Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park, Devon

Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)

Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)

The subject of the 13 March episode of Country House Rescue, Tapeley Park in Devon, carries on the wonderful tradition for country house eccentricities – and eccentrics.  From how the site was chosen to the manner of the inheritance, this beautiful house has a fascinating history – though more recently it’s been a little neglected.

According to Simon Jenkins, “Few Devon houses have so spectacular an outlook” – and few would disagree.  Situated above the pretty seaside town of Bideford, the site of the house was apparently chosen by the builder, Captain William Clevland, who apparently spotted the location through his telescope as he sailed up the Torridge in 1702.  He made good on his wish, rebuilding the existing manor house in an austere and somewhat uninspiring style but which took full advantage of the fine views from its elevated position – though this was later largely negated by an enthusiastic blocking up of windows to avoid the window tax.

Tapeley Park, Devon - before Belcher alterations (Image: tapeleygardens.com)

Tapeley Park, Devon - before Belcher alterations (Image: tapeleygardens.com)

The house eventually passed to the Christie family through marriage when Agnes Clevland married William Langham Christie in 1855.  The Christie fortune was made when one Daniel Christie joined the East India Company and was later given a fortune in gems by a Sultan in thanks for having prevented troops from pillaging a harem.  On his return he married the daughter of Sir Purbeck Langham of Glyndebourne in East Sussex and Saunton Court in Devon.  His grandson, Augustus Langham Christie, inherited both estates and now being a very eligible and wealthy man was able, in 1882, to marry the daughter of the Earl of Portsmouth, Lady Rosamund, whose family seat was the nearby Eggesford House (demolished in 1917).  Coming from such a grand house she was fairly unimpressed with Tapeley, writing in her diary:

“When I first saw Tapeley it was in the winter of 1881 before my marriage to Augustus Langham Christie. It was a Georgian stucco house, very plain and rather dreary in appearance, for many of the front windows had been blocked and the sunk apertures painted black with halfdrawn paint blinds, cords and tassells, looked very dull. The terrace walk and garden did not exist and the drive approached between iron railings.”

The marriage was not a particularly happy one with Lady Rosamund eventually banishing Augustus to the other Christie estate, the nearby Saughton Court, for his ‘eccentricities’ which apparently included ‘childish behaviour’ such as kicking the furniture repeatedly to annoy her.  In his absence, Lady Rosamund poured her energies into rebuilding Tapeley and engaged one of the leading neo-baroque architects, John Belcher (b.1841 – d.1913).  Due to limited finance, the work was to last from 1896 until 1916 but the professional relationship between client and architect was a happy one – so much so that on his death she had a plaque added to a wall in his memory.

Belcher is not as widely known as perhaps he should be, though his work is well regarded. He worked mainly on commercial buildings and institutions including the Whiteleys department store in London, and the brilliant Mappin & Webb building in the City of London which was scandalously demolished in 1994 to build No.1 Poultry (the only good view is looking out from the top of it!). More prominently, Belcher also designed in 1907  the imposing Ashton Memorial in Lancaster for Baron Ashton.

Belcher transformed the ‘dreary’ house to create an imposing but elegant ‘Queen Anne’ style Georgian villa of brick with stone pilasters, parapet and a pediment, sitting above the impressive terraced gardens. The interiors are also of note, featuring a grand staircase hall and also several good fireplaces and plaster ceilings from the original house.  Lady Rosamund had to fight to keep hold of her creation as, in an act of revenge, Augustus left the house in his will on his death in 1930 to a distant cousin in Canada, forcing her to have to go to court to argue, successfully, that Augustus was obviously insane.

The house and estate were inherited by her son, John Christie, who founded the famous opera at Glyndebourne, where he spent the other half of his time when he wasn’t at Tapeley.  Tapeley was then inherited by his daughter, another Rosamund, who frugally ran the house until her death in 1988 and was known for conducting the tours with a parrot on her head.

The current owner is one Hector Christie, Rosamund’s nephew, who apparently decided with his brother which was to inherit Glyndebourne and Tapeley by flipping a coin whilst in a Brighton nightclub.  Hector, though Eton-educated, is something of a rebel, once sneaking into a Labour party conference to heckle Tony Blair about the Iraq war, and also extending a fairly broad invitation to various hippies to create something of an eco-commune at Tapeley.

Though almost all the hippies have now left, Hector has now decided that he should focus on managing the house and estate on a more commercial basis, and not a moment too soon judging by the deteriorating condition of the grade-II* listed house, where part of the dining room ceiling fell in shortly before Ruth Watson’s first visit.  Fingers crossed her advice can provide a means for the family to stay in their ancestral seat without compromising either the architecture or setting or his principles.

Official site: Tapeley Park, Devon

Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park

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About Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat

An amateur architectural historian with a particular love of UK country houses in all their many varied and beautiful forms.
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10 Responses to Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park, Devon

  1. jeff Aldridge says:

    This post will be particularly well appreciated by those of us with no access to the Country House Rescue program(me). This information reminds me of an episode of “New Tricks” in which a stately home was the site of a commune……..and the obligatory murder.

  2. john kilbourne says:

    How many “country houses” are there? Has anyone compiled a complete index, so we can keep track?

    JK

    • Andrew says:

      John, the short answer is somewhere around 10,000 country houses in the UK. The long answer is more complicated, requiring clarification of the definition of the term ‘country house‘ (i.e. where is the cut-off between larger and smaller houses/estates, built-dates and manor houses on the edge of villages), which countries are included (i.e. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), are unlisted and recently-built houses to be included, and whether you include those houses that have been demolished (and either rebuilt with a smaller unlisted house or not rebuilt at all). Existing listed houses are recorded in each country’s listed buildings register, but are lumped in with other types of buildings and so may not easily be identified in one category/list (especially if they are no longer used as a home). For example, the Heritage Gateway (England only) advanced search for What (Domestic-Dwelling-House-Country) produces about 3,400 results, with 2,600 found for manor houses. The DiCamillo Companion database is the most inclusive listing of country houses (including those demolished and unlisted) for all 5 countries, but currently only has about 6,800 country houses (5,400 in England), with still to be input about 1,500 Irish/NI houses and about 1,700 smaller British manor houses. Wikipedia only lists about 1,500 English houses. The Lost Heritage website, run by the convener of this blog, lists about 1,800 English houses completely or partially demolished (most of which are in the DiCamillo database, but excluded from the Heritage Gateway). There are already about 1,500 British country houses open to the public (excluding country house hotels and B&B’s), as listed in Hudson’s guidebook (which doesn’t even really cover Ireland). This subject would certainly make an interesting article for this blog.

  3. James Canning says:

    Yes, let’s wish Hector good luck. And I too much regret the scandalous demolition of the Mappin & Webb building in the City.

  4. Dan says:

    What does a house have to do to be classed as a country house?

    • Andrew says:

      Dan, various organisations and academics have slightly different definitions, but generally a house is a ‘country house’ if all the following apply to it at least at one point in its history:
      1. The private home of a wealthy family or individual,
      2. Set in a landscaped rural estate of at least a few hundred acres of gardens and fields,
      3. Had at least 5 bays (i.e. windows) on one side of the house,
      4. Served as the centre for local community life and may have included a village where house servants and estate workers lived, and
      5. Was built after approximately 1500 A.D.

  5. countryhouses says:

    On balance I think Tapeley Park will probably be OK in the long run – though with one minor concern, which I’ll come to.

    I was able to visit Tapeley Park today – though sadly not inside the house as Hector will only run tours for 20+ which have been booked at least a week in advance (but a bargain at only £2.50 pp). Although only March there were around 6-7 workmen doing various repairs to buildings, steps, and the Italian terrace gardens. And I think it will be the gardens which sustain the house as they are superb and well worth a visit. The long-suffering lady in the admissions hut (Eileen?) said that they had hundreds more visitors since CHR was broadcast and of those about a hundred had bought season tickets (though at £9.50 they won’t cover much restoration). However, once the gardens are fully restored, they will be an attraction in themselves but also a fine backdrop to any weddings held there. The gardens and weddings will hopefully provide the funds to restore the house and then that can opened too. The cakes in the tea room are also excellent so that should keep the visitors happy.

    Overall, it’s interesting to see how Hector has taken on board the advice and is making a real effort to make the house and gardens into an ‘attraction’. The experience feels more amateur than the precision of going to a National Trust house (which isn’t always a bad thing) and the character of Hector is there throughout. However, one concern is that on an information board, amongst many other things, he said he’s trying to get himself ‘disinherited’. What this means is not explained but it may cause some concern about the long term future of the house – will it be passed to someone else in the family, to an outside organisation, to his children? At the moment, Hector’s enthusiasm and commitment appear to be invested in the house and grounds and I hope it continues – but the long-term questions will eventually need answers. In the meantime though, if you are in north Devon, do visit.

  6. Ingrid says:

    So interesting, I´m wishing for the best…
    The official link above leads to the wedding business. But it ought to be http://www.tapeleygardens.com/

  7. Pingback: Littoral translation: country houses on the coast | The Country Seat

  8. Thank you for this most interest story on Tapley Park. I research the family of Margaret Elizabeth Gosling, who married Langham Christie in 1829. Their firstborn was William Langham Christie. So it’s really great to hear about Tapley and the Christies of later generations!

    Kelly

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