Ashton Court Mansion is a Grade 1 listed building of national importance. There’s been a manor at the site since the 6th Century and there is even evidence of a settlement from Roman Times. Wealthy merchants, the Smyth family, bought the Mansion and 800 acre Estate in the 16th Century, and continued to own it until 1959, when it was sold to Bristol City Council. Most recently, it’s been used as a stunning and popular venue for weddings, parties and corporate events. However, the Council simply couldn’t make it pay and, without the necessary funds to invest in the building, the decision was made to close the doors in 2017. Ashton Court Mansion is now in urgent need of attention and a long-term plan for its survival.
What can be done?
The Mansion desperately needs a fresh start. It has been owned by Bristol City Council for 60 years, but it is unrealistic to expect it to be able to prioritise the Mansion, either with staff time or budget. The Council has a wide range of competing priorities, and a challenging financial situation.
Bristol City Council and Historic England commissioned a comprehensive report on the condition of Ashton Court Mansion and possible options for its future, known as the “Purcell report”. This has taken a long time to complete but is finally completed and published. It’s published on the Civic Society website. Prepared by heritage consultants with deep experience with similar ventures, this exercise provides expert insight into the Mansion and its possible opportunities and challenges.
The only feasible solution we can see is the creation of a “not for profit” organisation, such as a charitable trust or social enterprise. Such an organisation would assume responsibility for the management of the Mansion, providing long-term focus and vision. As a not-for-profit, it would also be able to access a range of grants and funds not available to the Council or private organisations.
How would it work?
An independent organisation could provide the long term vision and continuity needed to manage a renovation which will probably take years, possibly even decades. It takes the Mansion away from the political priorities of the City Council, where frequent elections inevitably determine priorities and where ensuring continuity of politicians and officers can be a challenge. This approach has been used with great success locally at Arnos Vale Cemetery and Colston Hall.
A Trust could:
- Assess the implications of an incremental approach to renovation – costs, logistics, running costs, security and heritage.
- Analyse the potential uses and interested parties.
- Put in place repair programmes, according to the established need and resources.
- Work towards a “green” energy efficient historic mansion – seeking positive impacts on future running costs.
- Involve local apprentices in the renovation works, working with local colleges and universities.
- Involve the people of Bristol and North Somerset in the Mansion’s future– its management, its activities and its renovation.
What would the Mansion be used for?
Artspace / Lifespace, currently using part of the Mansion on a short term basis, has shown that there is a great deal of interest in the building – more than 9,000 people have been through its doors since it took over occupancy only nine months ago.
By re-opening and managing the usable rooms, an initial income could be generated as soon as possible. A proactive maintenance regime could then be put in place to prevent further deterioration.
The derelict areas of the Mansion could be renovated, room by room, using a phased, incremental approach. This may take a number of years, but a new organisation could identify possible uses and manage fundraising efforts.
There are many possibilities for a house of this size and character. Stimulating ideas and being flexible about future uses would be important.
Who we are and what happens next?
Bristol Civic Society is leading this campaign. The Society has been championing the preservation of historic buildings in Bristol for over 100 years. Whilst the Society does not represent the ultimate answer for the answer for the Mansion it is very much a catalyst for action by working with all partners to find the solution. We have also recently started a Friends of Ashton Court Group with a Facebook presence.
Bristol City Council is currently reviewing the recommendations of the Purcell Report. We are continuing to press the Council to decide how to resolve the future of the Mansion.
How can I help?
If you would like to show support by volunteering for the campaign, or would simply like to be kept up to date with developments, please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Chair of Bristol Civic Society