Tucked away in the lovely countryside of South-East Cornwall between Saltash and Looe is the village of St. Germans.
Its small quayside sits under the shadow of a railway viaduct that crosses the River Tiddy near to where it joins the River Lynher. At one time the quayside used to handle minerals, coal, limestone and timber, but the working boats have long gone and now all you’ll see are a few boats used by the local sailing club. It’s a peaceful place to sit for a while doing nothing in particular, but there’s a bit more to the village than just a pleasant location.
The village owes its unusual name to St. Germanus of Auxerre, to whom the local church is dedicated; the first time I saw it I was amazed at the sheer size of it for such a small village, but this is no ordinary parish church.
Although there’s no concrete evidence to support it, it’s believed that the first church here was founded by St. Germanus around 430AD: Around 500 years later it was replaced by the self-proclaimed “King of all Britain”, Athelstane, who made it his cathedral for the newly formed diocese of Cornwall.
The Normans, who weren’t averse to building cathedrals themselves, decided they didn’t need one here, and so built a priory with a new church next to it instead. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries this priory church became the everyday parish church for the local congregation.
As for the building itself, the outstanding feature is undoubtedly the West Front with its different twin towers and Norman arched doorway. Not only is this doorway impressive, it is still totally original and unaltered from the day it was built.
It has to be said though that the interior, which has obviously changed over the years, is a bit of an anti-climax in comparison.
As interesting as the priory church obviously is, it’s only a part of the former priory estate, which during the Middle Ages was used as a port for the monks and known as Port Priory. In 1565 it passed into the hands of the Eliot family who have been here ever since, and the reason why it’s now called Port Eliot.
The Eliot family home lies within a 6,000-acre estate and has a rich history as you can imagine – as have the family itself, and to be quite honest I’ve never been anywhere else quite like it.
We came to have a look around the house and estate in 2015 when Peregrine, the 10th Earl of St. Germans was the incumbent owner, and if you’ve ever thought that the idea of living in an aristocratic English country house could be for you, then come to Port Eliot and you might just want to think again. According to Peregrine, he openly said that “some might say Port Eliot is a tip; others say, it is a classic example of gilded decay”, but whichever way you look at it both he and his wife loved the place just as it was, even though it was falling down around their ears. I know what he means though, because I loved it too.
This house is a gem for all the wrong reasons. I’ve never seen lampshades and curtains in such a bad state of repair. It’s like walking around an antiques emporium, and it doesn’t seem to bother Lord St. Germans that you’re running his place down as you walk past his desk where’s he’s working out how to stave off the seemingly inevitable financial collapse of his family’s heritage.
Part of that family heritage came from the 18th century when Sir John Soames was commissioned to do a major refit. Peregrine brought it into the 20th century when he commissioned the controversial Plymouth artist Robert Lenkiewicz to paint a huge mural in Soames’s ‘Round Room’ – and anybody who knows the artist’s work will know only too well what I’m getting at. It’s unfortunate that photography wasn’t permitted inside, but understandable, because a lot of what was on display were personal things.
Outside, the gardens and grounds are, in contrast, well-kept and an absolute delight to walk around, but it’s very different when the festival takes place.
In 1981 Peregrine allowed a small festival that had outgrown its home at Polgooth, to set up at Port Eliot. Renamed the Elephant Fayre (an elephant appears on the family crest), it was different to any other festival of the day. There was music of course, but there was also dance, poetry and events for the kids. It was an occasion where everyone could do their own thing with, it has to be said, some bizarre ‘entertainment’ thrown in as well. All this joviality came to an abrupt end in 1985 when New Age Travellers brought the innocent festival age to an end when they ran amok through the festival and the village.
The festival eventually came back in 2003 in the form of the Port Eliot Festival.
‘Perry’, as the 10th Earl was also known, had a lifestyle that was not how you would imagine a peer of the realm should behave: I think it would be fair to say that he lived a somewhat unorthodox, if not, eccentric lifestyle.
His early life followed a similar pattern of tragedy to that of his ancestors. His parents divorced when he was 6 years old, and his mother died when he was 10. His father, the 9th Earl, (who was an addicted gambler) went to live in Tangier and handed the estate over to his son in 1958, and even though Peregrine was educated at Eton, he admits that “I failed quite spectacularly, even with the assistance of the birch, to take advantage of some of the best teachers in the land”.
During the 1960s he enthusiastically embraced the hippy lifestyle and managed to get hold of the franchise to sell all The Beatles merchandise, but even failed to make any money from that.
He was a great friend of Michael Evis and often visited his Glastonbury Festival, which he doesn’t seem to remember much about, “especially as the whole thing’s done on acid” as he puts it.
One thing that he did seem to be good at though was juggling, which I suppose was one of the reasons that jugglers were to be seen at the Elephant Fayre: He may have been able to roll a coin across his fingers, but was only just able to juggle the family’s finances to keep the estate afloat. At the time I was here, it was almost agreed that Prince Charles was to buy the estate through his Prince’s Foundation charity, but the deal fell through when the Prince was advised not to go ahead with it (don’t ask, it gets complicated).
A year after our visit, it was a shock to hear that Peregrine had died after a short illness, aged 75. He was married three times and had three sons from his first marriage. Jago, his eldest son, who Perry referred to as “the Village Eliot”, died in 2006, which left Jago’s son, Albie, the latest and 11th Earl of St Germans at just 12 years old.
Quite what happens next, I’m not sure, but trustees are in charge of the estate until he’s old enough to make his own decisions; in the meantime, the house is still standing, and quite remarkably has some restoration work taking place this year. The Port Eliot Festival is still on for this year as well, which I’m sure the late Earl would be pleased to hear, and will probably be singing along at that great festival in the sky.
If all this talk of the Eliot family’s affairs and hedonistic festivals is too much for you to handle, then perhaps it might be better to head back down to the riverside and watch the river ebb and flow while doing nothing in particular. Perhaps if Perry had just done the same thing, he might have lived a bit longer, but how boring would that have been?