Today, we are virtually visiting a Victorian Gothic Revival house and woodland garden. Indeed, I am spoilt for choice when it comes to telling you about Knightshayes Court. Should I start with the wealthy industrialist who had this country house built near Tiverton in Devon? Should I describe its dazzlingly ostentatious interior, part the work of architect and decorator, William Burges (1827-1881) and part of interior decorator John Dibblee Crace (1838-1919)? Or should I invite you join me in a stroll through the ‘Garden in the Wood’, much of that created in the middle of the 20th century by Lady Heathcoat Amory (at one time better known as champion golfer, Miss Joyce Wethered, four times winner of the Ladies Open in the 1920s)?
I shall waste no more time prevaricating. I shall tell you about all three.
When the first factory that produced machine-made lace burned down in Loughborough, owner Sir John Heathcoat Amory (1829-1914) decamped to Devon and there, in the town of Tiverton, set up a factory and built a mansion on a rise overlooking the Exe Valley. He hired Burges – described by historian Simon Jenkins as “an opium-addicted bachelor Gothicist who dressed in medieval costume” – to carry out the work.
Building began in 1869 and by 1874 the house was structurally complete. It would appear that the exterior – Victorian Gothic made manifest with steeply gabled roofs, pointy windows, and stained glass – met with Sir John’s approval. However, it is said that Sir John “recoiled in horror” when presented with Burges’s plans for the interior. Burges wanted to create ‘medieval fairyland’ but while he was responsible for the Hall and the magnificent teak staircase (sadly, the Hall is but a pale shadow of Burges’s original concept, even though it is still grand by most standards) he was sacked and in his place Sir John commissioned John Dibblee Crace, of the Crace family of decorators, to complete the work. Sir John didn’t much care for Craces’s decoration either and most of both Burges’s and Crace’s work was covered up.
The National Trust acquired Knightshayes in 1972 and in 1983 embarked on an ambitious project to restore the ornate ceiling and reinstate the carved walnut bookshelves and fireplace in the Library. Not only the ceiling but also the walls, and these have been hung with heavy lincrusta wallpaper which has been given a brown wash to resemble Spanish leather before being hand-painted in gold brazing power.
In the Burges Room visitors can see the house as it might have looked had his plans for the house come to fruition. This bedroom, which had been painted a neutral cream and used as a staff bedroom, has been decorated by the National Trust – I won’t say restored it as it had never been decorated thus – in true flamboyant Burges style.
Decorated in shades buff, cream, red, and green, the upper walls are painted with birds perched on stylized branches, each of them identified in gothic script, and the fireplace, pillared and hooded, has received a similar treatment. The highly ornate, carved and decorated bed is the piece de resistance. Fascinating though it is, a room for rest it is not but, with the Library, it represents the style of the interior that Burges envisaged.
Every English country house should have a billiard room, what!
Above, one of the spectacular ceiling designs in Knighshayes Court
However, it is the glorious gardens at Knightshayes which often give visitors the most pleasure. Their original designer was Edward Kemp (1871-1891), but by the 1930s the labour-intensive Victorian scheme was neither economically viable nor fashionable.
“In 1946 we began to plan the garden in earnest,” says Joyce, Lady Heathcote Amory (d.1997) in The Englishwoman’s Garden. “We began near the house, loosening the appearance of the stiff formal terraces with small shrubs, roses and plants. In the paved garden we replaced the roses with low carpeting plants. High yew topiary hedges surrounded this garden as well as the adjacent bowling green which was subsequently sacrificed to make way for a pool with a statue.” This is now one of my very favourite areas, where in summer dragonflies can be seen skittering across the lily pads.
Steps lead to the ‘garden in the wood’. Developed in the 1960s, there are a variety of bulbs, flowers and shrubs beneath towering forest trees, and it is certainly a garden for all seasons.
A delightful cedar house in a glade, containing some of the carved oak bosses designed by Burges for the house, was built in 1972 to mark the completion of this part of the garden …
And the view from the house, down across lawns (with deer sculptures) …
One of the areas I love best is the kitchen garden …
Red hot pokers in autumn in the walled kitchen garden
National Trust gardeners and volunteers at work in the kitchen garden
In recent years the walled kitchen garden has been restored to its former glory, with much of the produce now being used in the stables’ restaurant. Indeed, there is something for everyone at Knightshayes, including lunch or a cream tea in the old stables!
If visiting Knightshayes Court, do check opening times on the National Trust website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk