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View from terrace walk
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View from terrace walk
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Escape to Dartington Hall
One local attraction that seems to escape the attention of visitors and locals alike is the magnificent estate of Dartington Hall situated approximately two miles from Totnes. It is not only the largest medieval house built in the west of England but is unusual for its time in never having any protective fortification.
Its gardens lie within a curve of the river Dart at the head of its tidal range. Exploited strategically and economically since prehistoric times this gentle hilltop on the rich soils of the Devonshire South Hams has been a home for countless generations, all of whom have contributed to today’s wonderful landscape.
The site on which Dartington Hall stands has been continuously occupied for well over a thousand years. The written records do not begin until the thirteenth century but there is evidence of considerable activity in the area during the Roman occupation and is briefly mentioned in the Royal Charter of 833 AD. Early in the twelfth century it is known that the land was owned by the Fitz Martins, wealthy West Country gentry, who probably built the church in the grounds, the tower of which survives.
The estate has many Royal connections having been owned at times by John Holand (Richard II’s half brother) and for short periods by two of Henry VIII’s wives Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. For four hundred years the property was owned by the Champernownes, a well connected Devon family related to the Gilberts and the Raleighs.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Champernownes were forced to sell much of their land, and in 1925 the remaining 800 acre estate was bought by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, to become the basis of their joint venture in rural regeneration. Their aim was to create a garden that would value the works of previous generations and would adorn the landscape rather than compete for attention. It would, above all, be an intimate personal garden which they were keen to share with others.
Dorothy Elmhirst had a large hand in the choice of plant materials, especially so in the years following the last war when much of the filling in of the basic design was accomplished. She also had an extensive knowledge and love of trees, shrubs and plants, but to carry the work through she relied on professional help from both sides of the Atlantic. These included the designers Avray Tipping, Beatrix Farrand and Percy Cane. The end result was an exquisite garden of walks, borders, terraces and meadows.
There is so much to admire within the garden but my personal favourites are the magnificent row of Spanish chestnut trees, the magnolia steps walk and the camellia walk. The handkerchief tree (davidia) is also considered to be one of the finest specimens in England. As well as a fascinating collection of shrubs and trees, the garden contains a number of sculptural features. These include Willi Soukop's Bronze Donkey and granite Swan Fountain, and a reclining figure in Hornton stone by Henry Moore.
Although the tranquility and atmosphere of Dartington Hall is much to be appreciated, it should not be forgotten that it is a vibrant centre for art. The Way With Words festival each summer is a major literary event attracting top authors and speakers. Music concerts of all genres are regularly held with films being shown in the Barn Cinema. In addition during the summer months the Dartington International School put on a number of varied musical courses ranging from opera to salsa. There is a comprehensive information centre as you enter the gateway to the courtyard and I would urge people to explore what is on offer. I guarantee you will be amazed!
Living in the South Hams we are so lucky to be able to enjoy these wonderful places which are virtually on our doorstep. Please don’t let Dartington Hall escape your attention…you won’t regret it.
Reference: www.dartingtonhall.com and visitor information.
Photographs: all copyright Nick Shepherd (www.nickshepherd.com)
First published July 2010 By the Dart