Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Grey Summer Day At Cotehele

A late August day in the Tamar Valley. We drove south eastwards, crossed the wooded valley of the Tamar into Devon, and followed deep winding lanes to find Cotehele, a fine Tudor mansion that now belongs to the National Trust. In the courtyard by the entrance gates, is a water trough where visiting horses could slake their thirst after a long ride.

Through the gates, and an old dry stone boundary wall snaked away towards the trees. A wall alive with ivy and ferns; doubtless a home for invertebrates and small mammals who would find shelter in hollows and crevices between the stones
Towards the house, a high wall gave shelter to climbing plants. In front of us, stood the grey stoned front entrance to Cotehele House.

A Brief History - from the Cornwall Online Website ( more on http://

"The medieval manor house at Cotehele offers the visitor a unique mirror into the past. The buildings are as they were in the 16th century-Cotehele is one of the least altered medieval houses in Britain, with very little improvements or changes to the structure since the improvements by Sir Richard Edgecumbe and his son at the end of the 15th century.

The Edgecumbe family acquired Cotehele through marriage in 1353. The original house was a quadrangular building of red sandstone, which still forms the lowest levels of walls surrounding the inner courtyard. The original medieval manor house was rebuilt between 1490 and 1520 by Sir Richard Edgecumbe and his son Piers. They followed the original plan of the house, improving and enlarging the facilities using local granite, sandstone and slate. The family moved to Mount Edgecumbe, ten miles to the south, in 1553, with Cotehele only being occasionally occupied ever since."

The Cotehele estate belonged to the Edgecumbe family until 1947, when it became the first property to be handed over to the National Trust in lieu of Death Duties. The earlier wealth of the estate was largely due to the local copper and tin mining industries. The lower reaches of the River Tamar were important for the transport of these metals. The 19th century quay and adjacent buildings, beside the river at Cotehele, have been restored and converted into an educational museum by the National Trust and the National Maritime Museum.

Late summer plants for sale by the National Trust shop.

Beside the main entrance to the manor house is a stepped mounting block, where a rider could mount anything from a Dartmoor pony to a tall , gentleman`s hunter.

Nooks and crannies beside the front of the house.

Below, the main doorway into the quadrangle is set into the crennelated tower.

Inside the quadrangle....

......and a view through an archway, down across the terraced gardens to hills on the far side of the Tamar Valley.

Part of the house is now a Gallery, where contemporary artists can exhibit and sell their work. Beside the door to the Gallery, a pair of bronze hares were boxing, caught in a moment of springtime exuberance.

Exhibits at the foot of the Gallery stairs. Upstairs, were beautiful and distinctive paintings, sculptures, jewellery and ceramics for sale.

As we walked across the courtyard, we entered the main house through a grand, arched doorway. Inside, the hallway was dominated by displays of arms and armoury from several centuries of history. Visitors were invited to handle great swords that had been used to plough down enemies in battle and in joust. The pacifist in me declined this invitation, although I could admire the work and craftsmanship involved in fashioning these age-old weapons of death.

More interesting to me were the bits and spurs once used to control the horses used in tournaments and warfare.

Below is a strong, gag style of bit with a curb and a port mouth piece. A bit to hold in a terrified war horse in the heat of battle........

.....while these spurs, with rowels of pointed metal spikes, would have been used against the sides of a horse to drive it headlong into the skirmish.

From the Great Hall, we began a tour of the rooms that were home to early members of the Edgecumbe family. Each room was hung with fine and intricate tapestries, large enough to cover a wall. Around the rooms, heavy, often carved oak furniture stood sturdy and polished. Great tables were set for Tudor dining. Four poster beds, in the upper rooms, were canopied and hung with original woven fabrics. It is said that King Charles I was one of the monarchs to have slept at Cotehele as he travelled on a royal progress through the countryside of Devon.

The rooms and passageways were dark and the air was still and smelled stale. This was a house held in time. Full of wonderful things and a sense that this was just as the long-ago family, its guests and its servants would have left it. For all of that, I could not wait to get outside into fresh air once again.

At the side of the main house, lies a terraced garden on a gently sloping hill. There are fine mature shrubs and borders of flowering herbaceous plants and scented herbs.

Steps and a sloping path led down, away from the formal garden and through a damp stone tunnel.........

.......from where spread a view over the wooded Tamar Valley and eastwards across the patchwork fields of rural Devon.

Among the trees emerged the domed roof of a medieval dovecote, where doves were kept and bred to supply meat for the manor house kitchen , as well as for their graceful flight across the gardens.

Nearby, the medieval stewpond lay sheltered by trees. Here, carp were bred as a fresh supply of fish for the table. The manor must have been largely self-sufficient in food, as farms and a fine orchard are also an important part of the Cotehele estate.

A buttressed wall of the dovecote.

Down along the sloping, zig zag path towards the quay, we walked through cool air under tall trees. The valley has been planted with a fine collection of trees and shrubs from many temperate regions of the world. In the relatively warm, damp climate of the South West of England, exotic and tender plants will thrive.

This small stone chapel, beside the woodland path and overlooking the river far below, was built in thankgiving by a member of the Edgecumbe family. During a time of conflict, he was being chased by a group of his enemies. Hiding at this spot on the hill, he threw his hat down into the River Tamar below. His pursuers, seeing the hat bobbing on the water, believed that the man they were hunting had fallen into the river and drowned. So they gave up the chase and left.

Cattle grazed on the watermeadows.........

......and elderberries hung , ripe for the picking, amongst the trees beside the path.

Down by the quayside, water levels were low on the tidal Tamar. Safe in her dry dock, the old Tamar sailing barge, The Shamrock, has been restored to show one of these grand working vessels in near-original condition.

Stone buildings along the quayside were once the workshops and offices of a busy tin and copper exporting harbour on the Tamar estuary. The building on the left is now a tea room.......

....but some visitors prefer Devon farmhouse ice cream in the open air.........

Ferns hang from the now- damp archway of a nineteenth century lime kiln.

Down at the quayside, families explored the small museum or enjoyed their picnics by the river.
It was time to leave Cotehele, so we climbed uphill again, along a lane overhung with trees, to find the car and drive once more up the sheltered river valley towards Cornwall.


hart said...

I feel like I've had a little vacation. Thanks for taking us along on your trip. --Hart

Kath said...

What a lovely lot of photos. I particularly liked the boxing hares! Those old walls are just so charming, with their ferns and mosses, our steps here at Hillside have little plants in the cracks.
I feel as if I went there with you, as you led us through your visit.Wonderful.

Bovey Belle said...

What a perfectly lovely house and gardens - so full of charm. We viewed a barn conversion literally on its doorstep (took the wrong lane out and were within 2 miles of Cotehele). How I wish we had had time to visit it.

P.S. I loved those boxing hares too - so much energy in that sculpture.

Morning's Minion said...

This was a grand tour--almost over-whelming to see so much in a day trip--or maybe that's just me. I am always stunned by the immensity and antiquity of these structures and can't begin to imagine how it would have been to really live in such echoing stoney spaces.
I think I would prefer the outbuildings and the gardens, for the fresh air and growing things.
Thank you for so many photos and details. My eye caught the trumpet vine as a now familiar plant.