Grove House in the days of the squires

Grove Park is a place of memories for many Westonians. Some of them, old and grey, will recall that it was on its lawns that they took some of their first, stumbling steps

Grove Park is a place of memories for many Westonians. Some of them, old and grey, will recall that it was on its lawns that they took some of their first, stumbling steps. As schoolchildren they marched there for celebrations on such notable occasions as coronations, Royal weddings and Empire Day.There are the memories of the old open-air concert parties of Clay Thomas, Emil Claire, of the sunshine Carnivals, of dancing on the lawn at Mogg's Band's annual benefit, when it always rained. In much earlier years there was the summer night enchantment of revelry by gaslight illuminations.For their joy-making, for many of the most important occasions in the town's history, and in their time of mourning Weston people have made for Grove Park. It was not at the town hall that Weston received its charter of incorporation as a borough, but in the bandstand at Grove Park. And when it came to the choice of a site for a memorial to the town's war dead it was in Grove Park they placed it.The park is no longer the sylvan, secluded spot many of us knew in our childhood. The tennis courts extension opened it to the westerly winds, and a car park now blots the approach.But it is still a delightful open space, which was formerly the garden of the Smyth-Pigotts' summer residence, Grove House. It was saved from a threat of building development by being bought by Weston's Urban Council in the nineties of the last century.When John Pigott added the manor of Weston to Brockley and his other North Somerset possessions in 1696, he sought a place at their seaside property to which they might bring friends.It is not known when Grove House was built. It began as a cottage, and was enlarged by the Smyth-Pigotts upwards of 150 years ago. The grounds were tastefully laid out and in those days, of course, there was no public admission to them. In fact Weston boys who ventured to steal fruit from gardens ran the risk of being fired at by the keeperOne of the Smyth-Pigott squires kept a pack of hounds at the Grove and meets often moved off from there. In those days open fields lay beyond the cluster of cottages and shops of the ditch-bordered Street.Many famous people stayed at Grove House. The Smyth-Pigotts were connected with distinguished families, and were generous patrons of the arts. Both at Brockley and at Weston they entertained many noted artists, writers and musicians.The Smyth-Pigotts' manorial seat at Brockley Hall had an observatory in its roof, and they also built an observation tower on the upper lawn of Grove Park. One can picture the crinolined guests of the Smyth-Pigotts climbing the steps to see the fine panoramic views of Weston and the Mendips, and the sail-studded Bristol Channel of those days. For years in living memory it remained just a round, stone shell with winding steps on the outside with a rusting handrail. Eventually it was considered to be dangerous and the local authority had it pulled down. In the west wall of Grove Park near the war memorial is a door leading into the drive of Glebe House. This is a relic of Pigott's Walk, the old pathway along which the Lord of the Manor, his lady, their distinguished guests and the servants walked in processions to services at the parish church. Although the archway is the same, the door in the park wall is not the original, which was heavy and nail-studded.At that time the church had a manorial pew, a handsome structure with oak panels, some of which were brought from Brockley. The centre panel was richly ornamented with carvings of the Pigott arms and crest, and above were two escutcheons, one of them emblazoned with the arms of Captain John Pigott, Sheriff of Somerset, who died in 1730, and the other with those of the Rev Wadham Pigott, who was both squire and Rector of Weston.He died in 1823. Wadham Pigott and his brother John Hugh Smyth-Pigott largely met the cost of rebuilding the parish church, and Wadham Pigott's name is commemorated in Wadham Street.The manorial pew is said to have contained handsome carved chairs of the Restoration period. The pew was removed from the church in 1880 and re-erected in Grove House. Later it was taken back to Brockley.One of the most famous English homes of former days was Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. It was a magnificent house filled with art treasures, and the beautifully laid out grounds gave lavish display to statues. Walpole left Strawberry Hill to the Waldegrave family, but eventually it became too costly to maintain. When its effects were auctioned Wadham Smyth-Pigott bought some of them.He was born in 1819, and in 1857 married Blanche Mary, second daughter of H Raymond Arundell of the ancient Arundell family of Wardour. This squire did more than any of the Smyth-Pigotts for Weston. His Strawberry Hill purchases included several busts on pedestals, of Shakespeare, Bacon, Locke, Hannah More, Newton, Voltaire and others. These he set up in the grounds of Brockley Hall, but later gave them to the growing village of Weston to adorn its first park, the Prince Consort Gardens, which were also his gift.Later they were removed to Grove Park. Today only much worn Hannah More, Voltaire and Bacon survive. They stand opposite the lily pond.Whereat's New Handbook to Weston-super-Mare, dated 1855, gives a glimpse of The Grove as it was in those days:"Opposite the northern termination of High Street is the entrance to The Grove, a handsome residence, surrounded by ornamental gardens, and embowered amidst magnificent trees. This had for some time been the residence of the Pigott family, to whom the manor of Weston belong; the present Lord of the Manor being John Hugh Wadham Smyth-Pigott Esq."The mansion is approached by a carriage-way beneath a leafy archway of overhanging elms, by a pretty lodge, behind which is a rural walk to Weston hill, passing an observatory belonging to The Grove."And another glimpse of The Grove locality: "... we enter an avenue familiarly known as Lover's Walk; directing your view to the right we cannot avoid being sensible of the paramount beauty and natural advantage so the situation of the Glebe or Parsonage house, coyly peeping out from the depth of the dark grove in which it is embedded".The "rural walk" to the hill running past the eastern boundary of Grove Park was known to generations of Westonians as Dark Lane, being a "tunnel" through thick trees and bushes.Apart from being used by people going for walks on the hillside, Dark Lane was also the route by which stone was brought down from hillside quarries.One day the villagers found that on Squire Hugh Smyth-Pigott's instructions a wall had been built across the approach to the path. They held a conference and a man named Reeves agreed to pull it down, which he did.The squire had it rebuilt, but again Reeves demolished it. This time proceedings were taken against Reeves and he went to gaol. After serving his sentence he arrived home to find that the wall had been reinstated.He calmly sat down to tea and, having finished, called his sons together and remarked: "Boys, I don't think that mortar is so dry by what I can find a hole to get my bar in". So the family trooped off, and the wall was flattened again.The wall was never re-erected, and the pathway had been maintained as a right of way ever since.It was John Hugh Smyth-Pigott who in the early years of the last century planted Weston Woods. His original idea was to make the hillside a game preserve. The trees were raised from seeds. It is said that he had the children given a holiday from school and gave them bags of acorns and other seeds brought from the woods at Brockley. Squire Smyth-Pigott also excavated a road around the hill to Kewstoke - the Kewstoke toll road. It became a favourite haunt of the squire, who was often seen afterwards scraping up the earth at different spots and planting flower seeds, quantities of which he always carried in his pockets.Grove House had a varied future after it passed into the possession of the Urban Council in the nineties. At one time it was Weston's public library, and when the library was transferred to the Boulevard the house became Ye Old English Cafe.Later it was leased as a private residence. The old house was gutted by incendiaries in a Nazi raid in 1942, and lay in ruin for some years. Eventually the council rebuilt it, and it became the residence of the parks superintendent.The Grove Pavilion, home of popular summer entertainment, was shattered by a Nazi bomb that fell in the road just outside, killing three young Westonians. It was not rebuilt, and the site is now a car park.This place of memories is under the constant threat of change. A couple of years ago it was thought the bandstand was not worth the cost of a coat of paint, but following pleas it was decided to retain it. The latest move is to take a few more feet of the park to extend the parking area.There are no Smyth-Pigotts to say "No" in Weston today, but one hopes that the Grove may be saved by the weight of public insistence that a beauty spot so rich in associations with the town's history shall suffer no more.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on January 27, 1967

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