1865-71 – Bromley Palace Gardens, Kent

SM 44 – Jan 15

There are two small examples of the Pulhams’ work in the Palace Gardens – now the Town Hall and Civic Centre – in Bromley, Kent. A plan of the gardens, with the Pulham sites marked, is shown in Fig 1.

  5-1-44-01 - Bromley Gardens - Plan - T Banfield img550

 Fig 1 – Plan of Bromley Palace Gardens, showing Pulham Features

 King Ethelbert II of Kent granted the site to Bishop Eardwuit c750AD, and the Bishops of Rochester had a mansion there since the 12th century, when Bromley and the west of Kent were dependent on the wool trade for their livelihoods.   Near the heart of Bromley was a chalybeate spring, just like the ones at Dunorlan Park, in Tunbridge Wells – described in Chapter 5 of Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy – and at Titsey Place, Oxted, Surrey, described in my ‘Site of the Month’ feature No. 6 for November 2011.

Chalybeate water is extremely mineral-rich, and, early in the 17th century, was supposed to possess healing properties capable of curing almost everything, including:

‘ . . . the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours.   It made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain.’

I recall that, whilst being shown the chalybeate well in Dunorlan Park, our guide commented that, if he were ever told that the only way to escape death would be to drink a glass of chalybeate water, he would gladly die.

 5-1-44-02 - Bromley Gardens - St Blaise's Well c1845 and 1960

 Fig 2 – St Blaise’s Chalybeate Well in Bromley Palace Gardens c1845 and 1960     (Pictures provided by Tony Banfield)

 The Bishops built a well a few hundred yards from the chalybeate spring, and marked it with oak trees.   It was about 16 inches in diameter, and the canopy had a roof of thatch, thus heightening the picturesque appearance of the scene, as shown on the left of Fig 2.   The water rose so slowly, however, that it took nearly four hours to yield a gallon of water.   There was an orifice in the side of the retaining wall that enabled surplus water to trickle over into the adjacent moat – or small lake – that borders the grounds of the palace. It eventually became a place of pilgrimage, and an oratory in honour of St Blaise, the patron saint of the wool trade, was built close by.

After the Reformation, however, the oratory fell into ruin, and the well into disuse, although it is not clear whether they ran out of pilgrims because they died of the colic, melancholy, the vapours or old age while they were waiting for their cups to be filled with chalybeate water, or as a result of drinking it.   Or maybe they committed suicide rather than take the risk.

The old mansion became completely run-down over the years, and a new Bishop’s Palace was built in 1775, but a series of boundary changes to the bishopric in 1845 resulted in all of the Bishops’ rights and privileges being put up for sale.   They were purchased by Mr Coles Child – a very wealthy coal merchant and businessman – who made a number of grand additions and extensions to the house and gardens.   He engaged James Pulham and Son to do some work around the lake, and the notes in James 2’s promotional booklet, Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery c1877, show that they were there in 1865 and 1870, and constructed:

‘Waterfalls and ferneries’

This very cryptic description is typical of those included in this booklet, so the following notes are based on my own understanding of how the work was probably carried out.

 5-1-44-03 - Bromley Gardens - Chaleybeate Well 2010

 Fig 3 – Small fountain on the site of St Blaise’s Well in Bromley Palace Gardens   )Photo by Tony Banfield)

 From the evidence available, it would seem that their work in 1865 was restricted to the area of the well on the north side of the lake, because it is known that the well was modified about this time, as shown on the right of Fig 2.   The modern spring into which it has fairly recently been converted is pictured in Fig 3, and the Pulhamite Fernery is shown in Fig 4.

The Fernery is about 5m to the west of the well, and is roughly 15m across, and 5m deep, with a cleft in the centre through which water once flowed into its basin, and from there to the well.   The Friends of Bromley Town Parks drew the attention of English Heritage to these Pulham features, and they were officially Grade II listed in 2007.   The reasons for listing were:

  • It is a good and little-altered example of the artificial rockwork (Pulhamite) produced in the c19th by James Pulham and Son
  • It sits within a little-altered mid-c19th landscape setting, at the end of a lake and amidst trees.

 5-1-44-04 - Bromley Gardens - Fernery

 Fug 4 – The Pulhamite Fernery adjacent to St Blaise’s Well in Bromley Palace Gardens   (Photo by Tony Banfield)

 It is known that Mr Coles Child had the lake dredged around this time, because a real mediaeval stone arch was discovered while that was being done.   It therefore seems probable that he invited the Pulhams back in 1870 to re-shape the lake, and that the dredging was done at that time, because the arch and stones were incorporated into a mock mediaeval folly near the Rafford Way entrance to the gardens.

The stone arch and columns are shown in the left-hand picture in Fig 5, and the picture on the right shows the low, flat-fronted, stuccoed brick turret, with some applied stone and flint walling, with various ‘remnants’ strewn around close by.   This folly is very similar indeed to one that they built – also in 1870 – for Alderman Stone, of ‘The Hoo’, just a few miles away in Sydenham Hill Wood, so there can be absolutely no doubt as to its provenance.

 5-1-44-05 - Bromley Gardens - Folly Combo

 Fig 5 – The Rafford Way Archway and Folly in Bromley Palace Gardens

 The folly was Grade II listed by English Heritage in 1955 because:

  • It is an intrinsically interesting mid-c19th folly, unusually employing Norman-style decoration to evoke the spirit of the former bishop’s palace
  • It is probably by Pulhams, one of the most innovative and interesting c19th firms of garden contractors.

 5-1-44-06 - Bromley Gardens - Cascade

 Fig 6 – Pulhamite cascade at the southern end of the lake in Bromley Palace Gardens   (Photo by Tony Banfield)

 There is a second rockery and waterfall on the south side of the lake that is larger than the one by the well.   A rock channel – which was originally crossed by a long-since departed ornamental bridge – ran from its pool to the lake, and there would have been a ram pump to circulate the water over the cascade.   This whole area was completely buried in overgrowth at the time of my visit in 2001, so I was unaware of its existence until it was re-discovered by the Friends of Bromley Town Parks.   Some of their number can be seen celebrating its recovery in Fig 6.

 5-1-44-07 - Bromley Gardens - Ice House

 Fig 7 – The Ice House in Bromley Palace Gardens   (Photo by Tony Banfield)

As shown on the map in Fig 1, there is an old Ice House and Ha-Ha in this area of the gardens that are also very interesting.   The core of the Ice House is thought to date from the c18th, but its external walls and summerhouse extension date from the c19th – i.e., when the Pulhams were there.   Thanks to the tenacity of the ‘Friends’, this section of the grounds was rescued from the threat of redevelopment, and the structure was Grade II listed by English Heritage in 2010.   Its reasons for registration included the following interesting comment:

  • Architectural interest: It is fairly elaborate for an ice house, with a tall brick retaining wall with later dogs-tooth cornice, and the attached later summerhouse is constructed of good quality materials; its brickwork is unusual because it is constructed of burr bricks in a rare basket-weave pattern.

This is a fascinating clue, because burr bricks are exactly what the Pulhams used extensively as a core for their artificial rockwork. . . .

Around this area, and up the eastern side of the lake is a section of low decorative wall, hidden away below the level of the lake.   It is in the form of a c18th Ha-Ha – or sunken barrier and ditch intended to protect the Palace parklands from grazing sheep or cattle without spoiling the owner’s view of the surrounding countryside.   This was listed in conjunction with the Ice House, and one of its associated reasons for designation included another clue to the likely involvement of the Pulhams:

  • Historical interest: The ha-ha wall is constructed of c19th brick, but is probably on the line of an earlier, late c18th ha-ha.

This is similar to the one they built at Benington Lordship, near Stevenage, in 1835-38, as described in Chapter 1 of Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy.

The Friends of Bromley Town Parks must be congratulated for their interest in the restoration and preservation of this fascinating example of our Pulham heritage, as well as for their tireless efforts in their continued maintenance of the gardens.

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