Crossing the Tamar

It’s official! Grahame and I are now properly designated Old Fogies because we have finally joined the National Trust. Actually, the cost of visiting English stately homes has now risen so much that it makes sense to become a member of the organisation that looks after so many of them. If only because that makes it so much easier to leave early if you get bored with all that oak furniture and second-rate family portraits.

Mind you, I’ve been wrong before and, while negotiating the twisty lanes to our accommodation at the Who’d Have Thought It pub* in South Devon, we came upon one of the finest Rambrandt self-portraits in England. Buckland Abbey has certainly become a lot more interesting to Art lovers since last year when the dingy, little-regarded “school of” painting that had used to fill wall space received a closer look from a visiting expert.

In spite of the fact that it has no actual connection with the house the picture: now cleaned, authenticated and properly insured, will stay in its adopted home, much to the delight of the local people. It shows the Master as young man, wearing a splendid velvet cloak and plumed hat (probably borrowed, for he was neither wealthy nor vain). For such an early work it is remarkably assured but the shadow of his later sadness is already to be seen around the eyes.

After the Reformation the house, which unusually was constructed within the walls of the old abbey rather than being built in its grounds, passed into English naval history. The Greville family (Sir Roger went down with the Mary Rose) and the Drake family (Sir Francis circumnavigated the globe and defeated the Spanish Armada) have left some interesting memorabilia for those that care for that sort of thing. I was more intrigued by the medieval chapel re-discovered in the early twentieth century behind a kitchen wall. It has been prettily restored and re-consecrated in the Roman Catholic faith, perhaps laying to rest some of the ghosts from the 700 year old Cistercian abbey within whose walls the house now sits.

The river Tamar divides Devon from Cornwall and its lower reaches were designated as a World Heritage site in 2006. This is most confusingly proclaimed by every town and village you visit as you drive through the region but the truth turns out to be somewhat more specific. The countryside and villages are undeniably pretty but it is only the historical mining landscape that has W.H. status; not every local church, post office and tea room.

Tin, copper, lead and arsenic have been mined from the granite rocks here since antiquity but, at the height of the industry in the mid-19th c, there were over a hundred working mines. In fact, at home I have some fascinating gemstones in my collection: rhodonite, amethyst, tourmaline and cuprite all acquired from a 90 year old pensioner who had found the colourful crystals in these seams as a young man. We dutifully took the little train into the side of a hill to visit one of them and then wandered amongst the restored waterwheels, ore boats, quays and cottages that told us a little bit about just how awful life had been for the mineworkers.

It was definitely time for some tea and cakes and where else but another National Trust property? Cotehele is an absurdly pretty 16th c. house whose indescribably lovely gardens stretch down to a picturesque bend in the river beneath. This makes it hard to believe that in search of modernisation the 18th c. incumbents built another mansion closer to Plymouth and allowed this one to fall into disrepair. Such foibles can be, nonetheless, the benefactors of future historians because this is now one of the least altered Tudor houses in England.  Now here was some oak furniture that I could really get into (not literally, you understand). In its proper surroundings with leaded windows, uneven floorboards, mouldering tapestries and secret cupboards it fired my imagination in a way that no industrial architecture ever could.

* Yes, that really is the name of a pub in Milton Combe, South Devon. The legend goes……….oh well, I’ll leave you to look it up.

Categories: Britain, West of England

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