. The band had packed up by the time we got there but there was some cake left and I will have to admit I succumbed.
In 1927 Lord Louis, whose vision built the beautiful house and garden, passed away and his son, Stuart Montagu, inherited the title of Lord Swaythling and the estate. He and Mr Rose, the aptly named head gardener, began hybridising rhododendrons. They won several RHS awards of merit. Then, in 1939, Lord Stuart loaned the estate to the Red Cross to use as a convalescent home for wounded World War II soldiers.
Unfortunately, after the war, Lord Stuart’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and he had to sell the estate in 1948. The land, sold to Southampton Borough council, went on to become the Townhill Park housing estate. The house and thirty acres of gardens were sold to Middlesex County Council and were used as a school for underprivileged girls. In 1969 Southampton City Council bought the house. For a while it was used as a hostel for Merchant Navy Cadets and then it became a conference centre. Finally, in 1994, the Gregg School purchased Townhill Park house and three years later, work began to restore the neglected gardens to their former glory.
Our visit was almost over but there were still a couple of things to see. We wandered around the side of the house and discovered the first, the stable block, now used as a drama studio. This was built in the 1880’s and is a thing of beauty with colour washed bricks and arched windows. What lucky horses they had.
On the south side of the house we found Lady Gladys Swaythling’s boudoir, built by Guthrie after World War I. The sundial set in the central pediment really caught my eye and I wondered if I could persuade Commando to build me one? The gardens in front of the boudoir, known as the boudoir garden was our last stop of the day. It was filled with daffodils, what a lovely start to a day!
Despite our initial worries about the weather we’d managed to get round the whole gardens without any rain falling on us. Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky with the journey home. Still, we both agreed it was worth it. Not only had we seen the beautiful gardens but we’d finally had a proper look at our fifth boundary stone. Best of all there are three more open days this year and the next one is on my birthday!
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