Philip White’s work heading up the continuing fund raising and restoration of Hestercombe is about to enter its latest phase - but there’s no sign of his passion and enthusiasms slipping for a moment
Philip White still isn’t ducking the challenges ahead.
“We live or die. It keeps us sharp,” says the boss of Hestercombe Gardens, near Taunton, which is about to embark on another dramatic stage in its extraordinary story.
The tasks ahead for this former Somerset dairy farmer who earlier this year was recognised with an MBE in the New Year Honours List for his contribution to save Hestercombe, seem to bring energy and passion into his words.
“There’s a lot to do. To look back is perhaps for others. My job is to look forward.”
If he was one for moment tempted to look back he would see how his enthusiasm and drive had already saved Hestercombe from ruin almost single handedly.
Now as chief executive of the Hestercombe Gardens Trust, he has some big developments in the gardens to drive forward plus the task of repairing Hestercombe House, a 90-room house which has been used as offices for the last 60 years- most recently as headquarters for the Somerset Fire Brigade.
Hestercome Gardens, the Edwardian part designed by Gertrude Jekyll together with the architect Edwin Lutyens in l904 and Grade 1 on the English Heritage Register continues to be a quite remarkable story.
It has been one of the most talked-about garden restorations in Britain – discovering and revealing layers of gardens over 250 years.
Now the amazing discovery of a lost Elizabethan Water Garden near the house is now set to extend the gardens even further back in time and add a 16th century dimension, giving Hestercombe a unique ‘full hand’ of gardens through the centuries.
Reviving Hestercombe has certainly been a labour of love for Philip White. He studied zoology and began working as a dairy farmer. There was something of a touch of fate about his first involvement with Hestercombe in the early 1990s which came when he was working for Somerset Wildlife Trust.
His office was in the grounds where he often walked through the overgrown woodlands.
“The grounds were just dense woodlands and you could see the outlines of lakes but couldn’t see any of the buildings. I felt I wanted to do something. I wanted to restore it. At the time the grounds were managed by the Crown Estate so I asked if they were going to open up any of the original views and they didn’t really want to know."
So not for the first time he decided to do it himself. Remarkably, he funded the project himself with an unsecured loan of up to £50,000. After that he had to put his house on the line as security.
He knew he had to raise the profile of the gardens, so in 1993 he put his efforts into an exhibition of the paintings of landowner and artist Copleston Warre Bampfylde – the man who created the original gardens in 1760. “Again I ended up doing it all myself. I managed to get an exhibition space at Christy’s in London and I sat there for two weeks overseeing it.
“It paid off as people started to talk about Hestercombe as if they’d known about it all along. I felt we were underway."
In year one, the gardens welcomed over 30,000 visitors.
His work was underway.
The plans for Hestercombe for the next two years look even more demanding for him.” I haven’t lost the enthusiasm and the desire to get this all done “he says.
He has recently moved to Lyme Regis to live and travels to Hestercombe every day.
“The thinking time is important and going home I get rid of the problems and arrive home a little more sane.”
He and his team have spent a huge amount of time negotiating the purchase of Hestercombe House now the Fire Brigade has left.
“Calls to 999 were taken at Hestercombe House right up to March 2012,“ he adds.
The task now is to unify the house and gardens as one as Copleston Bampfylde and Edwards Lutyens intended in the 18th and early 20th centuries.
There will be a new entrance and Information Office aimed at an upgraded welcome for the 80,000 annual visitors.
So how best to make use of the iconic Hestercombe House?
“First things first. Repairing an old 90 room house which has been used as offices for the last 60 years present loads of challenges. We have to move office partitions; the extensive roofs are in a bad condition and will take time and lots of money to repair.”
But the signs are good. The Guildhall School of Music plan to make Hestercombe House its centre for the south west, offering children opportunities to learn and play music.
“It is the sort of thing we would love Hestercombe to be used for, it brings us the profile and creates more links with the community;” he adds enthusiastically.
Philip White’s vision is for the house to be developed into a cultural hub for the south west bringing together such activities as music, landscape studies, horticulture, training, exhibitions, events and more.
“It’s an exciting time.“
But the realities of the balance sheet are never far away.
“Last summer was tough, very tough. The poor weather, the Jubilee and the Olympics all combined against us and gave people other options. It wasn’t a wakeup call but I found it was a reminder that we must always be on our game.”
For those visitors passionate about Hestercombe and its legacy from outstanding designers, Philip has more good news.
There are three projects on his ‘to-do’ list.
The first is the re-opening of the Victorian Drive originally developed during the ownership of the Portman family. In 1873 the 1st Viscount Portman bought the Hestercombe estate and undertook considerable alterations to the house which were completed in 1878. Planning permission has already been obtained for this work which will show the house at a distance. The new drive will be for pedestrians and cyclists.
The second is the remarkable discovery of a lost Elizabethan garden near the house.
The discovery is another exciting one for Hestercombe as it takes the gardens further back in time and when restored, will evoke Tudor times when ladies would venture out with their rods and fish while their husbands were away on matters of state.
Finally there’s the completion of the garden structures in the 18th century garden. It is likely that all the garden buildings at Hestercombe, such as the temple and mausoleum, were made to Bampfylde's own designs. Within his 35-acre landscape, Bampfylde made a pond and a grand cascade, and many interlocking vistas and views out to the Vale of Taunton, all of which are now being carefully restored. The last three restorations will complete his vision.
He says the freedom that being an independent charity brings is refreshing and has made his task easier.
“We are fortunate as we are like a little boat bobbing along compared with the National Trust which is a huge oil tanker which takes hours to stop and change direction. If we decide to do something, we just go ahead and do it. But of course, we lose out on the amount of funding that an organisation like the National Trust gets.”
The whole journey of the gardens and the house continues to evolve thanks to the passion and dedication from Philip.
“The whole is bigger than anyone one individual including myself,“ he adds.