By day 4 of our holiday the forecast for the week was rain and more rain. So we developed a strategy of mad dashes out between bouts of drizzle. In the knowledge that we had a window of dryness just before lunchtime, we put ourselves in the hands of our National Trust guidebook. Coleton Fishacre is a few miles beyond Kingswear, so we got the car ferry across the Dart. Unusually I purchased the guide book, slightly pricey at £4.50, but ended up being glad I did as the property has such an interesting and unexpected history.
The original owners of Coleton Fishacre were Rupert and Lady Dorothy D’Oyly Carte. Rupert’s father was the manager behind the Gillbert and Sullivan operettas, and Rupert carried on the impresario tradition, and was also a hotelier, developing the Savoy Hotel and Claridges. The family apparently spotted the land sailing along the Devon coast (as you do), and thought that it would be the perfect spot for the kind of house they wanted to create. And they did exactly that, creating a quarry on-site from which the house was built in the 1920s, at the top of this incredibly beautiful valley of gardens, cascading around a river leading down to the sea.
We started our visit with the gardens, and were immediately impeded by Katie whose unpredictable and varied transportation demands (carry, stop, double-back on oneself, insist on contrary route, sudden strop, etc.) were not strictly compatible with narrow paths with steep inclines, so we wisely split the children into two groups. I got the good deal of the older children, so naturally made much better progress down the dell. The views are incredible. I really don’t think you can beat a view which includes water at the best of times, but even to someone as unknowledgeable about horticulture as me, I could appreciate the rich topically-themed planting. The path zigzagged around which made the incline seem less obviously steep, and it was all beautifully maintained, which must be a huge challenge with the landslide-inducing rain of late.
At the bottom of the garden was a wooden bridge almost purpose-designed for playing billy goats gruff, which obviously caused some delay, and then a gate just before the cliff top where the garden ends. This was the bit I think that the National Trust had in mind when they bought the land, to join up the South Devon coastal path. You can’t actually get down to the cove below because the steps built into the cliff by the family had eroded, but you could see the bathing pool that had been carved into the rock face, and Charlotte and Harry were deeply envious of the possibilities of having one’s own private beach.
So we made our way back up the other side of the garden, which made for more strenuous walking, and by this point the drizzle had set in. This part of the garden is pretty shaded but we still ended up with nicely frizzy hair by the time we got to the top. Next we visited the house, which had a trail – objects to spot which were awarded different points to be totted up at the end, and kept small people focused who may not be quite so architecturally-inspired. The house has been restored to the art deco style it would originally have been decorated in, and was just beautiful. The tour was well thought-out, so that you had a sense of a story unfolding, which took you through the servants’ quarters, and culminated in the utterly show-stopping ‘saloon’ - mostly roped off but with a note encouraging pianists to ask the volunteers if they could have access to the grand piano. For the millionth time in my life I wished that I paid better attention during my many fruitless years of piano lessons.
There was even a room, crammed full of wonderful 30s hats and dresses, where the children were encouraged to try things on – a really nice touch, although it did mean that I spent the rest of the tour carrying Katie who was just not getting the one-off aspect of the touching rule. She had already in the trying on room - rather alarmingly and without any encouragement - selected a mink stole for herself and promptly took on the mannerisms of a starlet at least 20 years older, wrapping it around herself and striking a pose. Hmm, if I believed in reincarnation … My children, incidentally, would be unimpressed if I failed to note their trail score of 148 and the purple dinosaur hand stamp which they accordingly received for their prowess.
Then there was nothing for it but to reward our our stretched muscles with a trusty bowl of National Trust soup (I am beginning to think we live on this stuff). The cafe was a pretty spacious one with lots of outside tables so it would be excellent on a sunny day. It was a whistle-stop tour but a place this beautiful in England’s finest drizzle must be pretty jaw-dropping in the summer.