When you first approach the Bowhill up Dunsford Road, you get a surprise, because the house lies very close to the current main road. It is thus a very accessible place to visit, but for various reasons, the buildings current owner, English Heritage, only opens the house on a very few days each year.
What a pity! I say this because it is an absolutely fascinating place to visit, and a place of many contradictions. It looks like a very grand house from the street, but, when you get round the back, it is much smaller in its visual impact, and when you go inside, well, surprise, surprise, it is very much an amalgam of two very different building methods, sitting side-by-side, namely ashlar stone, and cob. From the way that our very excellent guide, Stuart Blaylock, gave us the history of the building, it is quite easy to appreciate why this is so, in that the original builders of the basis of the present building, the Holland family, or is it Holand? (The spelling varies by the account you read!) were not quite top drawer, as regards their wealth, so could not afford an all ashlar building. Also, subsequent to their occupation, all of the families which followed did nothing significant to undo this, possibly because it was not their principal residence.
The exterior of the building also demonstrates that the building was also seriously altered and rearranged, with a visual evidence of parts no longer there, and that the form we see today is much less grand than it originally was. The building’s volume was about twice the surviving structure. It even lost a corner structure at the Exeter end of the building, which would have given the street frontage more of a grand appearance than it does today.
Now, as to the interior, well it’s quite an eye-opener, too, because the various wooden ceilings and roofs are really the piece de resistance, as they are the most magnificent and most notable feature of the interior. And each is matched to the grandeur of the room, from the magnificently carved roof timbers in the great hall to much simpler ones in other rooms. Evidence is also available, if you visit the architecture firm’s offices that occupy the upper floor, that the building continued to be altered through time, as the great hall was much bigger than it is today, as there is a cob and wood frame dividing wall visible.
To sum up the visit, Stuart was a most fascinating person to listen to, and he brought the building to life, earning this writer’s considerable sympathy for the building, as he told us that it had been variously used as a barn (the great hall!) and as the main building of a nursery. Agriculture also destroyed much of the archaeology in the surrounding area , with the exception of some ditches, one of which showed that the place had been used as an outlying defence of the city during the English Civil War.
As I wrote at the start, it is a great shame that more is not made of the building as an attraction. It seems entirely wrong that people should have so little access to it. In fact, the only other opening than the few that English Heritage offer is when there is an election, as it’s then used as a polling station!