Imagine sailing gently along the coast of Britain and spotting a nice little steep-sided valley running down to the sea…no buildings in sight, just a few sheep and wizened wind-battered trees… deciding that would make a good place for a house… buying the land and building a mansion. These days it would be impossible, even the idea would be laughable.
If I told you it had happened you might think it must have been in the dim and distant past – perhaps when some marauding baron was looking for a defensive site after the Norman Conquest. In fact it happened less than a hundred years ago in Devon and it wasn’t a marauding baron but the son of a London theatre impresario and hotelier. The result was the wonderfully romantic Coleton Fishacre.
Coleton Fishacre, said Christopher Hussey in Country Life in May 1930, “belongs to the sea… here is a retreat from land-sickness, a spot where hurries and worries and work do not come.”
Read on to find out about one of the great houses and gardens of the age [now listed Grade 2], and the people who built it….
In the early 1920s Rupert D’Oyly Carte and his wife, Lady Dorothy did indeed spy the site from their yacht, buy it, and commission architect Oswald Milne, a pupil of Edwin Lutyens to build them a country retreat. The result is an amazing success. As Hussey went on to say: “the first thing that strikes you about this house is the happy and tactful way in which it has been spliced into its lovely setting. Still barely three years old it nestles into the head of the steep winding combe as if it had been there for centuries.”
In the best traditions of the Arts and Craft Movement the ‘butterfly’ plan rough-laid stone building with its slate roof combines serious craftsmanship and attention to detail with simplicity of design. Yet, as Hussey said, there was “no attempt to reproduce meretricious charms of antiquity.” Instead “it is essentially an up to date house without modern mannerism or affectation.” The D’Oyly Cartes opted for the geometric minimalism of Art Deco and/or what Osbert Lancaster called “Curzon Street Baroque” with a mainly pale colour scheme.
Milne’s plans also incorporated space for the ‘new’ leisure pursuits of the period, and, in particular, down at the cove there was a sea-water swimming pool, a sun-bathing platform and shelter, as well as a landing stage for their yacht.
Rupert was the son of Richard D’Oyly Carte, the theatrical promoter of Gilbert and Sullivan. He was also became involved in the luxury hotel business, owning the Savoy Hotel and Claridges in London amongst others. He spent the week in London but travelled down for the weekend, whilst Lady Dorothy remained at Coleton Fishacre working with Milne and garden designer Edward White, to lay out the 24 acre gardens.
The house stands almost at the edge of the site, which had just been marginal agricultural land and woodland, and at the very top of a narrow combe which runs down to the sea to the not-so-romantically sounding Pudcombe Cove. While it was being built, work also started on the grounds, particularly planting shelter belts on the exposed sides of the combe. Once these were in place the D’Oyly Cartes were able to experiment with the planting in the main areas of the garden. The combe itself is sheltered and so, with the geology [acidic soil over shale] and water supply also favourable, the garden at Coleton Fishacre is amazingly botanically diverse, and supports many plants normally considered tender in Bitain.
Both Rupert and Dorothy were keen gardeners and travellers and they continued to develop the garden together, introducing large numbers of unusual trees and shrubs, including many from the southern hemisphere trees which, now they are in their maturity, form one of Coleton’s many delights.
They employed about half a dozen gardeners to help them – more in fact than they employed in the house – and kept meticulous records of what they planted in a series of garden notebooks which are still in the house’s archives but which as far as I’m aware have never been published. Every tree, shrub and group of plants was numbered, with their source – Veitch, Hillier and Waterer nurseries to the fore – and sometimes their state of health following one of the couple’s regular Saturday morning strolls of inspection.
By 1930 the house and its immediate surrounds were impressive enough to be featured in Country Life, and the grounds were soon occasionally open to the public for charitable causes.
Unfortunately the pair separated in 1937, after the accidental death of their son, and were divorced in 1941. Lady Dorothy left for Tobago where she remarried, whilst Rupert stayed on at Coleton. The gardens obviously suffered neglect during the Second World War when outdoor staffing was reduced to just one. Rupert died at Coleton in 1948, leaving an estate worth £288,000 on which 50% death duties were levied which might explain why the following year his daughter Bridget sold Coleton Fishacre to Rowland Smith, a car dealer from Hampstead and his wife Freda.
The Smiths lived there very quietly trying to keep the garden unchanged but by the 1970s it had became overcrowded and in dire need of some tlc. After Rowland died in 1979 Freda negotiated a sale to the National Trust, who were interested not because of the house and garden but because the estate including over 3 miles of coastline which formed an essential link on the South Devon coast path. Once in possession however the Trust saw the garden’s potential and opened it to the public in the early 1980s, letting the house to tenants until 1999 when that too was opened. Since then the Trust have tried to keep to the spirit of the original planting, especially the collections of semi-tender plants that were favoured by the D’Oyly Cartes.
So lets take a tour … starting where the driveway goes through stone gate piers with their ball finials to a granite-paved court in front of the house.
Many of the D’Oyley Cartes’ original plantings on the courtyard walls survive. This is a very understated main entrance and gives no indication of the surprises on the other side of the house.
On the seaward side the house opens onto the first of 3 terraces retained by slate dry-stone walls designed by Milne to provide a strong architectural setting for the house. Together they extend the house into the garden in a way that is rarely as successful as here. Originally they had long views south through the valley garden to the sea, but unfortunately these have gradually disappeared because of tree growth, particularly of the beautiful 3-trunked tulip tree planted by the couple in 1926.
The top terrace, accessed directly from the house, is grassed with a stone-flagged path. The beds against the house are planted with tender herbaceous plants, shrubs and climbers, including a leptospermum from the original planting.
Stone steps then lead down to two lower terraces which have grass walks bordered by herbaceous planting in hot colours. Both have pools, one very Lutyensesque semicircular and echoed by a niche in the wall behind it, and the other rectangular and full of water-hyacinth.
Below the terraces, to the east, is the Bowling Green Lawn, backed by another dry-stone wall built in 1936 and leading out from there a sheltered
winding path, with its dry south-facing banks planted with a striking range of mediterranean climate plants including echiums, yuccas, bromelia and even proteas.
This leads to a wisteria-covered hexagonal gazebo designed by Oswald Milne at the same time as the house.
It has good views out to sea but the views back to the house have again been blocked this time by a huge cryptomeria. It also overlooks the quarry which provided the stone used for construction and which is now planted with agapanthus and other plants which self seed in the cracks of the silvery-grey rock.
Beyond the gazebo, a series of grass walks lead east and south-east along the north side of the valley through ornamental trees and shrubs, with another path leading back to the principal walk running through the valley.
Somewhat surprisingly, as can be seen from the plan this does not start in the house but rather to one side, leaving the drive before it actually reaches the courtyard behind the house. This was probably done to make easier access to another section of the site which otherwise could easily have been overlooked.
Another stone flagged terrace, with ornamental cherries underplanted with bulbs, leads to a flight of what Lutyens called ‘in and out’ steps down to the Rill Garden, which cleverly fills a wedge-shaped area and reveals Milne’s affinity with Lutyens work.
The rill is edged with stone and gets its the water from a stream, which enters through an opening in the wall at one end of the garden and cascades gently down into a pond at the other end before flowing out to rejoin the rest of the natural flow and pools below the house. When I visited in June the display of marginal plants around the pond was stunning and included white arum lilies, astilbe, iris and primula.
In one of the few mistakes the borders of the Rill Garden were originally planted with roses which did not thrive in the site’s micro-climate and they are now filled with hardy herbaceous plants mixed with more tender specimens as well as still housing some of the D’Oyly Cartes original trees and shrubs. The area behind the Rill Garden uphill and to the west is untouched natural grassland.
The principal walk once it has passed below the terraces has open grass areas, wooded sections and a series of lush exotic-looking glades…
full of gunnera, rodgersia, masses of hydrangeas and tree ferns as well as bamboos and rhododendrons. There are also magnificent specimen trees – including ailanthus, cornus capitata, podocarpus and the japanese umbrella pine.
In an interesting aside when cutting back takes place now some of these plants provide food for animals in the local Paignton Zoo.
After the glades, which grow ever darker as the combe drops away, the path finally meets the coastal footpath which runs through thick shelter planting along the cliffs above the cove.
From there a steep path used to zig-zag down the cliff to the pebble-faced concrete bathing hut, the sun-bathing platform and the sea-water swimming pool that the D’Oyly Cartes built around 1930.
Coastal erosion has made the cove inaccessible and with the Trust’s policy of allowing this to happen inevitably the buildings will eventually disappear under the waves.
Coleton Fishacre still manages to evoke a lifestyle that these days is usually only seen in films or read about in novels. As Hussey said “although unobtrusive and practical” it ” is a work of art… completely at ease here and [it] puts the landscape at ease no less than the visitor.”