The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury

‘Bee Shelter’ pointed the road sign with a pictogram of a church, leading tantalisingly off the motorway. I had seen the sign every time we drove through Gloucestershire to Hereford, and this time sighed ‘I wish we could see the Bee Shelter’. The van slowed and turned into a slip road. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. John replied ‘To find the Bee Shelter.’

It didn’t take us long to find the church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury, home to the Bee Shelter, and to learn there was a centuries-old tradition of beekeeping in these parts.

John parked outside and we got out to look around. There was no one else here other than sheep grazing in fields, birds warbling in trees, and bees humming in the air.

Bee Shelter sign

A sign outside the church told us that the Bee Shelter at Hartpury was rescued, repaired and rebuilt inside the church. John was intrigued and I was excited, so we pulled open the gate and went inside. St Mary’s is like a little window in time, we were both struck by its beauty and serenity. We walked along the winding path and past the source of humming – a cloud of busy dark-coloured insects so small and fast, I thought they were flies.

This way to bee shelter

There was a long stone structure up ahead that looked promising and my excitement grew as we approached. Two familiar-looking straw baskets were housed within – bee skeps! This was the Bee Shelter of Hartpury.

John stopped beneath the blossom tree to take pictures, while I ran my hands over the skeps and imagined what they must have felt and sounded like when bees lived inside.

blossom tree next to bee shelter

Here we found out more about the Bee Shelter and of beekeeping at Hartpury. The Bee Shelter is described by the International Bee Research Association as “an unique historic monument” – in fact, there are no similar structures known anywhere else in the world.

It was built in the mid-19th century by Paul Tuffley, stone mason, quarry master and beekeeper, using Cotswold stone. His exact intent is not known, but one theory suggests the Bee Shelter was for his ornamental garden in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. The structure showcases the skill of his stone masonry with gabled wall plinths, Doric columns and a ridge-crest roof. In 1852, the Bee Shelter was threatened with destruction after Tuffley’s house was repossessed by his mortgage. “It was saved by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Beekeeping Association, who dismantled it and, with the encouragement of the Principal of Hartpury Agricultural College, reassembled in the College grounds.” By the end of the 19th century, the ornamental stonework had begun to erode and the structure was saved for a second time by the Hartpury Historic Land and Buildings Trust. Restored, the Bee Shelter now “rests in peace” at St Mary’s, where it faces in the same direction (north) as its original home at Nailsworth.

Hartpury church

There is long tradition of beekeeping in Hartpury: “The Domesday Book states that Gloucester annually paid 12 sesters (23lbs) of honey to King Edward, and in 1260 it is recorded that tenants from the manor of Hartpury, owned by Gloucester Abbey, held land in return for payments of honey”. Honey and beeswax too have a close connection with the church. In ancient times, it was believed honey had a heavenly origin.

The bee shelter

I was particularly interested to find out more about the skeps used by beekeepers before the invention of the modern hive. They were traditionally made of wicker or straw and housed a smaller colony of bees than today’s wooden hives. “Contrary to current practice, a skep beekeeper encouraged swarming. He looked for swarms leaving his skeps, caught any he could and put these in an empty skep. By the end of the summer he might have two or three times as many occupied skeps as in the spring. The honey was harvested by destroying, usually over burning sulphur, a number of the colonies in the autumn, when the nectar flow diminished. These would generally have been the heaviest colonies and also any small ones than might not survive the winter. The intermediate colonies were overwintered in their skeps.”

By this time we were really running late for arriving at John’s family farm in Hereford. So we reluctantly left this peaceful place to go back to the van.

Bee boles

On our way out I stopped to look more closely at the strangely humming flies and suddenly realised they were bees! Hundreds of hundreds of tiny fuzzy black bees darting in and out of small bored holes in the ground. They moved too fast to get a good look or picture, though John got this short video:

What are these ground-dwelling and friendly bees, I wonder, masons, carpenters? They didn’t seem bothered by our curiosity – the mystery bees of Hartpury.

That was Good Friday at the start of our Easter weekend, and there was another surprise in store…

Hampton maze

On Bank Holiday Monday, John took me to the real Hampton Court in Hereford, to explore the pretty gardens and lose our way in the maze. We split up to see who would solve the maze first. I did, and then climbed the tower at the centre to wave John over. The view at the top was amazing, but there was something secret beneath.

Climbing down the narrow stone spiral staircase, we went into a long dark tunnel and emerged in a pocket of bright sunlight to find a beautiful secret garden beneath the maze and behind a waterfall…

Secret garden


Behind the waterfall

This was like magic! We had so much fun discovering sunken paths, hidden flower beds and stepping stones across overgrown brooks…

Secret brook

Secret steps

Sunken garden

What of our hives this spring? Visits continue to keep check of syrup and insulation in the roof (late April was chilly) and of early queen cells (unlike skep beekeepers, we don’t encourage swarming), but the bees must wait in May, which is the month of hen parties and weddings of beekeepers and beekeepers’ daughters. For now, here’s a happy honeybee foraging nectar and pollen off the cherry blossoms on the farm in Hereford.

Honeybee in blossom


18 thoughts on “The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

  1. What a great find! That bee shelter is truly amazing. And finding a secret garden! Looks like it was a fun trip and a great day. I wonder if the bees in the ground are miner bees. I’m only just beginning to learn about the non-honey bees so I couldn’t say for sure.

    • Miner bees, could be! I need to brush up my non-honeybee identification skills which is limited to carders and a few bumbles. The Bee Shelter was a lovely discovery – another hidden gem of the English countryside 🙂

  2. Hmmm…”May is the month of weddings of beekeepers…” Are you going to have to change the name of your blog to “Mrs. Apis Mellifera? 🙂
    A secret garden…How wonderful!

  3. A bee shelter! What a lovely idea and such an interesting place. This Hampton Court is looks much more interesting than the one I know near Kingston, UK. No secret gardens or grottos there. There seem to have been so many Victorians with large families that loved nature. The old skeps look attractive but the idea of burning some each each year seems cruel. I suppose most of the bees died but them a lot die at the end of the year so perhaps I’m being too sentimental. I’ve no idea what sort of mining bees you saw. I’ve never seen such a busy nest over here. Amelia

    • John’s dad calls it the real Hampton Court because it’s older, although I’ve not read up on its history. It was more interesting being set among wild acres of countryside rather than the crowded banks of the Thames. I’d like to go back so we can have a longer look around the house and gardens.

      Yes, I don’t like the idea of how skeps were used for honey harvest, though I suppose then the beekeepers didn’t know any other methods. Different times. But I like the idea of beekeeping being so steeped in our history and bees and honey have so much symbolism in human culture.

      The ground-dwelling bees were so fast and furious, they had obviously found some very exciting forage. I peered as closely as I could to identify their fuzzy markings without getting my nose stung!

    • The story made me smile – a reminder that beekeepers are good at salvaging! Do go RH, there’s so much up that way for a long weekend in the country – as it’s near to Hay on Wye and Brecon Beacons, EST.

  4. That bee-sheltering wall looks so charming that we began to entertain thoughts of building one for ourselves but upon consulting “Quest for the Perfect Hive” we were reminded that such bee boles or bee niches were not recommended by beekeepers. They nevertheless were quite popular for a long time. Still a charming picture.

    • It was a fantastic outing – very lucky! And there are so many hidden gems around the English countryside, although part of me hopes they stay secret and hidden only to surprise passersby!

  5. That’s not far from where I live. Now I just need to persuade my wife to come along. This is made easier by the fact there don’t look to be any bees in the bee shelter.

    I’ve been keeping busy these last few weeks with swarms and unmated queens. The pottering has also included launching some honey jar labels for anyone who is interested.

    Hope all well – look forward to the updates as the season progresses.

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