Topsham is tops!

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June 10th 2010
Published: June 19th 2010
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Topsham - The house from the riverTopsham - The house from the riverTopsham - The house from the river

If you look hard, you'll see Pat enjoying the sunshine somewhere near the centre of the picture. M&P's house is the tall, pale blue one.
Monday 7 June to Thursday 10 June

Topsham - Coleton Fishacre - Kingswear - Dartmouth - Greenway - Totnes

It’s strange what you notice on a motorway car journey, isn’t it? Somewhere on the M5, we saw a naked man and a camel. The man was about six metres high and made of wicker. The camel was made of concrete.

Now I have your attention, let me bore you with what we’ve been doing for the past few days...

The first part of our short break to Devon and Cornwall was to see some very good friends. I resist the temptation to call them very old friends for fear of upsetting them, but they’re also retired and we’ve known them for over thirty years, so perhaps “old” is correct after all. Sorry!

Maureen and Peter live in an historic house almost on the banks of the River Exe in the pretty little town of Topsham in Devon. The house is almost unrecognisable from when we last saw it just a couple of years ago; they have transformed it from a rundown shell, after only minor scuffles with the local authority’s conservation dragons, into a charming and
Peter in his boatPeter in his boatPeter in his boat

Messing about on the river...
characterful home with all mod-cons. They’re an extremely hospitable couple - fortunately, as we’re just two of their many friends vying for a few nights’ bed and breakfast and Maureen’s great cooking in this lovely part of the country!

There’s a superb view from their first-floor lounge towards the river and the hills beyond, as you can see from the panorama at the top of the page. They have a lovely courtyard garden at the back of the house and a pretty pocket-handkerchief garden right on the riverbank, where the scent of old-fashioned pinks filled the air while we enjoyed drinks and watched the wildlife and boats. One of those boats was Peter’s and a jaunt downstream on a sunny evening made for a very enjoyable excursion. Once upon a time, the wide River Exe was navigable to large cargo vessels - indeed, their front garden was once part of a quay - but now it would have been easy to run aground if the green and red buoys marking the narrow, meandering channel between the sandbanks hadn’t been pointed out to me by Peter as I steered the boat home.

Topsham’s narrow streets are filled with attractive
Coleton FishacreColeton FishacreColeton Fishacre

The house from the delightful gardens
old houses, some with lovingly manicured gardens that would be open for charity during the coming weekend. Alas, we would then be in the neighbouring county of Cornwall so we had to make do with some National Trust gardens in the locality.

We'd planned to spend time in Exeter but Maureen highly recommended a visit to Coleton Fishacre instead - and we'll be forever grateful that she did. It would have been tragic to have missed such a delightful place.

This house and garden by the sea were built in 1923-6 for Rupert D’Oyly Carte, son of Richard - the impresario behind Gilbert and Sullivan operettas like The Pirates of Penzance, whose business empire included Claridge’s and the Savoy Hotel and Theatre in London. This fabulous Art Deco house was the scene of much entertaining, particularly at weekends when Rupert came down from London to join his wife, Dorothy. Then, they’d go shooting and fishing, sailing their yacht to gardens in south Cornwall in search of inspiration for their own, or simply hosting bridge parties attended by the likes of conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent and painter (and designer of the 1926 Mikado costumes) Charles Ricketts.

As the house

A view of Kingswear from the Dartmouth ferry
has changed hands over the years, it contains only a few items of its original furniture but decorative bathroom tiles, light-fittings and a huge pictorial map in the library do remain from the Jazz Age. The rest of the interior has been carefully and cleverly restored to those times and it certainly evokes its former happy style.

The vast gardens, starting formally with terraces and a walled Rill Garden, descend through increasingly wild vegetation to the sea at Pudcombe Bay. We walked right down, discovering a bird-watcher with his telescope fixed to a view of a Peregrine Falcon perched on the cliff, before struggling back up with frequent rest stops at some of the stunning viewpoints. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this atmospheric and well-maintained property.

Afterwards, we drove down into the nearby town of Kingswear, where Pat had spent childhood holidays. We couldn’t identify precisely where her great-uncle had lived but suffice to say that the house had a super view across the wide river to Dartmouth. We parked up and took the passenger ferry across, spent a couple of hours browsing Dartmouth’s shops and enjoying a memorable afternoon tea - real leaf tea, complete with

We enjoyed the town's narrow shopping streets
an egg timer to tell us when it had brewed, all gaily served in beautiful silver pots by two very cheerful gentlemen. The German couple at the next table thought their tea was worthy of a photo, and so did we!

On a less happy note, the neighbouring heart of the old town was recently the site of a devastating fire that seems to have started in a Thai restaurant then spread to other old buildings, leaving many of them in an unsafe condition; it's likely to be many years before the historic houses can be rebuilt or restored.

Another day, we drove down to Dittisham on the River Dart and took the little ferry across to Greenway the former holiday home of Agatha Christie. We might have driven but, as there’s not much car parking there (in common with most places hereabouts), one has to book in advance and we’d discovered that it was full for several days - hence the ferry. We could have taken the ferry from Dartmouth, but parking is bad there too!

It’s fair to say that we were a little disappointed with Greenway. It’s a pleasant place but the house (claimed
Greenway - the houseGreenway - the houseGreenway - the house

A classic, rather ordinary house, but okay for a holiday home I guess!
by the National Trust to be “the jewel of the estate”) was actually a bit ordinary and had very little atmosphere. Although it contained some bits of Agatha Christie memorabilia and quirky collections, it lacked a certain something - a good murder mystery perhaps! The gardens were attractive with very pleasant glimpses of the river, however. We’re glad we saw it, but wouldn’t hurry back.

On our return journey to Topsham, we called into Totnes. This is a busy, somewhat New Age, town with lots of interesting small shops, particularly if you’re looking for health foods or art and craft materials. We’ll stay a bit longer next time.

After just three very happy days, we had to bid farewell to our friends to start the next chapter of our West Country break - to Castle Drogo and across Dartmoor into Cornwall.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention the weather. We left home in sunshine and it got progressively wetter the further west we went. Then, the next day, nearly all the clouds disappeared and we’ve had glorious sunny days ever since.

Scroll down for more pictures - and double click on them to enlarge.

Additional photos below
Photos: 34, Displayed: 27


Topsham - Red ValerianTopsham - Red Valerian
Topsham - Red Valerian

This plant (Centranthus ruber) grows almost everywhere in Devon and Cornwall.
Topsham - Late afternoon on the riverTopsham - Late afternoon on the river
Topsham - Late afternoon on the river

I couldn't resist taking this view of boats on the River Exe as the sun went down.
Topsham - To dinner by trainTopsham - To dinner by train
Topsham - To dinner by train

Dinner at the Puffing Billy in Exton involved a short (and very inexpensive) train journey on The Avocet Line.
Topsham/Exton - Cheese!Topsham/Exton - Cheese!
Topsham/Exton - Cheese!

At The Puffing Billy
Coleton Fishacre - The G&S connectionColeton Fishacre - The G&S connection
Coleton Fishacre - The G&S connection

Posters and pictures confirm the D'Oyly Carte involvement with Gilbert & Sullivan
Coleton Fishacre - a bedroomColeton Fishacre - a bedroom
Coleton Fishacre - a bedroom

As no furniture survives from the D'Oyly Carte era, the rooms have been faithfully reproduced from photos of that time
Coleton Fishacre - cigarette boxColeton Fishacre - cigarette box
Coleton Fishacre - cigarette box

The Sobranie cocktail cigarettes are typical of the era and suggest the high life that was lived here!
Coleton Fishacre - the map and wind dialColeton Fishacre - the map and wind dial
Coleton Fishacre - the map and wind dial

The overmantle map shows Coleton Fishacre's wonderful location and includes a wind dial (a feature found in several Lutyens-designed homes).
Coleton Fishacre - the saloonColeton Fishacre - the saloon
Coleton Fishacre - the saloon

Unusually for National Trust properties, you can sit and read a 1930s copy of The Times - and you can even play the Bluthner grand piano!
Coleton Fishacre - art decoColeton Fishacre - art deco
Coleton Fishacre - art deco

Just one of many art deco pieces to be found in this characterful house.
Coleton Fishacre - the houseColeton Fishacre - the house
Coleton Fishacre - the house

A view of the house from one of the terraces
Coleton Fishacre - the terrace gardenColeton Fishacre - the terrace garden
Coleton Fishacre - the terrace garden

The garden is a riot of colour, with aliums, peonies, irises and rhododendrons
Coleton Fishacre - meconopsisColeton Fishacre - meconopsis
Coleton Fishacre - meconopsis

Meconopsis, the so-called "Himalyan blue poppy", seems to thrive in these gardens
Coleton Fishacre - below The Rill GardenColeton Fishacre - below The Rill Garden
Coleton Fishacre - below The Rill Garden

Water from the rill flows downhill, where colourful, moisture-loving plants thrive

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