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I visited this lovely house and gardens this weekend as part of the National Trust's open weekend, so free for all the family! Coleton Fishacre is set on the gorgeous South Devon coastline, nestled in a hidden valley near Dartmouth. You can't see the property or the gardens from the road, or even the car park, so it is a real treat to wander down the approach path, and see the gardens and house open out in front of you. The house was owned by the D'Oyly Carte family, who were made famous by their involvement with staging Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Apparantly the D'Oyly Carte's spotted the land for this property whilst sailing by and bought it and had the house built for their weekends and summers (nice for some!). The house is built in the Arts and Crafts style and has a fab twenties feel about it - just need a few cocktails on the lawn to really get into the swing of it. What I liked about the house is that unlike much older period properties, I could actually imagine people living there. My favourite room was the study - really snug and cosy with a fab wind dial where the owner would check the weather for sailing without having to leave his room! All the main rooms are south facing and have panoramic views to the sea. As with many National Trust properties, the 30 acres of gardens are amazing. The garden is full of hidden path ways, streams and bridges which make you feel you are exploring a secret valley, even when there are lots of other people there. To view the house and gardens costs £7.40 for adults, but you could easily lose yourself quite happily for a whole afternoon there. As ever, the food in the cafe is fab (especially the cream tea!) so make sure you leave time to indulge before you leave.
Coleton Fishacre is a relatively new National Trust acquisition. The house was built in 1925 as a holiday home for Rupert and Dorothy D’Oyly Carte. Rupert was the son and heir of Richard D’Oyly Carte (or ‘oily cart’ to his rivals) of Savoy Opera fame, the Victorian theatrical impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together. It is situated on the south Devon coast, and Rupert noticed the site while sailing between Brixham and Dartmouth. A relatively small building, its compact size reflects its purpose – as a compact family home, rather than the vast baronial pile with which you may generally associate NT properties. Ironically, they did not enjoy their home for long. Their only son and heir Michael was killed in a car crash in Switzerland a few years later, and the marriage was not strong enough to survive. They separated in 1936 and rarely visited it after that, and on Rupert’s death in 1948 their daughter Bridget sold the house to a car dealer. He preserved the house and gardens intact, and they were first opened to the public in 2000. Step into the house and you are almost immediately transported back to the 1920s, the height of the Art Deco period. Little of the original furniture remains, and much of what you see has been purchased by or donated to the NT. Yet everything is in keeping with what you would expect to see in a well-to-do family's house of the time, from the brand piano in the Saloon to the crystal glasses. The most spectacular item is to be found in the library. Over the fireplace, surrounded by bookshelves, is a large pictorial map of the south Devon coast, including an integrated wind dial, comprising an intricate network of cogs and wires connected to a mechanical wind indicator attached to the roof of the house. This provided Rupert with an accurate forecast of prevailing sea conditions and high tides, so he knew when it was safe to take the yacht out or kee p it moored up. It stopped working during the 1930s, and was only fully restored after the house was opened to the public. The house is quite small and can be comfortably viewed within around 45 minutes or less. Upstairs are the bedrooms and, for us Gilbert & Sullivan afficionados (the main reason I for one came here), a small exhibition room. This contains a few photos, a display on the family history, original posters for some of the Savoy operas, and a short hand-tinted film of a 1920s film comprising opera scenes from ‘The Mikado’. It is silent, by the way. Something of a contradiction in terms, I suppose, to have a ‘silent movie’ of an opera. The gardens benefit from a good climate, as they are in a warm, south-facing area with no prevailing wind and therefore no need to plant trees merely as a shield. Dorothy D’Oyly Carte acquired several rare species from as far away as China and Chile to plant here, and some survive to this day. There is also a range of indigenous, exotic and oriental trees. The reception area of the house has a small selection of gifts, postcards and plants propagated from the garden, with proceeds used towards the upkeep of the garden. There is a separate tea room serving coffee, light lunches and afternoon tea. DISABLED ACCESS Provision for disabled visitors is restricted, with no access to the upper floor of the house (including the exhibition). The upper paths of the garden are reasonably flat with some grass paths, but much of the garden was built on steep slopes, so wheelchair users must be accompanied. OPENING TIMES The house and garden are both open 11-4.30, Wed-Sun until 3 November. Admission to both is £4.90 adult, £2.40 child, £12.20 family, £4.20 booked parties, with prices around 20% less for the garden only. HOW TO GET THERE Take Lower Ferry Road from Kingswear (3 miles away), and turn off at Tollhouse. Buses go from Torquay to Kingswear but no closer. It’s unnecessary to add that the premises have ample car parking, because unless you come on a coach party or are an indefatigable walker, there’s no real alternative! IN CONCLUSION I enjoyed my visit to Coleton Fishacre, but I can’t honestly recommend it that widely. It really is off the beaten track, and waiting for the ferry at Kingswear can take a long time, especially during the tourist season. (Coming back mid-afternoon when I went last August, we were in the ferry queue, start-stop for about 40 minutes, so I’m glad I’d brought a book to read). There is nothing specifically of interest to children, and I had expected more in the way of family and G&S-associated memorabilia – though a wander round the property makes it clear that there is little extra room to exhibit anything. The admission price seems rather steep for what there is. Also there are no other visitor attractions this side of Kingswear with which to combine an expedition, so it does require a special journey – which probably isn’t worth it unless you’re in the area anyway. Within those restrictions, as far as I was concerned it made a pleasant day out (hence three stars, which may be erring on the side of generosity), not least as I live fairly near, but I’d say it is of limited interest.