The D’Oyly Carte family will be forever linked with theatre and hotel – Gilbert and Sullivan and a chain of top London hotels, including the Savoy and Claridge’s – but less so with gardening though it was their passion.
Rupert D’Oyly Carte was the son of Ricard D’Oyly Carte, the impresario behind Gilbert and Sullivan and took over the management of the opera company from his stepmother in 1903. He married Lady Dorothy Gathorne-Hardy, youngest daughter of the second Earl of Cranbrook in 1907. Both were keen sailors, spotted the beautiful valley at Coleton Fishacre while sailing and bought it as the site for their country home. Construction began in 1925 and they moved into their new house in 1926. Both enjoyed gardening, swimming, fishing and sailing and the location suited them perfectly.
Tragedy struck the family in 1932 when their son, Michael, was killed in a car crash in Switzerland. This caused a rift in the marriage and they separated in 1936. The property passed to their daughter, Bridget, and she sold it in 1948 to a local hotelier and motor dealer in Torquay, Rowland Smith. He, and his wife Freda, maintained the house and garden wonderfully. Rowland died in 1979 and Freda offered it to the National Trust shortly before her own death in 1982.
The visitor to the garden today will find a treasure at the end of a long and narrow country lane, perched at the head of a steep valley leading to wonderful sea views from high cliffs at the bottom of the garden on the south Devon coast. The garden is in the Arts and Crafts style and it is no surprise that the architect, Oswald Milne, was an assistant to Edwin Lutyens, for many of the features echo Lutyen’s style – the very skilful use of natural stone, the rounded steps which connect levels and the rill in the small walled garden.
The areas close to the house are richly and colourfully planted with a selection which takes advantage of the mild conditions prevalent in this area while there is a great informality as one strolls away from the house along the contour of the valley to sea views and to Pudcombe Cove where the family had a tidal pool before returning to the house on the opposite side of the valley.
Although the garden extends to 24 acres it maintains a sense of compactness and intimacy, a cosiness and sense of enclosure created by the shelter beds of trees along the upper levels of the valley. It is a most pleasant garden, wonderfully planted and maintained, a true joy!
I hope you enjoy this slideshow of the planting in the immediate vicinity of the house.