Through the keyhole: Strode House in Plymouth
PUBLISHED: 09:29 13 January 2020 | UPDATED: 10:31 13 January 2020
Stunning but well hidden, the magnificently grand Strode House sneaks up on you. Chrissy Harris went to look around this big and beautiful home
It's easy to lose yourself in the splendour of Strode House because there are just so many rooms. Through one door, out another, past another sitting room, a couple more bedrooms - and that's just the first wing.
Then there's the orangery, a second kitchen, the depths of the cellar and 2½ acres of terraced garden to marvel at.
This place is about as magnificent as they come yet so tucked away that hardly anybody knows it's here.
That's just the way Philip and Heather Olver like it. This lovely, down-to-earth couple, both in their 60s, bought the 11-bedroom (11 bedrooms!) Strode House, near Ermington, with their son Gregory, 39, just over two years ago as a family holiday home.
Although they live in Sussex, both Philip and Heather are qualified 'proper' locals, having grown up in South Devon, before meeting in Dingles department store in Plymouth more than 45 years ago.
"This was just coming back to where I should be," says Heather. "For me, there's no place like Devon."
"Our roots are here and we come down every year. We've never missed a year for the past 45," says Philip, a retired asset management consultant.
'We decided to buy something with our son. We started looking for a five or six-bedroom property. And then we found this place, " he says, laughing as he explains how the couple ended up here, in the historic house that once belonged to Captain Henry Gore Hawker, co-owner of Plymouth Gin (Black Friars Distillery).
Strode House, built in the early 1800s, is a spectacular white building that suddenly appears out of nowhere at the end of a tree-lined driveway. It would be worth installing a theme park-style camera at the gates, just to capture the various expressions of astonishment from unsuspecting visitors (mine would be pretty good).
But being in Strode House is the real surprise. Despite its impressive size, this is a warm, welcoming family home that makes you want to stay in and play hide-and-seek all day.
"Some people will think it's too big for a family, but it's not when you're living in it altogether" says Heather, who loves it when children Gregory and Catherine, 40, son-in-law Alistair, 45, plus grandchildren Maddy, 11, and Rani, nine, come to stay.
"The children come and it's just like Christmas every day. I love it."
"We once had 14 of us here but if you wanted peace and quiet, there is always somewhere to go," says Philip, before Heather adds: "My daughter and I like to sit in the library. We go in there to get away from all the men - it's brilliant!"
Being together while apart is perfectly possible here and it suddenly occurred to Philip, Heather and Gregory (who works for an investment bank and lives in London with girlfriend Tara, 31) that Strode House deserved to be enjoyed by others.
Although the family were initially reluctant to let out their home, they were encouraged by glowing reports from friends of friends who had stayed there.
"I've had so many nice compliments," says Heather. "It's so strange because we hadn't even thought about anything like letting it out. Or what it was going to be like or how we were going to do it.
"We wouldn't want to do it too much though because it's our home and it's meant to be for our family and friends."
The couple and their family spend many months of the year at Strode House and allow friends to stay there the rest of the time.
At peak times, the family let out the property - situated in between the coast and Dartmoor - to holidaymakers, usually three generations of a family who want the space to relax and do their own thing in beautiful surroundings.
With the help of a team of local contractors, the Olvers have worked hard to get the main wing of the house looking completely stunning and are having a much-needed break before they start on the second, much older half of the building.
'We didn't quite anticipate how much work would be involved," admits Heather. "It's been hard. Like a full time job, really."
But worth it. "Oh yes. I absolutely love it here," says Heather, welling up, just a little. "It's all so beautifully constructed. To me, this house and these grounds…are perfect. I do feel like that. I can't mince words or pretend. I get quite emotional when I think about it because I think it's glorious."
A house with a rich history
The area of Strode was the location of the original home of Devon's Strode family. Adam Gervas(e) de Strode is listed in Devon in 1238. The family's ancestral home was Strode Manor, which was directly across the valley from Strode House. The manor burnt down in the 17th Century and is now a farm. Philip and Heather have done their research and discovered that Strode House was probably built in the early 1800s.
The couple would love to know who first lived in the house.
It's believed magistrate and Sheriff of Devon, George Strode, wife Mary and their five children lived at Strode House in 1841.
Then came Sir William Mitchell, chief proprietor and editor of the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette.
In 1889, quarry owner Lewis Sparrow lived here.
It's thought that in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the house was occupied by a family with strong links to Sir Thomas Johnstone Lipton, 1st Baronet, and of Lipton's tea fame.
Captain Henry Gore Hawker, co-owner of Plymouth Gin (Black Friars Distillery) lived at Strode House from 1908 to 1952. The estate was broken up after his death.
When Philip and Heather bought Strode House, it was very much a blank canvas.
"We've had to buy everything from new," says Heather. "We've been to auction houses, everything. It's been hard but I do quite enjoy it.
The couple say they knew roughly what they wanted.
Philip says: "We knew we wanted lots of sofas. We've bought seven so far - so-fa!"
There are clever uses of colour and light all over the house.
A wonderfully ornate mirror in the main sitting room is a real focal point.
"Some friends of our said we'd bought joy and laughter to the house and I like to think that's true," says Philip.
A garden on many levels
"I adore the garden," says Heather. "I want to try to improve it while keeping it as it was, with lots of wild areas. I love the lawn and the way it's on so many levels. We also have a wonderful primrose meadow in the spring."
Peach trees have been planted which were laden with fruit in the summer.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," says Heather. "But it's very warm here. We don't seem to get the cold winds."
Special thanks must go to gardener Colin Campbell of Flete Gardens. The couple would also like to thank housekeeper Roger Cole.