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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 deer.

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 particularly impressive.

The 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.

Discover Coleton Fishacre in Devon ,
three miles from Kingswear, along Lower Ferry Road. Turn off at the Toll House.

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 Foundation Members.

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