Historic gardens of delight
SIMON Tootell enjoys his job. He gets to help preserve a piece of Exeter's history, indulge his passion for archeology and walk round one of the most stunning gardens in Exeter.
Simon is the visitor and volunteer manager at Poltimore House and, on February 17, he will be leading a walk around some of the 13 acres of grounds owned by the Poltimore House Trust.
The open afternoon is just one of many events and activities planned by the trust this year to raise the profile of the Grade II listed property and help raise funds towards its preservation.
The trust acquired the house in 2000, and since then has been working to preserve the building, which is of special and architectural and historic interest, and its grounds.
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For five centuries, from 1298 to 1920, the house was home to the Bampfylde family. In 1921 it became Poltimore College, a girls' school. Then in 1940 it became the wartime home of Dover College for boys. From 1945 to 1975 it served as Poltimore Hospital, first in private hands, later as part of the National Health Service. Sold by the NHS in 1975, with its grounds reduced to just 13 acres, it became a nursing home until a fire destroyed the former ballroom wing in 1987.
From then on it became increasingly derelict, neglected and vandalised, slipping rapidly into decay. Efforts from English Heritage, East Devon District Council and eventually the Buildings at Risk Trust saved it from destruction and since 2000, with its acquisition by the Poltimore House Trust and with the aid of EDDC, its future has looked more secure.
The original estate had about 2,000 acres. On the walk visitors will see how the landscape was transformed through the centuries – how the deer park grew from the Tudor period onwards, with roads diverted and farms abandoned to make way for it. And how the gardens were re-designed as fashions changed.
"The gardens are very interesting to walk around," said Simon. "They show how the estate has changed over the years.
"They are full of rich evidence from many periods of the estate's complex and fascinating history, as well as lots of interesting trees, bushes, plants and flowers.
"Visitors are always surprised by how much there is to see."
For example the walk takes in the hedge of mainly western red cedar (Thujaplicata) with some Lawson's Cypress, which was planted along the southern border inside the railings by Poltimore College.
"It would be nice to think there was originally a Tudor Knot garden in the vicinity but no evidence has yet emerged to support this," said Simon, who intersperses the walk with lots of history on the estate.
"In the late 19th century this area had many flowerbeds, raked paths and garden seats.
"The monkey puzzle trees are around 150 to 180 years old," he adds.
The 19th century was the most important period of development in the grounds.
In 1840 George Bampfylde, the 1st Baron Poltimore, commissioned James Veitch (son of John Veitch the famous Scottish landscape gardener) to plant woodlands on the gently rising ground behind the mansion.
Among the trees you will see on the walk is the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), a Veitch favourite.
There is also an avenue of fine lime trees dating from 1720 that is thought to have marked the accession of the Hanoverian King George II.
"The collection of trees in the grounds is quite extensive with Douglas, Spanish, Noble and Caucasian firs, a Monterey pine (Pinus radiate), three varieties of spruce (tiger-tailed, western Himalayan and Schrenk's).
There are yellow, swamp and Monterey cypresses, yews, maples and of course cedars," Simon added.
"Of the tree specimens introduced by James Veitch there are at least three giant redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) from California. The central avenue was planted around 60 years ago with poplars, which have now grown too large and are currently in the process of being felled.
"In the 19th century this avenue was planted with wide herbaceous borders on either side. This gave way to cabbages during the Second World War to feed the boys and staff of Dover College."
Simon's walk also looks at an area that, at one stage could possibly have been an ornamental canal, and the ceramic tiled water baths which are all that remain of two aviaries.
"There were in fact six aviaries listed in the 1920s sales document," said Simon, who has a Masters in archeology and history.
"Lord Poltimore is known to have kept white birds and animals – storks, peacocks, doves, rabbits and even a deer.
"The remains of the two aviaries are being transformed into a sensory garden with, eventually, a mixture of textures and smells. Recently we have started to uncover a low iron fence, which may have been an enclosure for tortoises."
The tour also takes in the nursery garden. It's an area which has been cleared of the invasive vegetation of the past 25 years and has now been transformed to grow plants not – only to support the grounds but also sell during open days and events.
"When the Friends of Poltimore House first ventured on to the site much of the grounds had been completely invaded by weeds, brambles and nettles of every variety," said Simon. "It is with the help of volunteers that we can once again see these interesting grounds emerging."
As well as the organised tours, visitors are welcome to walk around the gardens on other days, with the help of a map and information boards.
The guided walk takes place on February 17, from noon to 2pm. Gift Aid admission is £1.75 (normal £1.50) under-16s are free. There is also a Mother's Day open afternoon on March 10 and a Poltimore Estate guided walk on March 17.
For more details of all the events visit: www.poltimore.org or call 01392 248938.