The National Trust owns several properties in South Devon and they all have something to commend them, but I think my favourite has to be Coleton Fishacre.
It’s a bit out of the way, but that’s one of the attractions of this estate that includes a magnificent garden that sweeps down to the sea and a house that evokes the bygone jazz age of the 1920s.
The man behind the creation of Coleton Fishacre was Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whose father, Richard, was the producer of Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas. Rupert, who incidentally was also the inspiration for P.G Wodehouse’s Rupert Psmith, inherited the family business including the Savoy Hotel and Claridge’s in London.
It was on a sailing trip between Brixham and Dartmouth with his wife Dorothy, that he saw the potential of the valley above Pudcombe Cove for building a home on the coast. It’s not difficult to see why they chose this spot, and in 1923 he set about building Coleton Fishacre which took three years to finish.
After completion Dorothy lived here permanently, while her husband came down every weekend after spending the week in London running the business. He had already started to change the design of his London theatre and hotels to a more Art Deco style, and he introduced the same style at Coleton.
Although most of the original furnishings were sold years ago, a visit to the house still has that 1920s feel to it. The Saloon and Library are my particular favourite rooms.
In 1936 the couple separated, and the house was passed on to their daughter Bridget after her father died in 1948, although she never lived here. The following year she sold it to Roland Smith, the owner of the Palace Hotel in Torquay, and in 1982 he sold it to the National Trust who opened it to the public in 1999.
Although it’s not a family home any more, it does have a homely feel to it and below are some pictures of Lady Dorothy’s Bedroom, the Dining Room, the Sitting Room and a copy of an HMV recording of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury in the Saloon.
The house may have a nostalgic feel to it, but it’s the gardens that really make this place stand out for me. The manicured borders and lawns next to the house give way to a semi-wild valley that follows a stream down to the cliffs above Pudcombe Cove.
You would need a good couple of hours to do these gardens justice, and even then, you wouldn’t see everything, so I’m going to highlight the things you shouldn’t miss.
Before heading off down through the valley, make sure that you check out the lovely herbaceous borders around the house at Seemly Terrace and the Rill Garden.
There are a few routes that can be taken down through the valley but the easiest one is the wheelchair/pushchair friendly path that starts near the house. One word of warning though: It’s all downhill, which means it’s all uphill coming back.
Humidity is high in this 30-acre garden which is ideal for moisture loving plants, and you’ll find plenty of luxurious ferns and Gunnera amongst the wide variety of trees that cling to the valley slopes.
At the bottom of the valley there is a gate which leads out onto the coast path above Pudcombe Cove which is as far as the gardens go.
For the return journey my suggestion, if you can manage it, is to return through the gate and turn right over the bridge and take the climb up Long Close to the Lookout, where you may want to take a breather and enjoy the views. After you’ve got your breath back continue up the steps behind the Lookout and at the top turn right and follow the path along to Scout Point for some magnificent views along the coastline to Froward Point.
It’s a no through path and so you’ll need to return along the way you’ve just come, but continue past the steps you came up and walk along the top of the estate through Paddock Wood. This will eventually bring you out to the Gazebo Borders which will, in turn, take you to the Gazebo for some more great views. Once again, you’ll need to re-trace your footsteps along the borders which will then bring you to the Bowling Green lawn and back to the house.
Below are some pictures of the view from Paddock Wood, the Gazebo Borders, the view from the Gazebo and the view from the house towards Bowling Green Lawn.
I haven’t covered all of the grounds, but if this has whetted your appetite you may be interested in visiting at Christmastime when the National Trust stage an event called Coleton Aglow. Christmas 2015 saw Coleton Fishacre venture into the festive spirit for the first time and throw open its doors to show people how the D’Oyly Carte family would have enjoyed their Christmas in the 1920s and 30s.
In today’s modern age it all seems a bit low key which of course was how it was meant to be. To brighten things up a bit the gardens are illuminated, but don’t expect to see an extravagant sound at light show. Apart from anything else it wouldn’t be appropriate anyway.
The walk around the garden will probably take around 45 minutes or so, but that doesn’t include a mulled wine stop at the gazebo.
The ambience inside the house is no less atmospheric in a 1920s sort of way. In fact, it seemed a refreshing change from the commercialised Christmas we’re normally used to these days. The family were undoubtedly well off, but there’s no ostentation on display here.
N.B. The Covid pandemic has meant that the event was cancelled for 2020. For more info check out the NT website.
ORIGINAL POST – NOVEMBER 2017
LATEST UPDATE – DECEMBER 2020