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Ashton Court: The Best and Worst of Bristol.

Parkland, EnglandIt’s not that long ago that the road through the Ashton Court estate was an open thoroughfare; people were regularly injured and sunbathers occasionally even run over! The council could have just stopped the sunbathing but eventually they came up with the brilliant idea of making the park, traffic free. Ashton Court has evolved to be one of the city’s most treasured spaces and some might even say one of the loveliest places to amble around in the whole country. Along with wide and open spaces there are woodlands, ponds, hidden gardens, sheltered boughs, cycle tracks, deer parks, wildlife havens, panoramic views and dozens of places to throw down a rug and have a picnic. Quite simply it is 860 acres of glorious England.

At the southern end lies Ashton Court Mansion, a Grade I Listed Building, the 17th Century front reflecting the style of Inigo Jones whilst the rest of the building displays a broad range of styles from early medieval through to Victorian. Like many large estates it fell into decay and by 1959 was in danger of collapse, before being bought by the City Council. Since then the building has survived, but three-quarters is still unfit for use and the Council doesn’t have the money to do anything about it.

Given the shortage of funds the City Council has managed fairly well. Income from special events, weddings, business conferences, two cafes and three golf courses have brought steady improvements. Whilst the estate would be hard to improve, the Mansion needs more imaginative attention if it is to lose its municipal atmosphere.

The solution is extraordinarily simple. Ashton Court Mansion should be sold to a hotel group such as Hotel du Vin, on condition that they invest in major restoration. That would require opening up the upper floors, external maintenance and complete redecoration. As the Mansion is a Listed Building it will need to be completed to the highest standard, as well as comply with all of the relevant restrictions associated with such a build which a commercial hotel group will understand. Given that public funds will not be available to pay for the restoration that the Mansion so desperately needs, for a generation or more, this is the only practical option.

The building is already enjoyed as a wedding venue, but allowing access to the upper floors would enable a wider catalogue of events to take place. The Rose Garden is especially delightful but under public ownership is rarely visited. Similarly, the cafe in the old stables is a neglected space offering little more than unimaginative drinks and small selection of sandwiches. A familiar sight on a sunny day is a gathering of perplexed patrons standing up in the courtyard drinking coffee as there just aren’t enough tables or chairs to facilitate the demand. With a little thought and investment the courtyard cafe could be one of Bristol’s best. However, the City Council are unlikely to ever deal with this travesty because whatever else they are good at, it isn’t running cafes!