Country House Rescue – Season 4: Great Fulford, Devon

Great Fulford, Devon
Great Fulford, Devon

If there were a league table of how often a house and family appear on TV or in the papers, an unexpectedly high entry would probably be the Fulfords of Great Fulford in Devon.  Having featured in other programmes and even their own series, it’s almost a surprise that it has taken Country House Rescue this long to visit (Thursday 5 July, 20:00, Channel  4).  Despite the bluff and occasionally hostile exterior of Francis Fulford, the Fulfords are a remarkable family – both this generation and the many which have come before them.  The question is; with so few houses still lived in by the original families, will future Fulfords be able to stay in their notoriously imperfect house?

Great Fulford falls firmly in that category of houses which Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd described as the ‘illustrious obscure‘; those many smaller, privately-owned houses which lie nestled in valleys and hidden by their own land – in this case, a not insubstantial 3,000-acres.  Pevsner described it as ‘…a substantial courtyard mansion, larger than  most in Devon though characteristic of the county in its reticent exterior and its patchy and undocumented history of rebuilding and remodelling…‘. With a core which stretches back to the 1500s, the house has grown and been embellished as funds and whims permitted creating a lengthy listing desciption which would make a larger house very proud. A major remodelling in the 1800s has been suggested as being to designs of Sir Jeffry Wyatville but neither Pevsner nor Colvin mention this and the listing discounts it.

So although some aspects of the actual house remain a mystery, one aspect which is very clear is the remarkable endurance of the family, with the current owner, Francis Fulford, being the 26th (or 27th – he’s not sure) Fulford of Fulford, a line stretching back over 800 years. Very few families are able to trace back their lineage so far, even fewer are still in possession of the original family seat.  Yet they do survive, despite the best efforts of tragedy and unforgiving tax regimes to unseat them.

Kelly House, Devon (Image: English Heritage)

One such family has featured on Country House Rescue before: the Kellys of Kelly, also in Devon, who have a proud history dating back to the 1100s.  In 2010, Ruth Watson visited the beautiful if rapidly deteriorating Kelly House [more on that visit in this previous blog post: ‘A glimmer of hope‘] to find an owner almost in denial as to the decrepit state of their home.  Proving that Country House Rescue can be a positive catalyst for change; the house is now slowly being restored with help from various students of architecture, surveying and other related fields. By contrast, the Fursdon family of Fursdon House (also in Devon!) have fully adapted their estate to offer all the usual activities which have ensured their beautiful 750-acre estate and elegant house (which, in a truly modern way, you can follow on Twitter, @fursdondevon, and Facebook) not only brings in an income but is also a home.

Fursdon House, Devon (Image: Fursdon House)
Fursdon House, Devon (Image: Fursdon House)

These smaller houses form the backbone of the local history of an area; so embedded that their name denotes the place.  In a fascinating series of articles in ‘The Field‘ magazine, starting in 1984, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd toured the length and breadth of the UK seeking out these lesser known seats and their even more private owners.   To read these amazing histories is to realise the depth of history which our nation enjoys, including:

So although not unique, the Fulfords are rare.  In many ways the Fulfords are a refreshing alternative to the slick corporate manicure of many homes or the stately preservation of the National Trust (though all have their place).  This is a notable family who have, against all odds, achieved something exceptionally rare amongst stately home owners.  This has to be admired and although unconventional they are a fascinating part of the tapestry of our nation.  Some part of me hopes that they achieve a beautiful equilibrium of succeeding enough to ensure the survival of the house, but not too much so as to compromise the character of their lives or Great Fulford.

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Further articles:

Francis Fulford’s Blog

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 4 [Channel 4]

A glimmer of hope: ‘Country House Rescue’ visits Kelly House

Kelly House, Devon (Image: English Heritage)

Kelly House has a series of long associations; there has been a house there for over 900 years, it has been the seat of the Kelly family for that entire time, and, sadly, has been on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register for over five years.  Now the latest twist in the tale is that the house will feature in Channel 4’s ‘Country House Rescue’ on Thursday 1 April when expert Ruth Watson offer possible solutions which will help the Kelly family remain in their ancestral home.

The Kelly’s are one of the very rare families able to trace their lineage back to pre-Conquest times.  Warin Kelly is the 31st squire of the family to live in a house which has been passed down since 1100 through fathers, grandfathers, and brothers.  Described as being ‘in a class of its own’ by Marcus Binney*, the elegant Palladian house was built in 1743 -45 for Arthur Kelly by Abraham Rundle (d.1750), a joiner and provincial but obviously skilled architect who lived in Tavistock.  The house is grade-I listed and features a Portland stone doorcase, sash windows glazed with Crown glass and made in London, with local slat stone walls with moorstone quoins. Inside, the extensive high quality woodwork  features superb carving including panelling, chair rails, and a particularly good staircase with chunky corkscrew balusters.

However, the fine panelling hides serious issues such as the periodic bouts of dry rot which break out. Mr Kelly, as a conservation architect advocating minimal intervention, admirably refuses to treat it with chemicals or by stripping out the panelling.  This ongoing damage is largely the fault of death duties, with two demands being levied in swift succession which have severely limited the family’s ability to maintain the house.  Kelly House is exactly the sort of house which the Historic Buildings Councils would have provided grants for when they were set up in the 1950s.  Today, with English Heritage’s budgets under severe pressure, Mr Kelly was told in 2005 that they were unable to provide funds as the increase in the value of the restored house would be greater than the grant – meaning that they force owners towards the sale of their ancestral homes.

Much as it would appear difficult to argue for the provision of public money to preserve private residences, there has to be a better solution than just letting them slowly grow more derelict despite the often heroic efforts of the family involved.  The current generation doesn’t want to be the one which is remembered for having to sell the family seat, leading to a battle against the elements of decay which saps finances and families and often doesn’t provide a long-term solution.  Outside expertise is to be welcomed as it may show the way to a sustainable future for these beautiful homes. Hopefully Ruth’s suggestions can be taken on by the Kellys and other families to ensure their homes are self-financing and not a burden to either the state or the owners who are then able to look forward to the prospect of handing a home and not a liability to their descendants.

Programme details: ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Channel 4)

More information: ‘TV show could help manor restoration‘ [Western Morning News]

Official Kelly House website: ‘Kelly House

* – ‘Houses to Save’ – article by Marcus Binney in Country Life magazine (8 September 2005)