The reconstruction of the 18th century Witches Hut at Hestercombe Gardens

To replace the Witches Hut or Cave, an 18th century structure built by William Copleston Bampfylde circa 1770 which stood in his landscape gardens, the site needed to be identified by an archaeological team and the building design recreated with the help of contemporary descriptions and a photograph taken in 1906. This picture, from the original photograph was enlarged by five times to gain more detail. It was fairly clear the timbers in the photograph were of oak. I would have liked to use Hestercombe timber throughout the building however as all the timber on the estate had been cleared in 1961 by the Forestry Commission it meant we had to find an alternative supply for the larger sections. An excellent woodsman from Blagden Hill, near Taunton, James Frazer Harris understood that timber of character was required. We spent quite a time selecting trees required, even holding templates against boughs of oak to reproduce the serpentine braces. Time was a factor; the specialist builders engaged at the gardens relayed the stone cobbled floor, using cobbles unearthed by the archeological team, making up missing ones from the stream beds and other parts of the garden, much as must have been done in the 1770’s.

During the 18th century Charles Hamilton engaged a hermit on a seven-year contract for his hermitage in Painshill, Surrey. Story has it the Hermit was expected to wear a Camelot robe, not to cut his nails or hair and reside in the Hermitage with a table, chair, mat and hassock for a bed, an hourglass for timepiece and a Bible. Food came from the House but not a word was to be exchanged with the servants. In return seven hundred guineas would be paid after the seven years. Within a few weeks the hermit had swapped his beads and Bible for ale and tobacco and was dismissed after improper relations with a dairy maid. Had the hermit stuck to his part the fortune would not have been his as the Hamilton's landscapes left him bankrupt before the contract would have been completed.

The rebuilding of the Witches Hut

The structure made from oak trunks and boughs were clad with first cut slab wood, the roof being of oak boughs and stick constructed to support a wheat straw thatch.

Caroe and Partners, the architects from Wells had drawn up another set of plans requiring the building to be lined with bark. Initially I had reservations but as the building went together I had to admit this was the best course of action. (Even though I used all my stocks of bark I had been saving for a bark temple I had heard might be rebuilt.)

All through the work on site we had a copy of the 1906 photo fixed to a tree and would constantly refer to it as the building went together. From the man handling of the 14” diameter oak trunk frame to the piecing together of the slab wood. Referring back to descriptions of the views and vistas we decided that benches would fit against the back walls. A lot of the detail had not been recorded and I believe we did not contradict any of the evidence available but filled in any missing areas within the spirit of the age.

The references to the paintings,
‘The brindled Cat, the list’ing Owl,
The spotted Snake, the Night bird foul,
With other imps more potent still,
Wait to execute my will.’

I repainted these in a style similar to those found in 18th century books. Mother Bunch and her cat combined with a witch suckling a cat from a Hogarth engraving. (This was more significant when I found out Bampfylde had a collection of Hogarth engravings.) The alcoves referred to be made from roots, stocks and boughs and imagination can reveal animals and forms not immediately obvious.

I do not believe there was ever any evil intentions in the building of the original Witches House, certainly not in the rebuilding, just to be on the safe side I did incorporate some charms to keep evil spirits at bay. Always striving to comply with the last verse of the poem in particular.

Now when sitting within the cell, overlooking the cascade and pear pond you can view through the re-cut vistas on this paradise regained with a sense of well being.

Despite the rain, snow and long treks up the steep woodland track, the project was completed on schedule. The Witches House was officially opened on the 28th of April 1998.

The maintenance is expected to be very little with this type of building. As expected when the timbers dried out some of the mossed joints opened up. This was simply resolved by adding more sphagnum moss. During this first annual visit we again treated the timbers with fungicide/insecticide now the moisture level in the timber was lower.

I shall revisit the site annually but do not expect any major repairs until 10-15 years when the ridge on the thatch will need replacing. The main thatch should last for at least 30 years.

The damp proofed floor should prevent rising damp and the overhang of the thatch should protect the timbers from the elements. I would like to think this building should have a similar life span as its predecessor.

David Raffle