‘A Cottage’ is how Georgina, sixth Duchess of Bedford, described her country home at Endsleigh in Devon. Most visitors today, whether to the garden or elegant hotel, would describe it in somewhat grander tones, but after the formality of Woburn Abbey, the Duchess wished for something far more rustic. Endsleigh was her passion, created in the likeness of her ancestral holiday home in Scotland. She chose the spot for her West Country escape personally, on a loop in the River Tamar, with Devon on one side and Cornwall on the other. Then and now, all that can been seen from house’s terrace is a vast amphitheatre of forest and farmland without another dwelling in sight: two ancient counties interlocking as one sweep of trees after the next plunges towards the dividing water.
The first stone at Endsleigh was laid in 1810, following a design drawn up by architect Jeffry Wyatt, later Sir Jeffry Wyatville. (A prominent regency architect, Wyatt earned the suffix ‘ville’, and his knighthood, after remodelling Windsor Castle for George IV.) Wyatt collaborated with celebrated landscape designer Humphry Repton on the project after the Duchess expressed disappointment in the architect’s initial layout for the grounds. It was to be one of Repton’s last commissions (he died in 1818), but his great experience did not prevent him from embracing the growing fashion for the Picturesque style. If ever there was a site suited to this romantic genre, characterised by rustic buildings, craggy cliffs, plunging ravines and ‘heightened nature’ it was Endsleigh, and Repton went to town.
“My Lord, in delivering that opinion which Your Grace has done me the honour to require concerning the treatment of the scenery at Endsleigh, it is impossible to divest myself of the feeling, that the most picturesque subject on which I have ever been professionally consulted, should be reserved to so late a period in my life ….. in such a task I should joyfully dedicate every energy of body, limbs and mind, although of these, only the latter fully remains.”
Humphry Repton in the preface to his red book for Endsleigh Cottage, 1814.
As with his other commissions, Repton produced for the Duke and Duchess one of his sumptuous red books, describing in words and pictures his vision for the pleasure grounds. (A facsimile copy is displayed in the hotel’s hallway.) By the time of his four day visit in August 1814 Repton was already quite infirm and had to be carried around the grounds in a sedan chair. What he imagined was a landscape with “steepness of ground – abrupt rocks – and water in rapid motion” with pretty rather than grand formality closer to the house. For an estate occupied by the owners for just a few weeks each year, the plans were ambitious and ultimately prohibitive. The cost of creating Endsleigh left the sixth Duke in serious debt by the time of his death and it was never loved again as it was by his Duchess.
Fast forward exactly 200 years from when Repton’s proposals were made and Endsleigh remains almost intact, one of the finest surviving examples of his work. Happily, as a rather swish hotel, there is once again a clientele which values the peace and seclusion of this exceptional location. Financial considerations meant that not all the ideas in Repton’s red book were executed, but most of the work that was carried out by the Duke and Duchess can be seen and appreciated today. Head Gardener Simon was kind enough to take me on a guided tour, explaining the joys and challenges of maintaining such an historically important garden.
We began our walk in the Dairy Dell, not all of which is accessible, but sufficient to appreciate the scale (and success) of Repton’s vision. The great landscape gardener discovered in this south-facing dingle the perfect ingredients for a picturesque scene. The Edgecumbe stream was dammed and diverted to create a system of streams, waterfalls, cascades and pools, most of which still function as intended. The crests of the ridges to either side were planted with tall trees, such as Douglas fir, Nordman fir, beech and sweet chestnut to actuate the height of the ravine. A mild, sheltered microclimate was created that suited giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata), bamboos, rhododendrons and camellias, which were planted in clumps and groves to suggest they had arrived there of their own accord. One can imagine the Duke and Duchess’ guests in raptures over this emphatic landscape, seemingly natural but actually anything but. Simon described how he still manipulates the flow of water to create drama and excitement, even maintaining branches overhanging waterfalls so that icicles will form on them in winter. I can only think that Repton would have deeply approved.
All is not as idyllic as it seems, and Simon points out the difficulties in maintaining such a precipitous area. Rock faces need to be kept clear of brambles, Japanese knotweed and Rhododendron ponticum have to be kept at bay and heavy rain can destroy paths and topple trees. Clearing debris along narrow paths with no vehicular access can be hard and dangerous work. Simon’s approach is to maintain the dell as Repton would have envisioned it, maintaining a careful balance between naturalism and wilderness. It’s a garden he’s known and loved for many years and it shows. He points out a weeping beech, its branches swooping low and resting on boulders by the side of the central stream. The sunlight dances on the ground as it filters through the tree’s leaves. A more picturesque scene it’s hard to imagine.
At the foot of the ravine Repton sited a thatched dairy building, in which the Duchess would ‘play’ at being a milk maid. The restored interior is remarkably fine, with sinks crafted from cool grey Ashburton marble and the walls adorned with Wedgwood tiles. From the veranda of the Dairy can be seen a large pond and Endsleigh’s most ancient feature, the Holy Well, a baptismal font originally sited at the hunting seat of the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey.
The Grade I listed rockery is approached via a steep flight of stone steps, which passes through a remarkable tunnel occupied by bats. The quality of the build is here much in evidence as the tunnel has not moved or failed at any time in its 200 year history. Repton’s vision of gnarled oaks and cedars perched on overhanging boulders has come to fruition, but occasionally results in calamities when limbs or trunks are severed by storms. Maintaining such a landscape requires more brute force and tenacity than delicacy, but Simon was keen to point out one of the garden’s finest trees, Halesia monticola, the mountain snowdrop tree, which carpets the slopes in spring with millions of tiny white blossoms.
Not much is known about the original planting of the rockery, but it is thought to have been occupied by ferns and is maintained as such. The Picturesque style required the garden to be aesthetically pleasing rather than pristine and so foxgloves and native ferns are encouraged to seed themselves about. Planted in the 1920s, Endsleigh has some exquisite mature acers, which must be just weeks away from being at their finest.
The gardens around the house exhibit much greater formality than the dell, although Repton would have liked them to be more fanciful. A feature designed by Wyatt, which exists almost exactly as the architect would have imagined it, is the Parterre. This fan-shaped garden between the main cottage and the childrens’ wing, was designed with little ones in mind. The radiating beds, some composed of pebbles rather than plants, are bordered by a water-filled channel in which the Duchess’ thirteen children played with their sailing boats. Today the borders are filled with a simple colour mix of annual clary, Salvia viridis.
Now that Endsleigh is run as an hotel, it’s important that the area at the front of the house affords as much year-round interest as possible. The centre of attention is undoubtedly the sloping long border, reputedly the longest, unbroken stretch of herbaceous planting in England. An image in Repton’s red book shows the long border backed by an elegant conservatory, fretwork arbours and incised hedges. These were never realised, although the pierced retaining wall was.
In summer the planting basks in direct sunlight from 8am until dusk, perfect conditions for herbaceous perennials, although challenging for the gardeners in a dry spell. The border was restored in 1998 and looked absolutely splendid during our stay. Simon’s team plant thousands of mixed tulip bulbs in November to kick off the spring display before the perennials get going. Golden-leaved dogwoods, Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ AGM, are a masterstroke in the planting, lifting the purples, reds and pinks out of mediocrity. Getting the look is easy, as most of the plants in this border are widely available.
Essential Endsleigh Plants for Autumn colour:
- Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ (stonecrop)
- Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’
- Kniphofia maybe ‘Ice Queen’ (red-hot poker)
- Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ (golden dogwood)
- Gaura lindheimerii (Lindheimer’s beeblossom)
- Eupatorium purpureum (Joe-Pye weed)
- Polygonum affine ‘Dimity’ (Himalayan fleece flower)
- Lythrum salicaria ‘Feuerkerze’ (purple loosestrife)
- Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’
Any walk at Endsleigh should end at the Shell House, another Wyatt creation, designed as a summerhouse to display geological specimens and shells. A burbling well fills the gloaming with therapeutic sound, ‘a great gin and tonic spot’, says Simon.
From the terrace outside the grotto there are staggering views across the valley to a bend in the Tamar, the water rushing over stones around the black rock, a renowned salmon fishing spot. Simon plans to remove some seedling ash trees which are beginning to block the vista. Maintaining Repton and Wyatt’s plans for Endsleigh requires tenacity, vision and not just a little hard cash. Hopefully in the hands of Simon and the current owners, the Polizzis, the particular passion the Duchess of Bedford had for Endsleigh Cottage will endure.
With thanks to Hotel Endsleigh and Head Gardener Simon for his valuable time and amazing knowledge.