Old Down’s history stretches back to Roman times and includes noble war efforts and devastating fires. This two-part blog contains a fascinating insight into the history of Old Down, before David Banks takes us through the modern renovations that have occurred since 2007.
Up to 1840
Old Down occupies the summit of a scarp 250 feet above sea level. The scarp is formed by an outcrop of Carboniferous limestone associated with the Lower Severn Anticline which extends from Bristol northwards to Tortworth.
There was an earthwork called Elberton Camp on the site from ancient times. This is located in the area known as the ‘Vineyards’, on the right-hand side of the Park entrance drive (now private land). During the Roman occupation the area was used mainly for grazing and hunting.
Village settlements probably took place during the Saxon period and by 8th Century many manors had been granted away by the Saxon kings. In 1154 the properties of Elberton and Berkeley were granted to Robert Fitz-Harding, Sheriff of Bristol. Around 1268 the Berkeleys created a freehold estate in Elberton later called Elberton Farm. There were four windmills along the ridge.
By the 1840s Old Down Park existed more or less in the form it is seen today but has been reduced in size as various areas have been sold off.
1840 ~ 1903
The house was originally built in 1856 by Thomas Johnson Ward who lived at New Leaze, Olveston on the Aust road out of the village.
Old Down Manor was designed by Messrs. Pope, Bindon & Co. of Bristol and was originally called Fern Park. The rateable value was set at £90. The main entrance gate was the lower gate which leads to the avenue of trees – now the Wedding & Event entrance. A grand opening took place in 1857 and the workmen were supplied with roast beef and cider. All the poor people of the parish were invited. The church bells were rung and cannons placed around the grounds were fired throughout the day.
Thomas Johnson Ward lived at Fern Park until 1860 when it was leased to Irish landowner, Francis Allen and later, in 1872, to Henry Salmon.
In 1881 the house was purchased by William Harford one of the members of a banking family resident at Blaise Castle in Bristol. William Harford was closely connected with the beginnings of the Great Western Railway and its renowned engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
1904 ~ 1914
In 1904, Colonel C.E. Turner bought the house and moved there with his wife Isabella Walker, daughter of John Walker of whiskey distilling fame.
In 1906, Colonel Turner, together with Algar Howard of Thornbury Castle, formed a territorial troop of the local farmers with the best horses to form The Old Down Troop of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars Yeomanry. They trained and were based at the Mansion. The troop consisted of 26 men and 4 reserves.
The members of Old Down Troop were called up in 1914 at the outbreak of the ‘Great War’ and served in the Middle East campaign at Gallipoli, Egypt and Aleppo.
Col. Turner was awarded the DSO and Algar Howard won the Military Cross. The wrought iron railings to the north side of the house were installed by Colonel Turner having been brought to Old Down from an important building in London.
The house now became known as The Down House.
1926 ~ 1953
Olveston United Football Club was formed in 1926. The blue and yellow Club colours are the colours of the Gloucestershire Hussars, the regimental colours of Col. C.E. Turner, the first Club President.
In 1943 Colonel C. E. Turner was awarded the CBE in the New Year’s Honours List.
On the 8th February 1953 the Colonel was awakened by the barking of a dog to find that the house was on fire. Fire appliances from 7 stations attended the fire, but their attempts to extinguish the fire were hampered by the extremely cold ten-degree weather, which froze the water in their hoses. The house was burnt to a shell and, of the 24 rooms, only 3 were saved. Colonel Turner was forced to move to The Brake at Fernhill for the remaining years of his life. The house lay empty and in ruins for the next 18 years until in 1971 rebuilding began by the next owner.
1961 ~ 2007
In 1961, after Colonel Turner’s death at the age of 85yrs, the estate was purchased by the Bernays family. The family lived in the Brake until the house had been rebuilt in 1971 by Robert Bernays, son of the Liberal MP for Bristol, from 1931 to 1945.
Prior to the fire the roof ran front to back but after rebuilding the roof ran sideways on the house. The Bernays were responsible for developing the estate as a tourist attraction, with pick-yourown produce in the walled garden, and it proved extremely popular until its closure in 2004 when it reverted to a private residence.
Old Down was bought by Mike Oldfield, the rock musician responsible for Tubular Bells – one of the biggest selling records of all time, which launched Virgin Records and the rise to fame of Richard Branson.
During his time at Old Down, Oldfield released a new album, Light & Shade, before he sold the property in 2007 to leave England and live abroad.
2007 and beyond…
Old Down Estate was purchased by Arron and Katya Banks who undertook a £5m refurbishment project to restore the house and grounds into a 5* Wedding and Event Venue and a 66-acre Family Country Park. The Manor features a spectacular Orangery, intimate Bar, indoor Swimming Pool and Cellar Night Club.
There are also 13 beautifully appointed bedrooms and suites for guests wishing to stay over.
David Banks (Arron’s long-suffering father) has steered Old Down through the renovations for the past 10 years and took a break from gardening to talk us through the story so far.
How did you become involved with Old Down?
I was an engineer by trade, working around the world, including in South Africa, Uganda and Gyana. I retired at 64 and was looking forward to some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, my sons had other ideas – I was soon renovating a flat in London, before Arron asked me to help with Old Down. I’ve been working on it ever since!
What was the first thing you did when the Banks took ownership?
The whole site needed some TLC – the Walled Garden was totally overgrown, having been used for a horse paddock. As an engineer I am used to planning things out, so after walking around the ground I got a big piece of vellum and drew it out. The Walled Garden was the first challenge – the soil was depleted and tonnes of it had to be removed, along with a horse ménage. This was replaced one wheel-barrow at a time with fresh soil from the local area. Once that was done we started planting the border on the left and covered the pergola with wisteria, before moving onto the fruit and vegetable section, adding the green-houses for saplings. Most of our produce starts off life here and ends up in the kitchen, including various fruit jams. We pruned the orchard, consisting of apple, pear and plum trees, which have been in the Walled Garden since the 1900s. Finally, we laid the fresh lawn you see today. As this needs to be pristine for weddings it receives special treatment and is mowed once a week.
It sounds like quite a logistical challenge!
It was – my experience of managing a trading centre of 600-odd people certainly came to good use when thinking about staff, equipment and logistics. The garden is nearly 10 years old now, and has had time to mature, but it is still a labour of love.
Can you tell us about the area around the yurt?
When we took ownership, the area had been neglected and was totally overgrown, so 5 years ago it was landscaped. All the brambles were removed, and new grass seeds were planted to start afresh. We then planted over 1000 kilos of daffodils by hand across the whole estate – three different varieties to keep it interesting. The duck pond was put in early, but we had to reinforce the enclosure after a fox took a liking to the residents… We also introduced some bee hives to make the most of the daffodils, cyclamen, and other wild flowers.
How did the Adventure Park come about?
At the beginning we had a couple of guys put in a few of the apparatus. Every year we make something new to keep it fresh. This summer we installed a new jumping pillow, which seems to have gone down well with visitors. The animals around the animal park include chickens that we grew from eggs and sheep we get in as orphaned lambs. There are also a couple of larger animals such as horses and alpacas.
What about the land behind the Manor House?
Behind the House is the Rockery, which was in a very bad state when we moved in. We had help from the Yellow Book to redesign it, then our Old Down gardeners got to work. It is now teeming with sedums, crocuses, daffodils, tulips, ornamental trees, ornamental bushes, pampas grasses and conifers. The tennis courts had become overgrown and 40 tree stumps were removed. Of course, the forestry commission then paid us a visit and made us plant some more! The lake was also a big project – we had it dug out, so that it’s now 10 feet deep, and last November we introduced carp.
What’s in store for Old Down?
The next big project is the maze, which we started working on in 2017. The first task was to decide on a design, both in terms of the structure and types of vegetation. We decided on having wide paths so that there will be plenty of space for wheelchairs and pushchairs, and they will be laid with Cotswold stone to ensure a smooth journey. Lining the paths will be a mile and a half of 10,000 evergreen trees in double rows, so that the maze can be enjoyed all year round. At the centre of the design will be a nice surprise to make people want to revisit. We have now plotted the paths, and in the autumn will dig it all out and plant the vegetation. Once it opens in 2019 it will be the biggest maze in the UK.
What can you tell us about the Manor House renovations?
The Banks bought the Manor from Mike Oldfield, but its history stretches back to the 1800s. in 1953 it suffered a bad fire which gutted the building, and although it got rebuilt, as it was post-war the material used was poor quality. For example, when we moved in the staircase was a narrow shape made of plain wood.
We knew the building deserved better, so we installed the grand staircase that is the feature of the space and gets decorated with flowers for the weddings. We took the rest of the house apart – removing burnt debris still present from the fire; retiling the roof; renovating the tired kitchen, 1930s bathroom and orangery; and installing the swimming pool that wedding guests enjoy. The initial renovation cost £5 million, although as with any old building it needs constant attention.
What about the surrounding gardens?
The secluded gardens are a lovely feature, consisting of pristine lawn, roses and evergreens, which gives newlyweds a quiet moment together, and ensures beautiful wedding photographs all year round. The Manor is surrounded by the 1900s wrought iron railings to the back, and to the front are modern iron gates featuring dragonfly sculptures to echo the old and new elements of the House. These aren’t the only pieces of art – the Manor is full of art that the Banks have collected through the years. It is quite an eclectic mix, a lot of which is displayed in the renovated cellar. Wine was originally stored here, but we now offer this as a Russian-themed event space, with its own bar and music system. With so many different parts of Old Down I don’t think I’ll ever get to retire, but it keeps me young, and seeing happy guests makes the hard work worthwhile.
We hope you enjoyed this blog. If you have any information or personal memories on Old Down’s history we’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org