The Ascott Park Project

Ascott Park is close to the village of Stadhampton, about 7 miles south-east of Oxford on the B480 Watlington road. It has a mystery at its heart concerning a lost manor house. The great Oxfordshire family of the Dormers acquired the manor of Ascott in 1518 and lived in the old medieval/Tudor manor house, of which Ascott Park Cottage appears to be a small remnant. After the Restoration, William Dormer – who earned the appellation ‘the Splendid’ by using silver to trim his horses and carriage – decided to build a grand new manor house, complete with formal avenues and landscaped gardens in the latest fashion. The house was close to completion when it was accidentally burnt down, in October 1662. It was never rebuilt and the Dormers and their successors went on living in the old manor house. The remains of the new house were pulled down, although we have no record of when. Extensive research and fieldwork undertaken in recent years, by and on behalf of Oxfordshire Buildings Trust (OBT), to try to confirm where it stood, seems only to have compounded the mystery. So, what is the story so far?

John Sykes records that it has long been believed that the site of the house was marked by a large, rectangular hollow (? cellar) on the centreline of the main avenue and fronting a wide earth bank (? terrace) that overlooks the formal gardens to the south [see aerial photo, right]. Mark Bowden of English Heritage, who carried out a comprehensive earthwork survey of the Park in 2007, fully supports this accepted view. Roger Ainslie of Abingdon Archaeological Geophysics (AAG), who carried out an extensive geophysical survey in 2007, favours the whole area north of the terrace and up as far as the main avenue, as the site of a much larger house arranged around a courtyard, perhaps open to the east. In Ainslie’s interpretation, the hollow would be a cellar under just one small part of a much larger building. Bowden disagrees with this and interprets this area as an entrance courtyard for the house which he locates at the hollow.

Brian Dix, whose Trench 7 sectioned the bank and western end of the hollow in 2009, concludes that the hollow was not the site of the 1662 house (which must therefore be elsewhere) but might represent a second attempt to build a house in the early 18th century. An excavation in 1969, led by Susanna Everett of Oxford University, also sectioned the bank and the eastern end of the hollow, but Everett concluded that there were no buildings in the hollow. So the Directors of two separate excavations 30 years apart, in different ways, both concluded that the hollow was not the site of the 1662 house. (Above right : Aerial photo of the much disputed location of the 1662 house. The rectangular hollow and earth bank are just below the centre of the image.)

One final possibility, put forward by me, Ian Clarke, in 2011 in a somewhat desperate response to Brian Dix’s unsettling findings, is that the house might have been at the southern end of the main avenue, looking across a formal garden towards the terrace; in which case the hollow could be the site of a grotto/pavilion. A layout popular in the first half of the 17th century but not so fashionable in the latter half.

So, much data has been gathered and we have several theories but no firm answers. How do we solve the mystery?

Before we can draw up a project design for meaningful fieldwork there are two preparatory stages to complete. Firstly, a thorough and critical review of all the previous work and the conclusions reached. This is already underway. Secondly, a preliminary geophysical survey to merge with and extend outwards the ‘courtyard’ area of the 2007 earth resistance survey. The primary purpose of this new survey is to see whether there are any rectilinear anomalies suggesting a substantial building in the peripheral areas; but it will also enhance Ainslie’s important ‘courtyard’ area by placing it in a wider context. Subject to permission and weather, we hope to complete this resistivity survey in May or June (click here for 2013 detailed plans).

Ascott Park is owned by Oxfordshire County Council and an Historical Trail was opened by OCC and OBT in 2010, with signboards pointing out the ‘mystery’ surrounding the 1662 house. It is on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens registered Grade II, and various buildings and structures are also listed Grade II or II*.

Some useful links:
http://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/content/ascott-park-historical-trail
http://services.english-heritage.org.uk/ResearchReportsPdfs/093_2007WEB.pdf

 

Project Leader

Ian Clarke
ascottpark@soagarch.org.uk