The beautiful but hidden seaside tourist attraction in Devon that’s one of UK’s best | UK | News

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The beautiful but hidden seaside tourist attraction in Devon that’s one of UK’s best | UK | News


The beautiful view from the Coleton Fishacre estate (Image: Emma Slee/DevonLive)

A paradise estate on Devon’s coast tinged with tragedy is tucked away down country lanes and may not be the first National Trust property that springs to mind when you think of days out in Devon. Coleton Fishacre isn’t even that old having been built as a 1920s country retreat. But the star attraction, Devon Live reports, isn’t the house. It’s the glorious tropical gardens overlooking the sea that are simply a paradise.

Located in a valley close to Kingswear and by the South West Coast Path, Coleton Fishacre is an absolute jewel in the National Trust’s crown. Picture the scene – Rupert D’Oyly and Lady Dorothy were out sailing in the early 1900s and spotted the valley leading down to Pudcombe Cove. At that very moment they knew they wanted to build a country retreat there that perfectly suited their outdoor lifestyle. And so they did.

Architect Oswald Milne designed the house to blend with its surroundings. He wanted the it to take full advantage of the sea views and natural light from its position in the coastal valley. The Arts and Crafts design of the exterior celebrated local materials, using stone quarried from the garden.

Construction of their new country home started in 1925, and by 1926, Lady Dorothy and Rupert D’Oyly Carte had moved into Coleton Fishacre. The family loved outdoor activities. Sailing trips, swimming in Pudcombe Cove, and hosting friends were all part of their life here.

The family’s tale is as captivating as their paradise playground. Rupert, the son of Richard D’Oyly Carte who was the mastermind behind Gilbert and Sullivan and the Savoy Hotel, took over as Chairman of the Savoy Hotel Company in 1903 after his father. He also took charge of the Opera Company from his stepmother a decade later.

Rupert brought a new and vibrant approach to both companies by modernising them and supporting artists and designers. He married Lady Dorothy Gathorne-Hardy, the daughter of the second Earl of Cranbrook, in 1907. Lady Dorothy was known for her ‘common touch’.

She was a striking woman with dark hair and was noticeably taller than Rupert. Lady Dorothy would stay at Coleton Fishacre during the week while Rupert was in London. This gave her the opportunity to enjoy her favourite hobbies of fishing, gardening and sailing.

Rupert and Dorothy shared a love of the outdoors and their garden. They often took their yacht out on weekend trips to south Cornwall to find new ideas. They would stroll around the Coleton Fishacre garden together on Saturday mornings, discussing their planting plans.

The couple also loved to host parties. Their weekend guests included famous musicians like conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent and painters such as Charles Ricketts. Guests came for bridge parties and were often asked to help weed the garden.


The National Trust estate Coleton Fishacre (Image: Emma Slee/DevonLive)

The D’Oyly Carte family had two children, Bridget and Michael. However, in 1932, a terrible accident occurred when Michael died in a car crash in Switzerland at the age of 21. This sad event caused a lasting split between Lady Dorothy and Rupert, leading to their separation in 1936.

After their divorce, Lady Dorothy left England and relocated to Plymouth, Tobago. She became a valued member of the community and worked hard to raise funds for local charities.

Rupert and Dorothy’s daughter was one of the first students at Dartington School. After finishing school, she married her cousin in 1926. The marriage only lasted four years and then from 1939 to 1947 she worked in child welfare in London.

From 1948 onwards, she devoted herself to managing the opera company. She went on to set up the D’Oyly Carte Opera Trust as a charity, became a director of the Savoy Hotel group and was honoured as a Dame in 1975.

Bridget sold Coleton Fishacre in 1949, because it was too far from London. The new owner was Rowland Smith, a well-known London motor trader and owner of the Palace Hotel in Torquay.

Rowland and his wife Freda took great care of the house and garden until he passed away in 1979. Just before Freda’s death in 1982, Coleton Fishacre was offered to the National Trust.

Coleton Fishacre, nestled in a valley, enjoys a climate as mild as South Cornwall. This allows many exotic and tender plants to thrive in the garden. The garden is filled with a variety of plants and wildlife to explore throughout the year, thanks to its mix of formal terraces and woodland. It’s also recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

As the weather warms up, Coleton Fishacre becomes a colourful spectacle. The garden is shielded from harsh weather, allowing delicate and exotic plants to bloom from early spring to late autumn. As you approach the house and garden, daffodils and primroses line the paths and from March onwards, the cherry trees start to blossom.

Wellington’s Wall, situated to the right of the house, will soon be bursting with colour from native coastal flowers that flourish on the nearby coastline. Venture further down the valley paths for a splash of colours from camellias and hellebores at the bottom of the garden, and enjoy the wide sea views through the trees.


One of the incredible views from the gardens of Coleton Fishacre estate (Image: Emma Slee/DevonLive)

Kent’s Border, named after Mr Kent who was the site foreman when the house was built in the 1920s, has undergone a transformation in recent years. It’s located at the top of the garden on the way down to the house. Reflecting the Arts and Crafts movement, the border features hedging, topiary, soft planting and lots of colour.

The hedgerows also serve as corridors connecting different habitats and provide a safe haven for the many creatures that live in the garden.

The Hot Border in front of the house is a fiery spectacle, filled with red and orange flowers that bloom from summer to late autumn. They create a ‘firework’ effect, which was Rupert D’Oyly Carte’s favourite view from his library desk.

The Rill Garden gets its name from the rill, a formalised stream, running through it. It’s filled with hardy and semi-tender perennials in pastel shades, Lady Dorothy’s favourites. She enjoyed a lovely view of this garden from her room.

The terraces and walls around the house are lined with sun-loving plants and each terrace has a pool. The upper pool features an otter sculpture by local artist Bridget McCrum.

In the warmer months, the terraces and flower borders are alive with a variety of nectar-rich flowers, attracting butterflies, moths and bees.

The stone used for the house came from the quarry wall below the gazebo. It was transported up the valley on railway tracks, now repurposed as kitchen shelf supports.

There are several spots in the garden where you can enjoy views of the sea. Places like Scout Point, the gazebo and the summerhouse all offer wide, sweeping views. Coleton Fishacre’s woodland is filled with a mix of broadleaved trees and conifers, which provide a home for tawny owls, great spotted woodpeckers and many other birds.

You might see piles of logs in the woodland near Scout Point. These are important for insects and fungi.

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As you walk further down the valley, the garden becomes more relaxed. At the bottom, there’s a glade filled with tree ferns. Here, a stream trickles out to the coast and hydrangeas bloom in the summer.

There’s also a gate that leads to the South West Coast Path. From here, you can enjoy views at Pudcome Cove and spot the old tidal pool that the D’Oyly Carte family used to use.

The garden at Coleton Fishacre is home to many creatures throughout the year. It has a mix of flower borders, woods, grassland and streams.

During the warmer months, you can often find butterflies like the marbled white and the common blue in the grassland areas around the edges of the garden. Voles and meadow grasshoppers also love these areas, as do plants like ox-eye daisy, bird’s-foot trefoil and betony.

The garden here is a haven for many unique trees and shrubs, thanks to the stream running down the valley and the nearby sea. The stream and pools are also home to newts, dragonflies and toads. On a sunny day, you might even spot snakes and lizards basking on a smooth rock.

At Coleton Fishacre, like all National Trust properties, the staff and volunteers love to engage with children. They have a fun activity where kids can hunt for different patterns inside the rooms of the manor house. There’s no prize – you just tick them off as you go along. If you manage to find them all, let the friendly staff member at the entrance know. And if you’re struggling, the volunteers in each room are always ready to help. They also provide a sheet that encourages you to discover various aspects of nature in the garden.

If you’re lucky, your visit might coincide with a volunteer playing the piano in the Saloon. This really brings to life the luxury and indulgence of the early 1900s. The ashtrays in every room are a nod to the era when this house was at its peak. As you explore each family member’s bedroom, complete with original furniture and clothes, it’s easy to picture them living there. The bedroom of young Michael, who tragically died at just 21, is particularly poignant. It’s hard not to feel the sadness that must have filled this once vibrant home.

Don’t forget to check out the cafe and shop too, although the cafe is set to close for a makeover in February.

For more details on Coleton Fishacre or any other National Trust property, click here.

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