Coleton Fishacre is a south Devon house and garden in the care of the National Trust. The house was built in the mid 1920s in the Arts and Crafts style (I love it), the architect was Oswald Milne, a student of Lutyens. The owners, Rupert and Lady Dorothy D’Oyly Carte of Gilbert and Sullivan and Savoy Theatre fame, spotted the beautiful valley as they were sailing around the south Devon coast and promptly bought the land and built a home there. Milne also laid out the terraced gardens near the house, the rest of the grounds being a wonderfully planted valley leading down to the sea at Pudcombe Bay. Mr OG and I visited on a warm and sunny day in late May – it wasn’t terribly busy, plenty of space to see the gardens and wander around – and, as you can see below, it was delightful.
The entrance to the garden past recently pruned cherry trees and some wonderful trees with a bright orangey-brown, dusty, peeling bark (which I later discovered are Chilean Myrtle or Luma apiculata) leads either down into a cobbled courtyard and the entrance to the house, or to the right into the Seemly Terrace. Here the Hellebore were going over but Euphorbia still stood and scented Daphne and lilac filled the air. The sight of a full-flowered wisteria set against the mass of a huge deep pink rhododendron made me catch my breath as we walked through to the Rill Garden.
The Rill Garden with its trickling water and smooth, straight stream edged with flagstones, is a reminder that Milne was a student of Lutyens, it is so reminiscent of the larger gardens he designed with Gertrude Jekyll. The Rill is punctuated half way by a pool in a smooth, stone-lined depression before it continues its way to fall over mossy stones into a larger more informal pool and then on down through the valley. In the borders there was the promise of great clumps of Delphinium, spiky Crocosmia foliage and hardy Geranium just leafing up, as well as roses, tender perennials already in flower in shades of pink and white, and Nepeta with its soft blue spires and grey foliage. A little later in the season and this will be a real sight. The exit from the Rill garden was framed by a beautiful orange Azalea, planted alongside the informal stream below but lending a splash of sunshine to the formal garden above.
Along the stream and down into the valley garden there are plantings of Azalea, swathes of yellow candelabra Primula, purple and yellow Iris as the stream becomes a large pool and then continues to tumble through denser planting of Bamboo, Magnolia, Camellia, Rhododendron (including wonderfully scented varieties the I couldn’t identify but that we buried our faces in), Gunnera just beginning to push out its fabulously large leaves, and a veritable forest of tree ferns. Little bridges cross and recross the water and all around here there are frequent benches to sit and take it all in. A magnificent tulip tree rises above it all.
After exploring the main garden we walked along a shady path that runs above the garden, below us a bank planted with really tender plants including huge echium, some magnificent specimens of agave and an impressive eucalyptus tree with its shimmering leaves and striated bark. As this path becomes woodland it was carpeted with bluebells, forget-me-not and campion, and a break in the trees offers a view of the sea over a bank left as rough meadow sloping back down to the garden, a taste of the wonderful view to come.
At the edge of the trees a wooden gate leads out onto the cliff top and opens out into what the guide-book calls ‘a stunning view’. It isn’t wrong, and it isn’t exaggerating. As you come out of the shade onto a rough grass slope the rugged coast across to Blackstone Rocks opens up in front of you. It really was breath-taking and a sight not to be missed if you visit. There is a steeper climb up to this point from the garden below, and it is certainly worth the effort.
This is a wonderful garden and it will take more of a plantsperson than I am to do justice to it. Everywhere there is something beautiful and interesting, either in flower or about to come into flower. Specimen trees, shrubs, hardy and tender perennials, the unusual and the astonishing. If you are in this corner of Devon do try to visit – you will not be disappointed. Oh, and don’t forget to go inside the house – decorated in 1930s style – it is homely and familiar. We could’ve moved straight in!
The Optimist Gardener