Coleton Fishacre has the feel of a family home, and on my most recent visit a competent amateur pianist had commandeered the grand piano in the salon (something surprisingly encouraged by a new touchy/feely approach of the National Trust), and was belting out Chopin mazurkas. Delightful, but perhaps music from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in this D’Oyly Carte home, or something from the jazz age to complement the restored vaguely Art Deco interiors might have been more in keeping.
In 1925, Rupert and Lady Dorothy D’Oyly Carte commissioned Oswald Milne, a pupil of Edwin Lutyens to design them a house and garden in the Arts and Crafts tradition. The modest-looking house, with simple, clean unfussy lines is built of local grey slate with a matching slate tile roof, and sits comfortably in the hillside, at the top of a narrow steep combe (a steep small valley) that leads down to the sea. A canopy of Monterey pines, holm oaks and more unusual trees such as swamp cypress and Chilean myrtle provides shelter from the salty sea breezes; and the combe’s stream and ponds creates a moist micro-climate for a wide range of tender plants.
Taking into account the dictates of the site, the garden layout is looser and more informal than most Arts and Crafts gardens with serpentine slate stone walls retaining the raised beds, as the garden and lawns fall steeply away into the combe. However, the first gently sloping garden with its stone edged rill and pond has a strong Lutyens influence; and superb perennial planting in purples and pinks, very much in the Jekyll tradition.
The first of the raised borders closest to the house is of fiery reds and oranges, the next planted out in tender agaves, aloes and cacti, and towards the middle of the combe is a pond and water garden planted with gunnera, rodgersias and tree ferns.
This is a well-conceived sequence of smallish, varied garden areas that I think works well primarily because of the strong topography of the site. Continuing down the valley, fine views of the sea are framed by the descending cliffs, but access to the rocks and salt water swimming pool of the small cove is now closed off for safety reasons.
Coleton Fishacre makes for an interesting visit, with its unusual Art Deco furnishings and interesting family history, but for me the great attraction is one of England’s best coastal gardens.
Where: Coleton Fishacre, Brownstone Road, Kingswear, Devon TQ6 0EQ
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