Through the keyhole: Great Fulford

PUBLISHED: 11:07 20 March 2015 | UPDATED: 11:07 20 March 2015

Great Fulford

Great Fulford

Matt Austin Images 2013

Rarely do you find a Domesday manor house which still remains a family home as it has done for 800 years. But Great Fulford, home to the aristocratic Fulford family since 1190, is still as strong a family seat as it was at the time of the Crusaders…only today it serves a very different societal and economic purpose. NAOMI TOLLEY visits the museum-like mansion and 3,000-acre estate near Dunsford and meets its owner

Tucked down a muddy farm track, without any signage and off sat nav’s radar, simply finding Great Fulford takes some determination. The few who do are confronted with something of a paradox.

There isn’t a grand gateway or a tree-lined approach to this mansion, but rather an insignificant driveway, blocked by a brace of ducks and a redundant Christmas tree, strewn across the patio.

Given as a gift to William de Fulford by Richard I in 1190, as a reward for going on crusade, there is surprisingly little to suggest nobility at Great Fulford, other than the 19th century battlements. The vibe here is more akin to Devon’s backcountry in its finest, farming form.

After two failed attempts to find the front door, I hear a bellowing “Hello” in Francis Fulford’s trademark television voice, then see him peering out of a side door framed by the family’s coat of arms: a red shield with a silver chevron.

“The family crest is a bear’s head - motto’s Bear Up. Coffee or tea?” says Francis, leading me into the kitchen, followed by his two beloved black labradors, Timmy and Burt.

Francis is a member of England’s landed gentry, and is the 23rd Fulford to have owned and inherited the estate. He and his family, his wife Kishanda and four children, have also become, what some would say ‘infamous’ reality television stars, for their appearances on the likes of The F****** Fulfords, Why Britain’s F***ed, Life is Toff, and Country House Rescue.

The staircase soars the whole height of the houseThe staircase soars the whole height of the house

It is soon clear, however, that there is far more at play here than the pictures portrayed in the mainstream media.

“I was born here in the bed I now sleep in,” says Francis, tidying the paperwork which is scattered atop the large, sturdy kitchen table. “I had a very old fashioned upbringing,” he adds, settling a mug of coffee down on a small space he has cleared.

“Oh and I have brought my study in here while the wife is away,” he quips, offering an excuse for the clutter before Timmy happily interrupts the chatter by bringing him a chewed-up shoe.

He casually brushes off any stigma attached to television appearances, claiming television producers “have to hang a story on something”, namely financial struggles or foul habits, with his wife, Kishanda also having said there is far more to Francis than being an “upper-class buffoon”.

While Timmy and Burt attempt to lick our ears and faces, Francis reveals he is a family man at heart and that this house means far more to him than inheritance or opportunity for commercial spin: it is first and foremost a home.

“There is an identity, not only with the house, but with the land. I know every inch of it and walk these rooms and acres as my ancestors have done for generations,” he says.

Francis Fulford: 'There is an identity, not only with the house, but with the land. I know every inch of it and walk these rooms and acres as my ancestors have done for generations'Francis Fulford: 'There is an identity, not only with the house, but with the land. I know every inch of it and walk these rooms and acres as my ancestors have done for generations'

“The difference now is that we have to create new opportunities to earn money and television appearances are one of those opportunities.” The others are weddings, tours and accommodation rental, among others.

There are signs of familial identity everywhere: from the oil paintings on the walls and the Gothic mahogany furniture, which have been passed down from generation to generation and restored, to the mounds of muddy wellies, causally kicked off and left in the hallway.

Like a museum, the house, which overlooks a central courtyard, also provides a fascinating example of how aristocratic life has changed throughout the centuries, and how life in Devon has adapted through political, religious, societal and cultural reforms.

“There were a lot of men working the land here in the 1950s but the industrial revolution changed all of that and how a property like this functions, not only how land was managed and farmed but the local communities - machinery replaced men.”

We wander through the house’s main rooms, from the Great Hall where animal heads adorn the walls. “I remember Christmas vividly as a child in this room,” says Francis. “There was a large tiger skin rug, which my father had brought back from the war. We used to crawl on it and look into his mouth, terrified. They were very traditional Christmases, with a real tree as tall as the room and real candles on it for decorations,” he reminisces.

The space from which the Great Staircase rises leads to the 17th century Great Parlour and Ante Room, the latter forming “a great nightclub” for wedding parties while also doubling up as a hangout space for the Fulfords’ younger generation.

Great FulfordGreat Fulford

The staircase soars the whole height of the house, leading to one of the current focal points, the 21-feet-high, double-cube Ball Room, which has just undergone a £150,000 renovation programme, including a meticulously sculpted ceiling, created by Exeter-based leading architectural sculptor Geoffrey Preston and walls painted with a creation by a paint archaeologist.

“We have done everything in here, it was completely derelict,” says Francis.

As we walk along an upstairs corridor, installed in the 18th century, Francis points out crumbling plaster and rotting window frames, saying: “The upkeep of a house like this is a constant restoration project, it is not like just getting your boiler fixed or repairing a roof - everything is a huge task.”

“My wife seems to spend a lot of time in bed,” he says, laughing, as we walk past bedrooms. “These are fine examples of plaster ceilings, this is a Jacobean poster bed, and that fire I discovered one day when I thought I was just going to see what was behind a wall,” he adds, pointing to an open chimney breast.

In the library, the most ‘lived in’ room in the house, he pauses to take a copy of Baring Gould’s Strange Survivals (1892) from a shelf. As he reads, I notice the Anchorman 2 DVD atop a table.

There are fine historical examples everywhere in this property, from antique furniture and paintings of the ‘baddies’ and the ‘goodies’ in the family, as well as architecture and feature fireplaces.

A mansion it may be, but the real riches here seem to lie in the family values and appreciation of familial history. And Francis didn’t swear once.

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