Coleton Fishacre is a typical 1920s country retreat on Devon’s south coast, with a garden that captivates visitors of all ages throughout the year. Built in the Jazz Age, the house is still very much of that era. So a must for anyone who enjoys the Art Deco style. Last December Sarah stayed in the Chauffeur’s Flat and got an ‘out-of-hours’ experience of this magnificent historic property at a 1920s house party.
In deepest darkest Devon, where the lanes are single track, the wind blows the trees into twisted shapes and waves crash against the unforgiving rocks, is the most perfect National Trust property I have ever visited.
Although I live a good distance away, I regularly try to plan holidays where I can stay nearby or coincidentally drive past on the way to somewhere else. My poor unsuspecting family has stayed on the south coast of Devon more than they had ever anticipated; I see the surprise on their faces as they find themselves yet again being driven down that narrow lane that leads to my favourite little corner of Devon with scenic views and no WiFi.
Coleton Fishacre is the English Riviera’s best kept secret. I had never heard of it until glancing at a map several years ago I saw the words ‘Art Deco property’ in tiny lettering near a jagged coastline. As a fan of anything Art Deco, or indeed anything early 20th century, I just had to visit. That visit on a glorious sunny day was to be the first of many. The simplicity of the slate exterior of the house, the unpretentious yet stylish interior that conjured up ‘Friday to Monday’ glamorous house parties, the grandeur of the gardens and the wildness of the sea crashing on the cliffs at the bottom of the gardens, all led me down a path that has seen me return to that corner of Devon far more times than many would think was necessary.
Coleton Fishacre is an Arts and Crafts house that stands in 24 acres of sloping cliff side gardens in a remote part of south east Devon, only 2 miles from the River Dart estuary and the famous town of Dartmouth and only 5 miles from that far more famous National Trust property, Greenway, the summer home of the Queen of Crime who has made the English Riviera so famous. Far off the beaten track, the property sits alone surrounded by nothing but fields and sea air.
The house was built by the D’Oyly Carte family between 1923-1926, as a summer home away from the strains of London life where they could relax and entertain guests with lavish house parties. Designed by Oswald Milne, an assistant to Lutyens, it was based on the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement – simplicity of design and quality of craftsmanship, but with a stylish Art Deco interior. Rupert D’Oyly Carte was the owner of the Savoy Hotel and Claridges as well as the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which is best known for producing Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
The house was a labour of love for the family and their workers that involved a lot of digging and removing vast quantities of rock to create level surfaces on which to build. Lady Dorothea D’Oyly Carte focused on the garden, which has stunning design features and contains many exotic tropical plants collected from her travels and that thrive in this sheltered valley. They had two children until tragedy struck in 1932 when their son, who was learning the hotel trade in Switzerland, died in a car crash at the age of 21. They divorced a few years later and their daughter lived there until 1949 when she sold the house, which was later bought by the National Trust in 1982.
Even on a dreary day the gardens look good.
One of the things I love about this house is its simplicity. It is comfortable and well equipped yet tasteful, without the usual excesses of the wealthy; there is no unnecessary gilt, no fussy over ornamentation, no displays of ostentation. The saloon is the main party room, a large room with windows all around that look out over the impressive gardens, a grand piano at one end where it is so easy to imagine champagne filled parties with people dancing, chatting and enjoying the delights of the Jazz Age. The bedrooms are peaceful havens with nothing to distract, just plain walls, elegant furnishings and soft eiderdowns that look like tranquil rooms for a good night’s sleep. The airy servant’s quarters and housekeeper’s rooms are functional but comfortable.
The wind map above the fireplace in the study with views over the gardens.
My favourite room is the study, a book lined room with a desk that overlooks the view, easy armchairs in front of a roaring fire and a wind map on the wall – a colourful map of the area showing the wind speeds above the house. There is a dining room with an incredible bespoke Scaliola blue marble table, Lalique wall lights and doors that open out on to the loggia, to make the most of the views in the summer months. The whole house envelops you in peace and relaxation.
The Gardens at Coleton Fishacre
Whatever the season, the extensive gardens provide a beautiful and fascinating place to visit.
The garden is a luxurious contrast to the house with its immaculately planned planting schemes. Formal beds alternate with informal mixed planting; there are streams and ponds which flow downhill under small wooden bridges. Thick woodland blends into open glades, a gazebo overlooks the open lawn, huge trees tower over small delicate shrubs and there is such an array of colours, both vivid and subtle, in all seasons. The gardens all lead downwards towards the cliff edge where the family had a private beach, a salt water pool and outhouses.
The bay at the bottom of the garden with incredible views over the English Channel
I have now visited this house and garden in all the seasons. I’ve nibbled on the wild garlic growing in the shady glades, inhaled the heady scents of the blooming wisteria, stroked the velvet petals of bright roses, watched the tumbling autumnal leaves and appreciated the sombre bleakness of the bare trees with cawing rooks circling overhead. The most moving and enjoyable time I spent there however was when the trees were barren, the skies were grey, the drizzle was never ending and gloves and hats were a necessity.
The Chauffeur’s Flat at Coleton Fishacre
Next to the big house is a smaller property, the home of the D’Oyly Carte family chauffeur. Built in the Art Deco style to complement the big house, the ground floor is now used by the National Trust for offices, but the top floor is the Chauffeur’s Flat, available to rent out for people looking to not just visit the estate, but to make it their home, even if just for a couple of nights.
When I heard that each Christmas, the house is set up for a 1920s glamorous house party and the gardens are lit up with a multitude of lights to create an illuminated evening walk, I just had to visit. I booked the Chauffeur’s Flat for a weekend that coincided with Coleton Aglow and my mother and I spent two nights there that was a truly wonderful historical experience.
The sitting room in the flat with the chauffeur’s horn over the fireplace; it seemed almost obligatory to squeeze it for a very satisfactory loud ‘toot’.
We loved the Chauffeur’s Flat the minute we walked in from the cold and rain after a hard drive down on roads packed with Christmas shoppers, late on a Friday afternoon. The flat was warm and cosy but above all it was full of period details that made us feel like we had stepped back in time and had left the 21st century behind us. The flat had all mod cons, (although no internet which was a mixed blessing) and an air of peace and stillness that enveloped us. We had time for a quick visit around the house and garden before darkness fell and we settled in with a roaring fire and an old black and white WWII film where people said ‘what ho’ and kept a stiff upper lip.
We spent our first full day, after a quick visit around the house and garden just so I could see it again, visiting nearby Greenway (which is my second favourite National Trust property), and the beautiful 1000 year old Abbey at Buckfastleigh where we listened to the heavenly sounds of a choir rehearsing for an evening concert and then got utterly drenched as we walked round the Physic gardens.
The outside lights show the house at its best in the cold winter nights.
That second evening was the one we had booked for our visit to Coleton Aglow. While we stood in our flat watching people arriving, it slowly dawned on us that we had unlimited access to the grounds even out of hours and as they milled around in the car park and queued to get in, we used our key and visited the gardens. The lighting was already on in preparation for the imminent visitors, yet we had the whole place to ourselves.
Illuminated bamboo thickets, floodlit streams, sparkling stars and colourful walls are all part of the atmospheric walk through the gardens at Coleton Aglow.
The main routes of the garden had such a variety of illuminations; the bamboo thicket was lit up with green lights turning it into a mysterious forest, the streams and waterfalls were lit a brilliant blue that cascaded down into the dark undergrowth, disco balls hung from high branches leaving twirling patterns on the paths as they blew in the wind, hanging stars twinkled above us, the wicker deer statues on the open lawn were decorated with fairy lights -and it all belonged to us. We walked through this enchanted garden without another soul around us, enjoying the silence and the beauty.
Ready for the guests to arrive and the party to start – there is a heightened sense of anticipation thanks to the stylish decorations inside the house.
We slowly meandered back up the hill as the other visitors were being admitted to what had been exclusively ours and we made our way to the house. This was the first time I had seen it at nighttime, when it was pitch dark outside and lit up from within, side lamps casting shadows around the rooms. The house was ready for a glamorous Christmas party, the beds had suits or gowns and strings of pearls laid out for the guests to get dressed, the window sills were decorated with huge white feathers and jewels, the staff were all dressed up to the nines in suits and flapper dresses.
The champagne is waiting to be poured, the tree and candles are alight, flapper girls dance the Charleston on the
back window – all that’s needed is the guests.
The saloon had a huge Christmas tree, a champagne glass tower waiting to be filled, music was playing and lights were low. The dining room was laid out for a sumptuous Christmas meal. There was a sense of anticipation about the whole house, as if the family were due to arrive any minute to start their festivities. After wandering around absorbing all of the details, we reluctantly left the house and went back into the garden for a glass of mulled cider in the gazebo. As we watched everyone else get into their cars and drive away into the dark and blustery night, we walked next door into our warm flat, heated up a bowl of soup and watched another WWII film, bathed in a glow of the past where the reality of the modern age just did not touch us until we left the following morning.
A crisp, wintery view over the sea from the gazebo, the morning after the party.
For those two nights we had been residents of the Art Deco Coleton Fishacre, those paths had been ours, the outside world had left us alone and it was with much reluctance that we headed back home to the 21st century and its Christmas stresses and strains.
Visiting Coleton Fishacre
Monday to Sunday 10h30 – 17h00
This varies by season, see their Official Website for precise details
Concessions and family tickets available
Free to all National Trust Members
Coleton Aglow only runs in December and must be booked in advance – keep an eye on their website to see when booking opens.
National Trust members still need to book and pay for tickets.
Staying in the Chauffeur’s Flat
Book through National Trust holidays as far in advance as you can as the flat is very popular if the Visitor’s Book is anything to go by.
If you book to stay while Coleton Aglow is on, then you need to reserve tickets but they will be free of charge.