Take a peek through the keyhole of this grand property in Barnstaple
PUBLISHED: 17:08 26 September 2016 | UPDATED: 17:23 26 September 2016
Chrissy Harris tours a house into which a couple have invested so much time and effort that, even though they are leaving, their new home is in the garden!
It’s safe to say you’ve officially made it when you move into a house with a colonnade. That must have been going through the minds of John and Vanessa Marston when they pulled up outside their new home in Barnstaple, aged just 28 and 24. They had scraped together the £23,000 needed to buy the marvellously grand Gorwell House in Barnstaple, which was built in 1828 for local lace maker, John Miller. Yes, bits of it were falling apart and the roof leaked quite a lot but there were Bath stone columns and an amazing veranda.
“We just thought it was wonderful,” says Vanessa. “It wasn’t in great condition…shabby chic, I think you’d call it. We couldn’t afford to do anything to it but it was amazing.”
That was back in 1976. Forty years, four daughters and five grandchildren later, retired GP John and Vanessa, an award-winning sculptor, have certainly made the most of their unique family home. The couple have partied and danced, played music, hosted weddings and organised Christmas carol concerts in a house that lends itself to huge get-togethers. The stately drawing room, the sitting room with its Victorian black marbled-fireplace, the cellar, six bedrooms, there is so much space – and that’s just inside. Gorwell House, which overlooks the Taw Estuary, is surrounded by five acres, every inch of which has been carefully cultivated by John, a keen gardener to say the least.
He has planted every shrub and tree, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in the country. What’s even more remarkable is that the garden was just a field when the couple moved in, with the occasional escaped bullock passing through.
“The garden has just grown and grown. People say did you make a plan, but I don’t make plans really,” says John, before admitting he started early.
“It’s lovely coming to a place at aged 28, knowing that you’re going to be here all of your life and to start planting trees at that age,” says John. “I knew we’d be here for the long haul. So many people start gardening when they retire and then you’ve only got so many years – oh, I don’t know how many - but not 40, certainly.”
John, 68, and Vanessa, 64, came to live in Barnstaple from Bristol after John was offered a partnership at the Bear Street practice, now called the Brannam Medical Centre in Barnstaple.
“In those days, if you drank your sherry nicely and had good table manners, that was more or less it – you got the job,” John says, modestly (he was highly sought after).
“One of the partners we were introduced to during our ‘trial by sherry’ lived here, in Gorwell House, and we were invited for lunch. We just thought: what an amazing house.”
The couple had no idea the property was on the market until they started looking for a home in Barnstaple and the details came through the post.
Did you recognise it, I ask, (rather foolishly)?
John laughs. “Well...it is quite distinctive. There aren’t many houses with columns,” he says.
The couple have had to spend a fair amount of cash maintaining their unique period features over the years.
Repairs to the veranda have cost thousands and then there was the roof, which blew off in a storm (covered by insurance, luckily).
And of course there’s the routine preservation that comes with Grade II-listed house ownership.
“We used to paint a lot ourselves but after a while you just run out of steam,” says Vanessa. “It was just a huge event and even though we were young and had lots of energy, it was hard.”
“I was working very long hours,” says John. “And trying to paint the ceiling. When you get up there, it’s a lot further than you think from the ground and then there were all the mouldings that hadn’t been painted for years. Oh it was awful. Anyway, we did it.”
Their connection to their home runs deep but John and Vanessa are now at the stage when they realise that it’s a big place and life is marching on.
With their four daughters - Cicely, Emma, Milly and Annie - long grown up, they feel it’s probably time to leave Gorwell House - but not the garden.
The couple are hoping to sell the main property and then move into a separate wing next door with an additional studio, which is being built in the walled garden.
It means the couple can downsize but still reap the rewards of decades of hard work.
“Every single plant here I planted myself so you don’t want to leave the thing after all these years,” says John.
“It will be sad to leave when it comes down to it, but we’re not really going, just heading around the back.”
At least they can still admire that colonnade.
Columns of note
The columns make Gorwell House stand out. They’re made of Bath Stone and must have come from the city, along the canals and down to the sea and along the coast into Bideford and then to Barnstaple. “Quite an undertaking, really,” says John.
The glorious Gorwell House garden
“I’ll show you round – you’ve had it now!” says John who is fiercely proud of his grounds.
And so he should be. The open and walled gardens at Gorwell House, which started with a tulip tree John planted in 1977, have featured in many national and local magazines, newspapers, websites and radio shows.
There are several rare plants and trees, including the Sassafras Tzumu, native to China and the Sichuan Litsea Populifolia, which once appeared in a botanical magazine. These exotic species, many of which were brought back from trips abroad, thrive here because of the mild climate and, of course, plenty of TLC. The hard work and dedication needed to create something as stunning and diverse as this garden is incredible but John thrives on it. As we walk along flower-lined paths, past strategically placed follies - including a decorated shell grotto - and across the lawn John is constantly weeding as we go and on the lookout for fresh blooms.
“I like showing people around, especially botanists or gardening clubs, people with some knowledge,” says John.
“But it works on all sorts of levels,” he adds, as I tell him I can spot a bluebell, but that’s about it.
It’s wonderful though, regardless of your botanical knowledge. There are so many different sections and zones - imagine being a grandchild here? John spends at least two hours a day weeding, planting, trimming and whatever else needs doing. He has help doing the lawns – which take ten hours to mow - from a gardener and his sons (he remembers doing their ante-natal checks during his GP days). Vanessa also helps out.
“Oh I’m a great one for cutting things down,” she says.
“And I’m great at stopping her,” says John. “Together we make a great gardening team!”
John is a keen musician and plays the harpsichord.
Instruments are dotted all over the house but the one in the drawing room is particularly grand.
“It was made for me in 2003,” says John. The decoration under the lid is a copy of a painting by Claude Lorrain a French artist.
The painting by Adrian Beech
“It’s a strange picture,” says John. “It’s of Vanessa’s family.”
“Vanessa adds: “My parents absolutely hated it and they kept it in the garage. When we came here, we had this enormous wall and we said we’d have it.”
Former teacher Vanessa did an art course at North Devon College in the 1980s and decided to develop her skills as a sculptor.
She works with figurative pieces, making extensive studies of her subjects before working in clay then bronze.
Her work is on show across the country.