St Germans and a Maverick Earl

St. Germans and a Maverick Earl

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 River Tiddy at Port Eliot

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.

St Germans Priory Church
St Germans Priory Church
The Norman Doorway
The Norman Doorway

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.

Port Eliot
Port Eliot

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.

Entrance to the Priory House
Entrance to the Priory House

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.

The Port Eliot Estate
The Port Eliot Estate

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).

The Eliot Arms in the village
The Eliot Arms in the village

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?

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31 thoughts on “St Germans and a Maverick Earl

  1. Stuart Templeton

    lol – What a brilliant post and apologies for taking so long to get to it. What a character Peregrine was – he sounds amazing and I suspect I would have liked him immensely.

    I loved your comment about the church – ”rather dull on the inside” – that cracked me up, but oh so true of some many things.

    Another great read Malcolm.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thanks again Stuart. I don’t think for one minute that you’re dull on the inside. You, me and Peregrine would make a good partnership I reckon 🙂

      Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Cheers John. I’m glad you enjoyed it. See, there’s more to St Germans than the viaduct and the Eliot Arms 🙂

      Reply
  2. Lou Bessette

    Hello Malc and Alli, Glad to know that there is no restriction on replies to comments. I really enjoyed St. Germans and a Maverick Earl, and the exchange that followed. A good weekend to you both!

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Hi Lou, there’s no restriction as far as I know, just a technical thing that may just be down to settings. Anyway, pleased to see you on here and even more pleased to hear that you enjoyed the post and the social interaction between Alli and me. I’d love to have more of it if I’m honest, so I’m more than happy for you to join in whenever you want.

      Reply
  3. Malc Post author

    I can imagine, but there’s no gain without pain as they say. I don’t like pain, which is probably why I don’t get very far. Procrastination is my middle name by the way 🙂

    Reply
  4. Alli Templeton

    What a ripping yarn, Malc, and some top-class photos, as always. I love eccentric aristocrats and their crumbling piles. Port Eliot reminds me of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. That’s another unique place, an enticing mix of history, a castle and an extensive array of shabby-chic interiors chaotically crammed with all kinds of paraphernalia collected by the present Lord on his travels. Glad to hear the festival is going ahead this year, and I hope they keep the place in the family and secure it’s future somehow, so we can all enjoy these pearls of English eccentricity. A great read, and really well written. Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thanks for your lovely comments again Alli, It sounds as though Chillingham Castle should be on my list when I’m up that way next. What amazes me was how the late Earl managed to keep it all going for so long. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about some of his antics 🙂

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        Very much so. Perhaps it is that eccentricity equates to resourcefulness – I guess it allows for creative thinking to come up with solutions. Yes, Chillingham is also a bit of a gem, and it’s supposed to be the most haunted castle in Europe. We need our quirky toffs, they’re one of the things that make England so great. 🙂

        Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          That’s a good point about being resourceful when you need to be. If Chillingham is one of the most haunted castles in Europe, no wonder it’s called Chilling – ham. I’m not sure what I think about these spooky places. We’ve got one not far away and people go down there in the dead of night to see if they can feel anything. – not me, I’d rather be tucked up in bed thank you very much. Quirky toffs I can live with 🙂

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            Very good – it is aptly named! I don’t think I’d go out looking for ghosts at night – way too scary, but apparently you don’t have to do that as they can appear any time. I wouldn’t mind that, in fact I’d like it. I do sense things a lot though, so that’s part of the way there. When we went there and the guide told me it’s one of the most haunted castles in Europe I was pretty impressed, and it’s definitely got an atmosphere, but a good one. The quirky Lord is very hands on and all the staff love him. He even wrote the ‘guidebook’, which was an interesting, yet rambling bunch of A4 pieces of paper stapled together. When we were leaving the slightly bedraggled Lady of the manor arrived home, in a small runaround – an old Fiat Scruffy (as I call them) or something similar. My favourite bit was the tearoom – it’s wonderfully medieval and it had a massive fire going and wall hangings on the stone walls. My idea of heaven. 🙂

            Reply
            1. Malc Post author

              It sounds like a good subject for one of your blogs, if you haven’t already done one.

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                You’ve read my mind again – I’ve just been thinking that as I’ve been writing all this. 🙂 It really is a fantastic place. Sometime after my exam I’ll have to see if I can dig out any decent photos. If not, what a good excuse to go back! 🙂

                Reply
                    1. Malc Post author

                      After your exam is over you’ll deserve a break. Go for it, and just blame me if anything goes wrong 🙂

                    2. Alli Templeton

                      After my exam, I really will need a break. Walking round North Wales will seem a breeze after all this brain strain. And I could never blame you for directing me to a castle. 😉

                    3. Malc Post author

                      It appears that there’s a restriction on the number of replies that we can make on a thread and my latest one has shot to the top of the page. It’s happened before

                    4. Alli Templeton

                      …oops, oh dear, sorry. I didn’t realise that at all. I’d better shut up then and make room for others. Have a great weekend. 🙂

                    5. Malc Post author

                      I can imagine, but there’s no gain without pain as they say. I don’t like pain, which is probably why I don’t get very far. Procrastination is my middle name by the way 🙂

                    6. Alli Templeton

                      You get a fair bit done as far as I can see. I’m good at procrastinating on things as well. But once I get going I’m OK. 🙂

                1. Malc Post author

                  It’s ok I’ve sussed it I think. There isn’t a restriction but you have to go back to the beginning of your reply

                  Reply
                    1. Malc Post author

                      This technology is as quirky as our Lords of the Manor. It doesn’t know when to behave itself, but I suppose I’d better get on with doing something more constructive now. Thanks for the chat. I enjoy the social side of blogging as well, not that many people bother on me on here. It’s always good to have a conversation with you Alli. Have a great weekend.

                    2. Alli Templeton

                      You too, Malc. Yes, it is good to chat. Breaks up the Latin grammar and Ovid’s elegies a treat. You have a great weekend too. We’re off to Caerphilly Castle tomorrow. Will try and get a post out about it next weekend if I have time. 🙂

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