Castle Garden project

The Castle Garden project is at last under way.

Watch this space for week by week progress. The site is a scheduled monument and means we aren’t allowed to dig more than a few centimetres. This means we are going to have to spray to kill deep rooted and invasive plants.

We had purchased some tools with money donated by one of our funders but realised we would need to purchase more at a later date.

Norman Garden Taunton looking East to St Mary Magdelane
Norman Gardens looking towards St Mary Magdalene Photo: Bob Cramp
Cutting down the vegetation on 'Wall G'
Cutting down the vegetation on Wall G


Monday 14th October 2019 – Week one saw us looking at what was to be done and deciding our plan of action. As the Castle Hotel uses the lower part of the garden for guests to sit and also for weddings and photos, etc., we decided to start by the hotel car park and work across to hopefully have some degree of tidiness by the time spring came. The boarder adjacent to the car park has various colours of euonymus which were grossly overgrown and spilling across the path. We cut these back and also the hypericum which had spread everywhere. We will have to spray with weedkiller in the spring when growth restarts. The resulting vegetation was bagged and two trips to the recycling centre saw the end of the first week. We decided what we would do the following week and carried out the risk assessment.

Monday 21st October 2019 – Week two was when we decided to clear the ivy that had regrown on one of the ancient walls. This had been cut back severely once before but had almost regrown to original state. It was soon very apparent that the wall was going to require considerable repair. At this point we thought we ought to start and finish each session with a photograph, something we have found difficult to stick too as we are always keen to get started working. Despite the large roots of the ivy, field maple and valerian, that we are not allowed to dig out of the wall, the wall looked lovely where it was intact. The Castle Hotel provided us with a large recycling bin to put the vegetation in which meant we didn’t lose time going to the tip. We filled it! They also could supply us with a special plug and lead which would enable us to have my shredder on site for when we came to the shrubs. They were also prepared to store our tools and put them out along with the bin each week. The next area to work on had a very overgrown Escallonia shrub that had rooted all around where it had touched the ground and we decided that is what we would tackle the following week. We did a risk assessment and identified we would need safety goggles along with our stout gardening gloves and shoes.

Monday 28th October 2019 – Week three involved removal of the overgrown shrub both on the raised part of the wall and all around the base. Whilst one volunteer cut the other shredded. Shredding helps the vegetation breakdown quicker and saves an incredible amount of space. We discovered a wall which we were unaware of. Chris W. is an archaeologist and didn’t think it was an ancient wall but would get Chris Webster of SWHT who has studied these gardens for many years to have a look. At the end of the morning we could stand at the entrance to the gardens and see round the corner to the steps, and had three quarters filled the bin. In the corner on the left as you enter the gardens there were two very overgrown bay trees, very close to the wall. We decided we would tackle those the following week, identified tools required and did the risk assessment.

Monday 4th November 2019 – Week four saw us having a conducted tour round the garden with Chris Webster pointing out what were original walls and which were the ones put in in the 1930’s. We decided to cut the bay trees back to low stumps as they were multiple branches unsuitable to train as standards. The stumps could be dealt with at a later date if it was decided that they were to go. Again, one volunteer cut whilst the other shredded. Once the bay trees were down, we found an arch of red stone in the wall, but also, we could see the curve of the turret that used to be on the corner adjacent to where the garage is of the hotel. Although we could see the curve, we didn’t at that time know there had been a turret, it was only consulting Chris Webster’s book on Taunton Castle we found the plan showing what had been there. The removal of spindly growth growing out of the wall abutting the hotel garage revealed even more damage to stone work. There is a stump of pyracantha that has been cut back previously, right up against the wall and we just cleared all the detritus that had collected in and on it, leaving it for the specialists to deal with. This has also caused damage to the wall. We decided we would move into the central area of the garden the following week, what we have called the sunken area. We carried out the risk assessment and decided we had all the equipment we needed.                                

Monday 11th November 2019 – Week five was to tackle the bed in the centre area. The roses in this bed had been neglected over the years, bare stems 3 to 4 feet high, straggly growth on the top and tied to stakes which were struggling to keep them upright. Many were entangled with ivy or valerian which has self seeded everywhere. At first we were going to work around the roses but soon realised the ivy was so densely intertwined that wasn’t possible. Some were right up against the wall making it difficult to remove the mass of ivy growing on top and in the wall. They had to be cut back. The top of the wall once cleared of the ivy revealed that at some stage, someone had put a topping of mortar onto the ancient wall and the ivy had taken advantage, got in and under it and come out at the sides. We had hoped to complete this section in one go, but it was far more problematic than we had thought. The wall was in a poor condition and will need specialist repair once the ivy roots have been killed. The following week would see us continuing on this area and the risk assessment would be the same. The hotel had forgotten to leave the bin out so we cleared the rubbish into piles on the earth areas where people wouldn’t be walking.

Tuesday 19th November 2019 – Week six saw us tackling more ivy, deciding we would have to remove several of the old rose trees and an enormous hypericum bush. The amount of vegetation removed was almost as much as the week previous even though the area cleared was about a third of the size. With no wheelbarrow, it took some time to get cleared as the bin is too large to get round into where we are working. We decided that the next task would be to remove the roses that were remaining and to start on the right hand wall where again it was covered in ivy. The policy is that there has to be two people working in the garden for health and safety reasons, therefore as Chris Webster was going to be on holiday the following week I informed the hotel we would not need the equipment put out.  

Tuesday 3rd December 2019 – Week seven and Chris Webster’s daughter Ellie joined us. I informed Chris that Cannington College had been in touch as they were keen to do some work in the garden. We had identified areas we thought they would be able to work on previously which had dictated where we worked. Chris and her daughter worked along the wall clearing the ivy whilst I removed the remaining roses and then moved onto the end of the wall Chris and Ellie were working around. Under the ivy on top of the wall we discovered a concrete tub! The next area to tackle was a wall which Chris Webster had said was stepped up. It was densely covered in ivy and looked as though it was a smooth slope.We were expecting to find severe damage to the wall because of the density of the ivy, some of the stems being as thick as my fingers. Ellie removed two really large old roses to allow access to the wall. We were pleasantly surprised in the condition of the first four layers of the stones, they looked perfect and only some areas of mortar were absent. Hopefully we will be as pleased as we progress up.The stones are a gritty material and we need to find a geologist to identify them for when we write up the information panels. The plan for next week is to continue on this wall and hopefully clear the steps beside the wall. These steps were put in in the 1930’s and are of no significance except that legend has it they were done with stone from St. Marys church when that had some repair work carried out. We do not intend keeping these steps as they would require considerable work to make them safe by installing a handrail plus resitting them. Jerry Sampson, a SANHS member and specialist in archaeology has said he will visit the site to advise us. If the stone proves to be of archaeological importance we will need to decide what to do with it. We carried out our risk assessment for next week and left enormous piles of vegetation we had removed as we had no bin. Thankfully I had taken my garden rake in which made clearing it up much easier. 

Monday 9th December 2019 – Week eight and we were joined by SANHS member Richard Samuel as well as Chris Wesber’s daughter Ellie. I cleared the debris we had had to leave the week previous with Richards help whilst Chris and Ellie worked on the Batter wall, I had started on it last week (it looks like steps but slopes down slightly). Between them they cleared the sides and most of the front, Richard cut back the very thick roots of the ivy as close as he could to the wall with his saw. By the end of the session the wall was almost cleared, just an area at the very top which can’t be reached from ground level. It is very impressive. Richard and myself started on the shrubs on the raised area of the garden but as we had spells of rain were unable to have the electric shredder working for the latter part of the morning. We left an enormous pile of pittosporum and some form of box ready for shredding next week and some junky bits for use as fuel. As you stood in the Castle Hotel car park you were now able to see across the upper level of the garden but there were still three large shrubs to cutback next week.

Tuesday 17th December 2019 – Week nine. No Ellie this week. Chris and Richard tackled the three large shrubs whilst I shredded what had been cut the week before. They created another enormous pile and I couldn’t catch up with them. The resultant shreddings were deposited in an area previously used by the hotel for depositing their grass cuttings. We have to be very careful as there are two dips in the ground and we don’t know the depth. Time to call in the specialists. Gave a general tidy up and decided we would have next week off as it would be Christmas eve. 

Tuesday 31st December 2019 – Week 10. No Ellie who is still in London. Chris and I had decided before our Christmas break we would tackle the Escallonia which was perched on the corner of one of the walls surrounding the sunken garden. We thought we would get it cut and shredded in one morning and possibly have time to move onto something else. Three and a half hours later we had only managed half of the shrubs removal and shredding. We were very disappointed as this would have been the final opening up of the raised area from the hotel car park. The shrub had obviously not been maintained for many years to keep it in a manageable state. 


Tuesday 7th January 2020 – Week 11. Ellie back with us. She and Chris tackled the remains of the Escallonia whilst I shredded. It took most of the three and a half hours to cut the remaining growth suitable to shred. Whilst I finished off the shredding, Ellie and Chris tackled the ivy surrounding where the shrub had been, I took three large garden bags to the recycling centre on my way home full of ivy and the odd pieces of the shrub that weren’t suitable for shredding. Having cleared so much in such a short period previously we were quite disappointed in what we had achieved in the past two weeks but realised we were going to get these hold-ups. Things will move faster once the Cannington students come on site in February. We have decided to clear the shrubs around the area they will be working in which will really please Richard who has been itching to clear the overhanging branches in that area. I would love to be part of the demolition party but guess I will be tethered to my shredder again. If Richard is unable to join us next week, he may find Chris and Ellie have beaten him to it. Once that is cleared it will open the view to the top area of the site from the Castle courtyard.

Tuesday 14th January 2020 – Week 12. Chris and Ellie tackled the overgrown shrubs on the raised area facing the courtyard of the museum whilst I attempted to clear the grandfathers beard which looks very tatty hanging down the walls. This is going to be a problem to get rid of and will require spraying. It is so tough it will not break, even thin stems have to be cut. I didn’t make as much progress as I would have liked, it would need more hands and tools to clear properly. However, as this was Ellie’s last week with us, (new job starting next week in London ), she was determined to break through the bushes to be able to see the courtyard of the castle. Both she and Chris used the loppers and saws to good effect and achieved her aim. We were all very tired at the end of this session and will continue to open up the vista next week.

Tuesday 21st January 2020 – Week 13. We both worked with loppers and saws on what had started as shrubs but had grown to be trees. A mahonia had branches at least two metres long but had intertwined around everything else. We are having to adjust our expectations of what to expect to achieve in three and half hours. What we are cutting now is too thick for the shredder and we have to decide how to remove it from the site. It will probably be a skip but we need to ensure we can fill it in one go as it will take up valuable space in the hotel car park. Volunteers to help with this activity would be most welcome, contact me [email protected] if you can help. We would also welcome help with the general clearance, even if only occasionally. At the end of the session we had cleared a considerable area, I wonder if people visiting the museum on a regular basis have noticed the difference.There is still a lot to cut and clear in this area alone. Next week we will have a visit from Helen Woodhouse who is employed by Historic England to oversee Scheduled Monuments, ensuring they are cared for and maintained in the appropriate manner. Helen will guide us as to how to progress on aspects of the project. 

Tuesday 28th January 2020 – Week 14. Very cold and threatening skies. We have worked through rain several times, but this is much colder. We managed to get some ivy trimmed and some shrubs cut before Helen arrived. We started going round the garden pointing out what we thought we would like to do. We need to put fencing up as a safety measure up on the higher level, Helen explained how that and the handrails at the steps would need to be fixed. Historic England would also want to see the design before giving approval. She also explained about Eco plugs that can be used to tree stumps as we can’t dig out roots. We discussed the archaeology dig of the garderobe that had been in the original plan. This would not be possible for it to be carried out in-house as planned and would require a specialist company. The original plan was for the Mick Aston Young Archaeologists (MAYAN’s) to be involved. We discussed how the area could be dealt with and think we will fence it off, have an information board and have a wild flower area surrounding it. By now we were experiencing hailstones and biting wind. Having looked at the site of the planned disabled access we withdrew to the museum cafe to continue discussions. It was still raining and biting cold when we came out and decided we would put the tools away and finish for the day.

Tuesday 4th February 2020 – Week 15. We have a new volunteer today who thinks working in the garden is better than going to any gym. Sally claims to know nothing about gardening, but definitely knows how to use loppers and a saw, if she can get it away from Chris Webster. We set to work in our own areas and before long had an enormous area cleared of scrubby shrub. I trimmed down stumps of previously cut shrubs to ground level as best I could. As the ivy is about 12 – 18 inches thick in places they are a real trip hazard. Some areas are difficult to reach but Chris found a way of clearing some of that growth by sitting and kneeling. We have decided we are at a point of needing to have a skip and Sally is hoping to engage the help of a friend who runs a cadet group. We then had a rethink on the area around the garderobe. There are some shrubs which would respond to pruning and enable them to be kept tidy. Under the long trails of bindweed there appears to be a rockery type edging. The thought is to clear the weed and bramble, keep the shrubs and plant some rowan trees which will let light in but have berries for the birds. The wild flowers will either be underplanted in the bed or in the adjacent strip. This may change at a later date once we ask the right person. We need to find an ecologist to do a survey before progressing to remove any trees and also check to see if we can have bird and bat boxes erected on the remaining trees. At present there are none. All felt we had achieved a great deal today. Chris took photos of the area we had put aside for Bridgwater College for their students to see if we need to do anything to it before they come on site. She will send to the tutor for comments. We have another volunteer who will join us sometime in March when they are back in the area and Sally has a friend who is possibly going to join us.


The Castle at Taunton has been welcoming travellers since the 12th century
The Castle at Taunton has been welcoming travellers since the 12th century