Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.
Gosford House is probably one of the grandest buildings in East Lothian, but the grounds are equally important. Hidden among the carefully placed ponds and trees are some interesting little houses which tell a story about the life of a great estate.
The ‘Pleasure Grounds’ at Gosford House were designed by the architect John Ramsay in the 1790s, and were influenced by the fashionable Picturesque movement. The aim was to artificially create a natural-looking view, planned like a landscape painting with foreground and background features. Small ‘rustic’ styled buildings were an important part of the overall composition, and Gosford has several good examples.
A summerhouse was built at the head of the main pond, as a landscape feature known as a cottage orné. Originally it probably had a thatched roof, and traces of its shell-work decoration can still be seen. In 1860 this little building gained a new use, when it became the base for the Aberlady Curling Club. Curling stones and brushes could be stored there, along with a stove to help players keep warm.
Not far away is an ice house, an ornate building with a very practical purpose. The entrance is designed as a grotto with benches, but underneath is a chamber where ice could be stored tightly packed with straw. The ice would be used to make exotic desserts or to keep sides of meat and game fresh.
The distinctive material used for both buildings is called Tufa, a soft and porous stone chosen to achieve the all-important rustic effect. Tufa was used to construct much of ancient Rome, and so the architect was also inviting comparisons to the classical past.
Back in 1832 a visitor described the ‘labyrinth of groves and walks’ with ‘grottoes of every kind of material’, which remains the experience for anyone walking the grounds. The little houses are still doing their primary job, as intriguing features adding to the picturesque scene.