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Bristol's Red Lodge and Its Elizabethan Knot Garden

by Yvonne Cuthbertson

The Red Lodge BristolThe Red Lodge with its magnificent, walled Elizabethan knot garden is a splendid example of a 16th century mansion. Situated in Park Row, Bristol in the County of Somerset, it was built around 1590 by Sir John Younge, a wealthy Bristolian merchant, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1574. The house, although considerably altered externally, contains some beautifully appointed rooms with rich oak panelling, elaborately carved chimney-pieces, panelled plaster ceilings with pendants, and fine examples of Tudor furniture. On the first floor, is the famous Oak Room, richly panelled and exquisitely carved, which can be reached by a fine eighteenth century staircase with barley-sugar balusters.

Below the Lodge, and entered by a door under the stairs, are some of the cells thought to belong to the Carmelite Friary, the house and grounds of which were bought by Bristol Corporation upon the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. These were afterwards sold to Sir John Younge who built his Great House on the site circa 1570, later adding the White Lodge, just to the east, and the Red Lodge, a short distance up the hill. Both lodges, incidentally, were originally built as an adjunct to the main house to be used for entertainments and the accommodation of visitors and guests.

Unfortunately, Sir John died in 1589 before the Red Lodge had been completed, and his nineteen-year-old son, Robert, inherited the estate. Robert Younge, however, was not like his father; his lifestyle was dissolute and resulted in him mortgaging the property in the 1590s and being forced to sell it in 1603. During the following two hundred and fifty years, the house was occupied by Bristol merchants and their families and suffered regular changes in ownership. The fabric of the building was considerably altered by John and Mary Henley in the early eighteenth century and, during the 1780s/90s, William Trotman, a woollen draper and entrepreneur, purchased the Lodge and proceeded to build houses on the orchards and gardens, to sell off land as building plots, and finally to let the property.

The Red Lodge BristolIn 1854, the Red Lodge was bought by Lady Byron, widow of the poet, to be used as the first girls' reformatory school in this country. She presented it to Mary Carpenter, one of the originators of the Reformatory system for poor girls and a pioneer of philanthropic work. The daughter of a Unitarian minister and schoolmaster, Mary Carpenter had worked with some of the poorest, most deprived children in Bristol, and, by 1852, she had already established a reformatory school for girls in nearby Kingswood, in a house that had once been used by John Wesley.

Mary's eldest brother, William Benjamin, had been tutor for a time in the household of Lord Lovelace, Byron's son-in-law, and a friendship had been forged between the Byrons and the Carpenter family. Her work with these girls, details of which can be found in the Exhibition Room, won her national acclaim. After her death in 1877, a plaque in her honour was erected in the Red Lodge as well as a bust of her in Bristol Cathedral. Sadly, as new methods of dealing with young offenders evolved, the reformatory school slipped from the public's gaze, and eventually closed in 1917, leaving the Red Lodge once again up for sale.

Details of the sale were brought to the attention of Alderman James Fuller Eberle who, in order to save the building from being stripped of its assets, immediately organised a public appeal. With the aid of local benefactors such as Sir George Wills, the house was bought, renovated and presented to the City of Bristol. The City then leased it to the Bristol Savages, a club for artists and art lovers, who moved in upon the completion of renovations in 1920. The architect C.F.W. Dening was commissioned to carry out the restoration programme, and it was he who later built a meeting room in the garden for the club, known as 'the Wigwam', and where the Bristol Savages continue to hold their meetings.

Looking at the Red Lodge today, it is hard to believe that it once stood in extensive grounds of walled gardens and orchards. Nowadays, all that remains is a small square of garden surrounded by a high wall, with the entrance to the house at the back of the property bordering on to a busy main road. The garden has, however, with the help of public funding, been redesigned as a knot garden and filled with the herbs and plants of Elizabethan England, all of which were originally cultivated for their usefulness rather than for their aesthetic value.

The Red Lodge Elizabethan Garden

The Elizabethan herb or knot garden was popular during an age when sweet-scented herbs took pride of place in every garden. English knot gardens were first recorded in the fifthteenth century and were one of the most successful of herb garden designs, with horticultural books of the time giving numerous illustrations for their cultivation.

Usually contained within a square or rectangular shaped plot, each knot pattern had to be precisely outlined by low, clipped hedges of scented evergreen herbs. Favourite hedging herbs of the time were hyssop, santolina, thyme and marjoram; box was also very popular. Often, aromatic hedges of rosemary and lavender were planted for drying linen and the clippings were used for strewing or distilling into oils or waters. Paths were made of raked gravel, bricks or small coloured pebbles.

The actual designs themselves were often formed from family crests, heraldic devices or even the entwined initials of the lord and lady of the manor house. The pattern for the garden at the Red Lodge has been taken from a bedroom ceiling, and the trellis that encloses the knot of box hedges is made to a seventeenth century design.

The Red Lodge BristolThe house itself retains many of its original features, with some of the rooms beautifully panelled in oak. It was built at a time when nouveau riche merchants were beginning to demand an improved standard of comfort and starting to live in princely style, and, while rooms opened one out of the other, with no connecting corridors, there was a growing number of separate rooms in all houses. Fireplaces with chimneys were becoming commonplace, with mantels designed in very elaborate styles, the Red Lodge chimneypiece in the Great Oak Room being a fine example of local craftsmanship.

Among the wealthy, rich, elaborately carved furniture was much in demand. Heavy oak linen chests which doubled as seats and intricately carved four-poster beds were highly prized as heirlooms to be handed down from generation to generation. One such four-poster bed may be found in the Bedroom of the Red Lodge, complete with embroidered hangings and bedding, the panels on the green velvet hangings being copied from Mary Queen of Scots' cipher work in fine tent stitch that can be seen on the famous hangings of Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.

Not surprisingly, the Elizabethans were very fond of lavish and expensive bed hangings, the bedchamber being one of the rooms designated at that time for receiving guests. Naturally, therefore, it was important to wealthy householders that the bedchamber should be sumptuously decorated in order to impress visitors. Often, elaborately worked embroideries such as valances were displayed, many of them worked in tent stitch with a few simulated pearls embroidered in raised stitches to add texture.

Since 1948, the Red Lodge and its garden has been in the care of the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and is open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday: 10am - 12pm booked parties only, 1pm - 5pm general visitors, and is a popular tourist attraction. The tour of the house starts upstairs in the Great Oak Room, progressing to the Small Oak Room, which leads from it. The visitor then moves into the Bedroom, on through the Exhibition Room, which contains documents and artefacts of the history of the Red Lodge and its inhabitants, and then across the landing to the Print Room where seventeenth century French portraits are housed. The tourist then descends the staircase on one wall of which hangs portraits of John Henley and his wife, Mary Fane, and enters the Reception Room which contains few Elizabethan features due to the alterations made by the Henleys, afterwards proceeding into the Parlour which, again, is decorated and furnished in largely Georgian style. The tour ends in the New Oak Room, access to which is gained by returning through the Reception Room and turning left from the hall. This room has also been altered but, this time, during the nineteenth century, with its oak panelling coming from St Michael's Rectory in Bristol.

With the accession of Queen Elizabeth 1 to the English throne in 1558, came a long period of growth, prosperity and settled social and cultural conditions. It was a time of stability and consolidation when the aristocracy, affluent landowners and the rising middle classes had the time and the money to spend on decorating both their persons and their houses, and making costly and elaborate gardens of which they were extremely proud. The Red Lodge is one such West Country house that has fortunately been preserved, and both it and its garden are well worth a visit, particularly now that most of Bristol's late sixteenth century buildings have gone, taking in their wake a visual reminder of one of the greatest ages of excitement, adventure and personal endeavour that Great Britain has ever known.

Visiting the Red Lodge

Now furnished as a family home, this Elizabethan lodge is hidden amidst the bustle of modern Bristol. And, if you are planning a stay in the West Country of England, it is well worth a visit. The entrance to the lodge appears uninviting because it is at the rear of the building, with the true façade facing downhill. Once inside, however, you will be given a fascinating glimpse into life in Elizabethan Bristol. You will also be amazed by its south-facing walled garden, an excellent example of a re-created Elizabethan-style knot garden with herbaceous borders. All the plants grown here could have been found in English gardens by 1630. It's a garden that offers tranquillity, a place to sit and wonder.

The Lodge is quite close to Bristol City centre, so, should you decide to go there, you can take a bus from the centre of Bristol, or hire a taxi.

The Red Lodge
Park Row, Bristol, BS1 5LJ England
+44 (0)117 922 3571
Opening Times: 3 April-October: Sat-Wed, 10 a.m.-5p.m.; closed Thursdays and Fridays. Admission: Free. Wheelchair access to some public areas

Living History Days: Look out for the 'living history days' when actors dress up in period costume and really bring the house to life. These weekend events show what life might have been like in the 17th and 18th centuries. Visitors can hear characters' tales and see members of the household go about their daily lives. Anyone interested in these events should contact The Red Lodge to find out the dates and times, as these can vary.

Yvonne Cuthbertson lives with her family in the County of Wiltshire. She has, during the past few years, freelanced for a variety of magazines both at home and abroad, having previously been employed as a Headteacher. She is the holder of the Royal Horticultural Society's General Certificate (RHS). Her first book, Women Gardeners: A History, was published in 1998 by Arden Press in Colarado, and her second book, Beginners' Guide to Herb Gardening, by The Guild of Master Craftsman Publications in Sussex, England in 2001. Her interests include: photography, gardening, history, alternative medicine, wildlife and conservation and education and management.
Article and photos © 2006 Yvonne Cuthbertson


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