“inform’d by Gentlemen who have drank considerable Quantities of it”: The vineyard at Claverton Manor
My interest in the 17th and 18th century vineyards of England was captured through reading about vines sent to colonies in America, the return of botanic specimens, and accounts of English wine sold for profit in Jakatra. This is a period of great development in landscape architecture with a corresponding rise of nurserymen. I cannot help but wonder where the vines for the various vineyards were sourced from, were any landscape architects or nurserymen involved, and even wonder what the wine tasted like.
The history of English vineyards was chronicled during this period as well. It has also been detailed over the last century in such books as Hugh Barty-King A Tradition of English Wine (1977), George Ordish Vineyards in England and Wales (1977), Stephen Skelton The Wines of Britain and Ireland (2001), and Richard C. Selley The Winelands of Britain (2008). Hugh Barty-King’s book remains the most thorough published history. I hope to contribute towards this history through digital research (for now) by occasionally publishing posts about specific vineyards. I start off with the vineyard at Claverton Manor near the city of Bath in Somerset, England. I begin here for no other reason than I have fond memories of visiting the city during my university days. If anyone happens to be visiting the Bath Records Office do let me know!
The Vineyard at Claverton Manor
Claverton Manor is located nearly two miles east of Bath where it is home to the American Museum in Britain. The current structure dates to the 1820s when John Vivian, having demolished the old manor house in 1816, built the new house, gardens, and parkland. It is during the existence of the old manor house that Claverton was home to a famous vineyard. With the first published account in the 17th century this vineyard appears to have survived until the very end of the 18th century.
The old manor house was begun around 1588 for Sir Edward Hungerford from whose family it passed to Sir Thomas Estcourt. He sold the estate to Sir William Bassett in 1608. The sale included the house, church, and a “productive vineyard”. The old manor house was then completed as late as 1625. Sir William Bassett is described as having “represented Bath in almost every Parliament since 1669, and his reputation for drunkenness and debt made him no less worthy a choice to the corporation in 1690.”
Whether Sir William Bassett’s thirst for drink inspired him to own a vineyard is not known but it is under his name that the vineyard became widely known. The earliest description of the vineyard comes from John Aubrey who famously wrote about it between 1656 and 1691. His first sentence has been extensively quoted, “Sir William Basset, of Claverdoun, hath made the best vineyard that I have heard of in England. He says that the Navarre grape is the best for our climate, and that the eastern sunn does most comfort the vine, by putting off the cold.”
Sir William Bassett passed away in 1693. Eight years later, in 1701, the Basset family sold Claverton Manor to Robert Holder. It was later reported that the sale price of £21,367 included £28 for “four hogsheads of wine of the Vineyards of Claverton.” The vineyard continued in existence for John Mortimer wrote in his book The Whole Art of Husbandry (1708) that the production of English wine should be encouraged by,”the Essay of the Vineyards of that Worthy Gentleman Sir William Basset’s near the Bath should incourage; since I have drank Wine made of his Grapes (as I have been informed) that I think was as good as any of the Wines that I have drank either in Paris or Champaign.” This passage is referenced in Philip Miller’s The Gardeners and Florists Dictionary (1724).
From Robert Holder the estate was sold to Dr. William Skrine in 1714. The vineyard continued to flourish under new ownership. Aaron Hill wrote in 1716 as “Proof of which Fact, we need only mention Sir William Basset’s known Vineyard near the Bath”. Stephen Switzer writes in Ichnographia Rustica, Volume II (1718), “when in several parts of Somersetshire there are, at this Time, flourishing Vineyards; and the Vineyard of the late Sir William Basset, in that county, has annually furnish’d some hogsheads of good body’d and palatable Wines, which I have been credibly inform’d by Gentlemen who have drank considerable Quantities of it with the greatest Satisfaction.”
Francois-Xavier Vispre Dissertation on the Growth of Wine in England (1786) largely quotes Stephen Switzer with regards to Sir William Basset’s vineyard. Three years later, William Speechly in A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine (1789) quotes Vispre on the Claverton vineyard. References to Stephen Switzer continue to be published into the 19th century. John Evelyn’s Sylva (1664) is considered one of the most important books on forestry. His 1706 edition was spelt Silva and contained the new section “Dendrologia, Pomona”. Updated editions continued to be printed after his death until the 19th century. Curiously enough it is not until the 1786 edition that there the reference “Claverton, famous for Sir W. Basset’s vineyard, producing forty hogsheads of wine yearly.” Perhaps this line was added in response to Francois-Xavier Vispre’s dissertation.
The son of Dr. William Skrine sold Claverton to Ralph Allen of Prior Park in 1758. Ralph Allen made a fortune through re-organizing the postal service in the 1720s. He then acquired extensive quarrying rights in the area around Bath. The use of his stone in building Bath earned him another fortune. He showcased his stone through the design and building of Prior Park in the 1730s and 1740s. During this period he became the mayor of Bath and a Minister of Parliament.We learn from published excerpts of Francois-Xavier Vispre’s dissertation in 1791 that “There is an old vineyard, two miles distant from Bath, at a place called Vine Down (part of Coombe Down), near Mr. Allen’s quarries: this vineyard is surrounded by a wall: when it was planted, and when it began to be neglected, I could not be informed.” Indeed, a corner of the vineyard is near the two-mile boundary in Thomas Thorpe’s map “An actual survey of the city of Bath, in the county of Somerset, and of five miles round” (1742). In a description of Claverton published in 1791, there is no mention of a vineyard. I see no vineyard references in William Smith’s geologic maps “Area around Bath” (c. 1799). Nor is there any reference in an Ordnance Survey drawing from 1808. While the neglected vineyard at Claverton eventually died off, the vineyard walls survived. Though I have not seen it in person, the vineyard is described as appearing in Savage and Meyler’s “Map of Five Miles Round Bath” (1805). Reverend Ellacombe provides the following description, ”The site can be easily made out and it is a garden attached to the Vineyards Farm. It is enclosed on three sides by an old wall, and it contains an old building which Mr Skrine considers to have been the wine-press”. It is not yet known when the vineyard was walled in. In a published report detailing the Walled Garden of The Old Rectory at Claverton, it is believed that the garden walls were built before 1760 by Ralph Allen. In the case of the vineyard, it appears nearly identical in shape in both Thomas Thorpe’s 1742 and 1787 maps of Bath. To me the vineyard appears walled in with a little building at one end. Either the vineyard was originally walled in, perhaps to check the eating of grapes by both two-legged and four-legged individuals, or it was done so later on by the Basset, Holder, or Skrine families. Hugh Barty-King writes that in 1966 the wall of the vineyard was still standing. The name survives as well through the property names of Vineyard Cottage, Vineyard Farm, and Vineyard Bottom.
 Meehan, John Francois. More Famous Houses of Bath & District. 1906 URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=TNcMAAAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
 “The History of Claverton Manor”. American Museum in Britain. URL: http://americanmuseum.org/about-the-museum/history/the-history-of-claverton-manor/
 Peach, R. E. Historic Houses in Bath. Volume II. 1884. https://archive.org/details/historichousesi02peacgoog
 BASSETT, Sir William (1628-93), of Claverton, nr. Bath, Som. The History of Parliament. URL: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/member/bassett-sir-william-1628-93
 Aubrey, John. The Natural History of Wiltshire. 1847. URL: https://archive.org/details/naturalhistoryof00aubruoft
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 For example, Johnson George William. The Grape Vine: Its Culture, Uses, and History, Volume 1. (1847). URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=Maw6AQAAMAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Evelyn, John. Silva, Volume 2. 1786. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=BJlQAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP9#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Workman, Dave. “A Brief History of the Stone Quarries at Combe Down”. Journal of the Bath Geological Society, No. 23, 2004. URL: http://people.bath.ac.uk/exxbgs/journal_articles/CombeDown.pdf
 Letter to Mr. Urban from J. Elderton, July 18, 1791. The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 61, Part 2. 1791. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=QK9JAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA589#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Thrope, Thomas. An actual survey of the city of Bath, in the county of Somerset, and of five miles round. 1742. URL: http://vc.lib.harvard.edu/vc/deliver/~maps/012331192
 Collinson, John. The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset. Volume 1. 1791. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=EosgAQAAMAAJ&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Smith, William. Area around Bath. C. 1799. Shelfmark: WS/H/1/0/018 Oxford University Museum of Natural History URL: www.oum.ox.ac.uk/collections/irn/ca1281 and Smith, William. Area around Bath. C. 1799. Shelfmark: WS/H/1/0/019 Oxford University Museum of Natural History URL: http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/collections/irn/ca1288
 Crocker, Edmund. Frome 19. Ordinance Survey drawing. URL: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/ordsurvdraw/f/002osd000000019u00044000.html
 Ross, Kay. “History Building Report on The Walled Garden of The Old Rectory Claverton Bath”. McLaughlin Ross LLP. December 2008. URL: