Ashton Court and its parkland setting was once the home of the Smyth family. During four centuries, the Smyth family lavished their wealth on extravagant extensions and alterations according to ever-changing styles of architecture without demolishing much of the earlier parts of the house. For this reason it has been described as a veritable pocket encyclopaedia of English country house design, with styles from every century from the 1400s to the 1900s.
After the last of the Smyth family died, it was purchased by Bristol Council in 1959. The mansion and stables are a Grade I listed building. Other structures on the estate are also listed.
Partial restoration in the 1970s gave the house a watertight roof and some elegant ground floor rooms, but about 70 per cent of the interior remains unrestored and in a sadly dilapidated state. A break-in and fire in the gothic-style north-west wing a few years ago shows how vulnerable the house is.
The Society’s involvement
The Society worked in partnership with the City Council from 2005 to explore how the house might be restored and opened to the public. Whist a number of Society members were represented on a joint steering group, progress was patchy and council enthusiasm waxed and waned.
Eventually in 2012, a report was commissioned from consultants Purcell by Historic England and Bristol City Council at a cost of around £150,000. The objective was to assess the building and to investigate future use options. It was never finalised, apparently because many of the officers involved left the Council. Then in 2017, the Society decided to take the initiative again, led by the chair Simon Birch.