In 1925, Rupert D'Oyly Carte - heir to the fortune of his famous impresario father - was sailing round Devon's South Hams coastline with his wife, Lady Dorothy. From the deck of their yacht they spied a glorious enclave of land rippling down to the sea, and with the elan that comes a whole lot easier if you happen to be extremely rich, they decided on the spot to buy the valley, build their country home there and create a beautiful garden.
Which is what they did.
In 1982, Coleton Fishacre, the estate they created, was taken over by the National Trust, and its 25 acres of sub-tropical gardens were opened to the public. But the house itself - lovingly restored to its former glory - could be visited only by private appointment.
Now, with the arrival of tenants Brian and Susan Howe, formerly proprietors of a popular country hotel in the Cotswolds, the house has become more accessible. There are five double-bedrooms to let - all with sea-views and private bathrooms. For visitors, the feeling is one of having travelled backwards through time.
The building is magnificent. The architect was Sir Oswald Milne, a pupil of Lutyens, and his team worked with astonishing speed using stone quarried from the estate itself. By 1926, only a year after the D'Oyly Cartes' first sighting of the valley from the sea below, Coleton Fishacre House had risen like a liner from the rolling green waves of the surrounding countryside.
The motif of sea-faring is integral. The main reception room is dominated by a painting of a Twenties Blue Star liner. The period decor gives the elegant ambience of a luxury cruise ship. In the library, a wind-detector hangs above the fireplace. It was originally attached directly to the chimney, so that neither Rupert nor Lady Dorothy had any need to venture out of doors before deciding whether or not to go sailing. The high-tide clock in the lobby outside served a similar purpose (although this had to be operated manually by the butler).
Down at the bottom of the gardens, in Podcombe Cove, a sunken swimming pool filled up with each high tide. By the time the tide had receded, the water was suitably warmed for guests to bathe in. Still on the nautical theme, the ship's bell hanging on the balcony would summon them home for dinner.
Part of the fascination of Coleton Fishacre is this evocation of a lifestyle familiar to most of us only from novels. (Unsurprisingly, a film on Agatha Christie was shot there recently.) You also experience the interesting illusion of actually getting to know the D'Oyly Cartes themselves. I began to feel almost fond of them. In the library, they are pictured on a 1927 map of the area, Lady Dorothy is painting contentedly in the gardens, a spotted dog in attendance. Rupert (equally contentedly, one imagines - alas) is shooting rabbits,
A decade later, the curtain fell abruptly on the idyll. In 1936 their 21-year-old son was killed driving his sports car in the South of France. The D'Oyly Cartes' marriage foundered. Lady Dorothy left for Tobago to pursue a spectacularly unsuccessful career as a gambler. And then came World War Two.
If you are visiting Coleton Fishacre and want to push the boat out, stay in the master bedroom. This was the D'Oyly Cartes' own room, and has a fantastic double aspect over water gardens and charming magnolia- lined walkways. It costs pounds 37.50 per person per night. The other rooms start at pounds 28.50, and all of them have enormous character. Two, for example, have original period bathrooms, with huge semi-sunken baths and hand-painted tiling depicting gentlemen or ladies engaged in a range of genteel sporty pursuits.
Brian and Susan Howe have worked hard to create a family atmosphere at Coleton Fishacre. If you want a conversation opener, ask them how they came to be the last couple before Prince Andrew and Fergie to be married at the high altar of Westminster Abbey.
As a former chef, Brian Howe is happy to cook an excellent three-course evening meal for guests by arrangement at pounds 20 per head. However, he did not throw a culinary tantrum when I said I only wanted an omelette. (Nor, I am glad to say, did he charge me pounds 20 for it.) Meals can be eaten with other guests at the large Milne-designed table in the dining room overlooking the garden, or you can opt for the privacy of your own room or the library. Breakfast is included in the room prices.
Above all, guests fall for the place's calm and sense of history. Almost any object in the house - even the more recent acquisitions - seems to have a tale to tell. For instance, a casual enquiry about a signed photograph of Sir John Betjeman on the wall elicits the fact that Susan Howe spent a brief period in the early 1970s as his personal assistant. She was warned before her interview that he might be a touch difficult, and arrived to be greeted by the Laureate complaining fretfully that Archie, his teddy bear, had had a heavy day travelling up from Cornwall and was required to go to the opera with him that evening. Was it fair to tire him out even further? asked the poet. Nonsense, said Susan briskly. There were two whole hours to go. Pop Archie off to bed for a nap, and he'd be bright as a button in time for the show.
She got the job.
Coleton Fishacre House, Kingswear, Dartmouth, Devon TQ6 OEQ (01803 752683). Prices from pounds 28.50.
Until the end of October the gardens are open to the public Wed-Sun 10.30am-5.30pm. Entrance pounds 3.10 (National Trust members free)
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