Monday 3 September
The heavy early morning mist showed that autumn is just around the corner, but it had cleared by the time forty of us had assembled outside the Cramphorn Theatre for the start of our summer holiday. Sadly two members had had to cancel at the last minute due to health problems, while an even greater sadness was the knowledge that one of our members had died earlier in the year. All were thought about and much missed.
Our Kings coach arrived in good time and we set off promptly at 9 am for the first stage of our long journey to Tiverton. We were pleased to see our driver was the unflappable Marc, whose skill at driving in reverse down seven foot wide country lanes is legendary! All went well until after our second comfort stop at Fleet when we encountered a stop-start crawl due to a collision between two lorries. We could only hope that the driver of the second lorry was not badly injured as the state of his windscreen suggested.
Late arriving at Montacute House, a real “showing off” piece of Elizabethan architecture. By now the weather had turned into a gloriously sunny, hot summer day, and it seemed more sensible to concentrate on the varied gardens, rather than visiting the house. The portrait gallery alone is 52.5m (172 feet) long, there was no time to appreciate everything in what was now reduced to a two-hour visit.
Leaving Montacute promptly at 5 pm, the hour’s journey to our hotel at Tiverton was completed without incident. On arrival we were treated to tea and coffee in the lounge while our cases were taken up to our rooms. A very welcome arrangement as the hotel had no lift!
Tuesday, 4 September
>p>Not too early a start for our first visit of the day. At 9.45 am we were all aboard the coach, ready for the fifteen minute drive to Knightshayes. An hour later, after a very scenic journey, we arrived at Knightshayes to be greeted by a very cheerful member of staff who assured us that no-one can find them. The advice is to ditch the sat-nav and do it the old-fashioned way by following the road signs. The weather being, if anything, more summer-like than yesterday’s, the gardens seemed a more attractive proposition for our now-shortened visit to the house. The property itself is Victorian, but parts were designed in a Medieval style. It was owned by the Heathcoat-Amory family. It was built for the owner of a lace-making factory, who had a reputation of being a benevolent employer, providing homes and many benefits for the welfare of his workers. Later generations of the family turned to politics and many people well remember a member of the Heathcoat-Amory family as a post-war Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Leaving Knigtshayes, we journeyed on to Killerton House and gardens. A surprising link with Chelmsford is that the house was designed by John Johnson, the architect of the Shire Hall. Although not a top-flight architect it may be that he had a friend in Devon who recommended him to Sir Thomas Acland, who only wanted a temporary home built. Sir Thomas planned to have a grand mansion built nearby but abandoned his plans after his heir was killed in a duel. Today Killerton is a comfortable family home, with a relaxed atmosphere.
Wednesday, 5 September
A day of journeys through breathtakingly beautiful countryside. Our President, David Simmonds, and Winifred his wife were with us. Winifred was born near Tiverton and she and David have spent a lot of time in the area so we had the pleasure of a running commentary from David on the scenes we were passing through. David pointed out a bridge which is said to have been the inspiration for the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Although they did stay at a guest house overlooking the scene, Simon and Garfunkel deny it inspired their song, but it’s a nice story.
Our first destination of the day was Dunster Castle, undoubtedly the most dramatic of the places on our itinerary. Owned by the Luttrell family for over six hundred years, the interior was converted into a lavish country home in Victorian times. Its ruined tower and Medieval gatehouse are reminders of its less peaceful past. On top of a steep hill, it’s a great place for those who enjoy panoramic views.
The journey from Dunster to Arlington Court was quite amazing. The bright clear sunny day meant you could see the Bristol Channel with shipping and then Wales beyond. Another feature of the journey despite the narrow and at places very steep gradients we met oncoming traffic at the most convenient of places – real luck!
Arlington Court is the home to eleven generations of the Chichester family, distantly related to Sir Francis Chichester, the ‘round the world’ yachtsman. Sadly, the family died out with an unmarried daughter, Rosalie, who bequeathed the house and estate to the National Trust in 1949. Rosalie was a tireless traveller and collector and the stark-looking home houses an incredible collection of items. Teaspoons, sea shells, textiles, it seems that anything Rosalie could pay for and pack in her suitcase came home with her.
There is another Essex connection. In one display cabinet is a tiny cross, made from a fragment of a Zeppelin, shot down over Essex in 1916 with a note to say “sold in aid of the LNER War Seal Foundation’.
Thursday, 6 September
The only day when the weather let us down, with a series of intermittent showers, not long lasting, but some quite heavy. Our latest start time, as our morning destination, Powderham Castle, does not open until 10 am. Not strictly speaking a castle, but a fortified house, Powderham Castle is home to the 28th generation of the Courtenay family! Of course, this is not by direct descent, the succession has moved sideways a couple of times. Visitors are not allowed to go around the house unaccompanied, but have to be in a party with a guide.
The house has many impressive historical features, but an amazing and an amusing one is the large number of secret doors to be found. One room alone has seven! Our guide, a man with a light-hearted approach to history, took great delight in revealing the hidden openings. He also had a nice line in jokes and funny stories, explaining that the family had once made a fortune from whaling, he described the whale meat being transported to London by “whaleway”! The home includes a small chapel, with elaborately carved pew-ends. A very moving feature is the small brass plaques on one wall, commemorating three estate workers, a game-keeper and two footmen, who were killed in the First World War.
Leaving Powderham, we made the half-hour journey to Exeter for an afternoon of free time. The weather was not kind and, apart from its cathedral, which is of overwhelming magnificence and grandeur, a purely personal view is that Exeter has nothing to recommend it. Moving swiftly on, we returned to our hotel and packed all but a few essentials, ready for our cases to be collected before tomorrow’s breakfast.
Friday, 7 September
After a hearty breakfast the party boarded the coach for the final visit of the holiday, Barrington Court. This was the National Trust’s first major purchase of a large house and estate and looked like being the last. The property was in need of such extensive repair and restoration that it seemed the cost would cripple the organisation. Step forward the jaw-droppingly wealthy Colonel Lyle of Tate & Lyle sugar. His vision of restoration, carried out between 1920 and 1025 has given us the home and grounds we see today. Sadly, the house is now devoid of contents, everything having been sold off a part of the settlement of what must have been a very messy and complicated divorce case. However, Colonel Lyle had a passion for collecting top quality panelling from abandoned county houses, all of which he installed at Barrington as part of the restoration. There is even a magnificent staircase, salvaged by the good Colonel from a Scottish Castle. (Don’t ask!).
Three hours was too short a time in which to explore this splendid house and the glorious gardens, the layout of which was planned in consultation with Gertrude Jekyll. The weather having returned to warm and sunny it was a real wrench but we had to admit our holiday was over and board our coach for the final stage of our homeward journey. Happily, it was a journey without incidents and by 6:30 pm we were in Chelmsford.
Thanks were given to Paul and Janet for a perfect programme, intricate itinerary and their recce. Also of course to Marc our driver who can get a coach through the eye of a needle!