Coleton Fishacre – the Arts and Crafts paradise with a tragic past

Coleton Fishacre – the Arts and Crafts paradise with a tragic past

With light, spacious rooms, Coleton Fishacre is a house built for living – but it was death that tore it apart

However beautiful historic buildings may be, I would rarely want to live in one.

Country houses are many things. Grand? Yes. Expensive? Certainly – and with expensive running costs to match. Impressive? Absolutely – there’s nothing I like better than nerding around a stately home and taking in historical facts like an open-mouthed whale hoovering up a plankton shoal. But homely? Never – I’m always pleased to scuttle back to my human-dimensioned house at the end of the day. Until, that is, I went to Coleton Fishacre.

Here’s a 360 picture to give you a feel for the fantastic setting and fantastic house:

Hidden high on the Devon coast near Kingswear, everything about Coleton Fishacre says homeliness, happiness and high living. Put my essentials in a suitcase and forward them on to me, because I’m staying. From evening cocktails in the sunken lounge, to outdoor summer breakfasts in the loggia, to family swims in the seafront private pool built into the rocks of Pudcombe Cove, it’s like a setting for an Enid Blyton adventure story.

Coleton Fishacre is designed for comfort, for leisure and for family and, built between 1925 and 1926, it’s from a period close enough that we can still relate to that comfort even from our 21st Century perspective. Built by the D’Oyly Carte family with architecture by Sir Edwin Lutyens’ assistant Oswald Milne, Coleton Fischacre features numerous Art Deco furnishings, from the light fittings down to the tables and ashtrays displayed by the National Trust.

The D’Oyly Cartes were a wealthy family. Rupert D’Oyly Carte succeeded his father Richard as the chairman of the Savoy Hotel company which included the Savoy Hotel, Claridge’s, The Berkeley Hotel, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand and the Grand Hotel in Rome, and later also took over the Savoy Opera company – of Gilbert and Sullivan fame – from his stepmother. He greatly improved both businesses, extending the Savoy and hiring the best staff available. Their country retreat of Coleton Fishacre must have seemed a very different world to their hectic London lives.

Coleton Fishacre is special because it feels magical, and it feels magical because everything gives you a sense of being cut off. Whether it’s the colourful garden luxuriating in its own microclimate, the long countryside drive to reach it, or the distantly visible sliver of sea that feels like it belongs only to the house, it all makes you feel free from the outside, real world. Even the way it was built feels like a secret; the D’Oyly Cartes spotted a remote valley running down to the sea while out sailing on their yacht, and decided it was the perfect spot.

To say it feels cut off isn’t to say it lacks grandeur. Coleton Fishacre was built in the Arts and Crafts style which ran from the 1880s to the 1920s, and the D’Oyly Cartes had the money to ensure it was done right.

The Arts and Crafts movement was all about traditional craftsmanship and simple forms; but while the house aims for a grand simplicity, the gardens are anything but. Rupert and his wife Lady Dorothy were keen gardeners and had already planned much of the 24 acre grounds before the house was even finished. Lady Dorothy liked to include plants she had found on her travels, and so visitors can find exotic plants from as far afield as New Zealand. A team of six worked on the garden, which freed the D’Oyly Cartes to pursue their other loves of fishing, sea swimming, and yachting down to Cornwall to find inspiration in the gardens there.

A family-feel is, unfortunately, a double-edged sword; and while the happy times the family enjoyed in Coleton Fishacre are all too evident in the artefacts they left behind and the garden that they planted, so is the tragedy that ended up destroying the little world of this Devon paradise.

In 1932, the D’Oyly Carte’s son Michael was killed in a car crash in Switzerland. He was 21. The death pushed an immovable wedge between Rupert and Lady Dorothy and they separated, finally divorcing in 1944. Coleton Fishacre passed to their daughter Bridget. She continued her father’s businesses, and Rupert was a regular visitor/tenant to the house he’d created with his former wife, staying for long weekends until his death in 1948.

With its distance from London, Bridget sold Coleton Fishacre to the owner of Torquay’s Palace Hotel, Rowland Smith. It was offered to the National Trust in 1982 and the site allowed them to continue their South West Coast Path.

There are plenty of reminders of family life in Coleton Fishacre, whether it’s signed champagne bottles in the kitchen that tell of long-passed parties with friends; the simply but homely servants’ quarters; or Rupert’s fishing tackle stowed away in a cupboard next to an early soda machine (like a 1920s Soda Stream, but metal and about 10 times the size). It’s these that make Coleton Fishacre the paradise that it is.

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