In 1906 Alice Hext commissioned a bench made of cob and thatch for her gardens in Mawnan Smith in Cornwall, United Kingdom. At the time it provided a view of the ocean from the sloping, ten-acre Trebah Gardens, which are now part of the Royal Horticulture Society. Built with clay soil, sand, straw, and water, the bench—or garden folly, as Brits call structures without operational purpose—was not protected from moisture, so it eroded over time.
Ninety-seven years after it was originally erected, two specialists in cob construction have returned the bench to its original splendor. Using knowledge gained from a stint at the Cob Cottage Company in Oregon, Katy Bryce and Adam Weismann used the original cob supplemented with clay from a nearby pit—which they remixed—to reconstruct Alice’s Seat. The project earned the co-owners of Cob in Cornwall a Civic Trust Award from the United Kingdom for outstanding architecture and environmental design. The award, administered by urban regeneration specialists, acknowledges projects for their design and contribution to community and environment.
Alice’s Seat now educates schoolchildren about the benefits of using natural materials to create structures, says Weismann. The gardens surrounding the bench include scented plants and flowers for the sight impaired, who enjoy feeling the texture of the stone, cob, wood, and thatch.
In addition to educational opportunities, the cob bench lends a strong spiritual component to the garden, says Bryce. “Creating a raised structure from the ground is really just rearranging atoms on the site. When it naturally decomposes, it goes back to the earth,” she adds. “It’s a complete, satisfying, and natural cycle.”
Cob, malleable by nature, was the ideal material for the serpentine form of Alice’s Seat. Cob is nontoxic, and its clay base helps absorb atmospheric toxins. From their cob home in Cornwall, Bryce and Weismann pursue myriad construction projects: They specialize in restoring old cob properties and creating small garden studios and courtyards made of cob. The two were originally taught to mix cob with their bare feet, but Cornish clay is riddled with sharp shards, so they usually do it mechanically and apply it with pitchforks. For Alice’s Seat, however, Bryce and Weismann remixed the original cob on a tarp so they could tread upon it with bare feet to add an element of the old-fashioned methods to the historic garden.
Bryce and Weismann look forward to future projects that allow children to be actively involved in cob construction. “This gives the kids an opportunity to work with their hands and be part of a team,” says Weismann. “We hope that, like us, they stand back and are proud they created something positive and beautiful.”