To complement their spectacular
gardens on the dramatic Devon coastline at
Coleton Fishacre, the National Trust has reopened
the Art Deco Mansion which they surround.
Britannia's roving reporter, Jane Johnson, went
along to find out what the Trust have in store
for the paying public.
Famed for its connection with the D'Oyly Carte
family, this charming country house is built on a
site, which originally formed part of a 2000 acre
estate, farmed from as early as the thirteenth
century. The estate is now prized for the very
individual house, beautiful gardens and
magnificent coastline. Perhaps its most striking
feature is its position on one of the most
idyllic stretches of the South Devon coast.
It is said that Sir Rupert D'Oyly Carte first
noticed the site while sailing between Brixham
and Dartmouth and was immediately enchanted. When
the National Trust came to buy the estate in 1982
as part of the Enterprise Neptune campaign, they
were originally drawn by the coastline but
gradually discovered that both the garden and
house also held great interest.
The garden benefits from an exceptional
climate, being warm and south-facing and enjoying
the humidity provided by a rill. With no
prevailing wind from the south, there has been no
need to plant trees simply as a shield. These
advantages allowed Lady Dorothy to include in her
plantings some very rare and even newly
discovered species from as far away as Chile and
China. These are all detailed in her planting
book, which still survives. Many of these rare
species were found throughout the garden by the
National Trust botanist when the site was
surveyed upon its purchase.
To the front of the house, above the quarry,
there is a Gazebo which provides excellent views
of the garden and bay beyond. The garden is a
magical mixture of native flora left to grow
freely on banks and more exotic trees, such as
the vast Persian ironwood tree, Tree of Heaven
and Tulip Tree. It is planted in an informal way
along the valley to ensure that there is
something of interest throughout the year. The
Trust uses a hay meadow regime, cutting in August
and raking in so that the seeds can regenerate.
The garden supports a vast range of wildlife from
insects and birds, many of which are rare and
migratory, to snakes, badgers, foxes and even
There is a visitors' centre and plants from
the garden are propagated and offered for sale,
with proceeds used towards the upkeep of the
garden. The range of scented plants is
remains of much older boundary fields may still
be seen across valley and the present boundary is
marked by a line of native trees, including
sycamores and oaks. It is extraordinary to
consider that such a well-established landscape
was only laid out in 1926. The house was built in
the same year from shale blasted from the lower
part of the combe, transported by horses and
using a specially built railway to the site. It
was designed by Oswald Milne (1881-1967),
assistant to Lutyens, who built Castle Drogo
near Drewsteignton. It was built in the style of the 'Arts and Crafts' movement.
The entrance hall holds a decorative stone
roundel with the initials of Sir Rupert and Lady
Dorothy D'Oyly Carte. The couple were devoted
owners of dalmatians and terriers as their 'cave
canem' mat confirms. It is a house which focuses
on its surroundings: it is outwarding-looking
with doors to the garden, high water charts, a
wind dial and flower room. Theatrical and musical
guests who might visit for a weekend were always
encouraged to help with the weeding. Down on the
beach at Pudcombe Cove, the family built a tidal
sea-water bathing pool, which still remains.
The interior of the house is decorated in a
very elegant, restrained Art Deco style. Lady
Dorothy would have spent all her time here, with
Sir Rupert joining her from London at the
weekend. The Saloon contains an original Bluthner
piano and another notable feature is the Indian
gurgen wood floor. Some of the other rooms have
limed oak floors and fittings. Sadly little
furniture remained from the time when the D'Oyly
Carte family were in residence, so most of the
furniture and fittings now in situ have been
bought by the National Trust or given to them.
The couple had close links with the renowned
school, Dartington Hall, and Bridget, their
daughter, was one of the first students there.
The school has contributed some of the pieces to
the house and Dartington Crystal has also
donated items including cocktail glasses,
vases, glass tiles. The family was to be
devastated when Michael, the only son, died in a
car crash in Switzerland. This rapidly led to the
couple's separation in 1936. There is a
photographic exhibition in the house, which shows
mostly groups in Gilbert & Sullivan costumes
from the earlier, happier days of the twenties.
On Rupert's death in 1948, Bridget sold the
house to Rowland Smith, the proprietor of a motor
dealing business. In his respect for the existing
order, he allowed the estate to mature and
preserved some of its greatest treasures.
Fishacre in Devon ,
three miles from Kingswear,
along Lower Ferry Road. Turn off at the Toll
Open 5th May to 31st October, daily except
Mondays and Tuesdays (but open BH Mondays),
11:00am-4:00pm (timed tickets on busy days).
Open 7th March to 21st March, Sundays only
2:00-5:00pm; 27th March to 31st October, daily
except Mondays and Tuesdays (but open BH
Mondays), 10:30am-5:30pm (or dusk).
There is an entrance fee for the general public.
Free entry for National Trust & Royal Oak