Through the keyhole: Thorn House
PUBLISHED: 16:01 05 September 2015 | UPDATED: 16:01 05 September 2015
Matt Austin Images 2013
It boasts views to take the breath away, as Chrissy Harris discovers when she takes a tour of the beautiful gardens of a historic South Hams home
Eva Gibson shows me around Thorn House but I can tell she wants to be outside. It’s a beautiful sunny day and the gardens, once reputed to be the richest in Devonshire, are calling.
She leads me out (in my highly inappropriate footwear) onto the lawns and you can tell here is where this softly spoken, Austrian-born, retired neurophysiologist feels most at home.
“I always tell people I didn’t find this garden, it found me,” she says as we stroll through most of the nine acres Eva has spent the past 36 years perfecting, using a combination of history, botanical training and extraordinary vision.
“We had been for lunch with a few of my husband’s new work colleagues. I was heavily pregnant and needed to walk off this lunch,” she says.
“We were on the other side of the River Yealm and I could see this garden.
“I asked an estate agent we knew who lived there. He said: ‘Don’t be interested. It’s not on the market and I know the people – it won’t be sold.”
Eva and her consultant neurologist husband John were househunting in Devon after relocating from Leeds. They’d looked on the moors and around Plymouth but were struggling to find ‘the one’.
A day after that walk along the river, Eva and John were sitting in an estate agents being told about this wonderful house that had just come up which would be perfect for a keen botanist.
“He showed us the pictures and I knew instantly it was place we had seen the day before. You see? It had to be.”
Eva and John bought the house – a heady mix of Tudor, Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian and Art Deco-era architecture - from the Trahairs, a well-known local family who were the developers of Farley’s Rusks.
The couple moved in - and that was all they could do for a while. Eva had a toddler, a three-month-old baby, a husband who worked away a lot, little spare cash and a house that needed a lot of work.
For months, Eva and her baby daughter, Emma, ‘camped’ in the morning room, the smallest room in the house and the only one with an open fireplace.
John and toddler son Karl camped on the top floor. A third child, Marc would arrive later.
“It was hard going for a long time,” says Eva. “It was difficult not having any family around too but you cope with things. It was several years until the house was really liveable.”
All this meant the garden didn’t get much of a look-in. Eva employed a gardener, Bob Penwell, a man with a ‘good soul’ but who refused all offers of mechanical help.
“He didn’t have any machinery,” says Eva. “He cut all the hedges by hand. I said to him that I would buy him a hedgecutter and he said: ‘Please yourself, I won’t use it. I don’t want to be driven by machinery’.”
Despite his reluctance to be a slave to a strimmer, Bob and Eva built up a good working relationship and it wasn’t long before the garden was on track to being restored to its former glory – and then some.
Since retiring, Eva, with the help of gardener Graham Titchmarsh (cousin of Alan) has spent any spare time she has working tirelessly on a place that could give Kew Gardens a run for its money.
Thorn boasts a selection of trees from around the world of interest to experts, as well as several ‘champion trees’ - trees that are the largest or widest of their kind in the UK.
When you’ve finished gazing upwards at these spectacular giants, there is plenty to catch the eye with a South African garden, inspired by Eva’s trips abroad, a ‘jungle’ area, and, my favourite, the beautiful ‘yellow bank’ of spring flowers that falls away to the river.
Placed throughout the more formal section of the garden are four great Italianate urns, known as the Trentham Vases, purchased by one of the previous owners of the house, William Arkwright, a descendant of Richard Arkwright who made a fortune in cotton spinning.
William had the vases brought down to Thorn from his previous home, Sutton Scarsdale in Derbyshire.
The history, the colours, the plants – it’s fascinating here, even for someone who can just about grow cress seed on a windowsill!
But what makes Thorn and its gardens so amazing are the views. Every now and then Eva and I stop talking and just stare at what must be one of the best outlooks in Devon: a magnificent stretch of coast and country along the estuary of the River Yealm.
“It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?”, says Eva, as she catches me drooling again. “I grew up on the banks of the River Danube and with the river here, I feel so at home.
“When I first came here and stood in this spot, looking down over the Yealm, I knew I had to have this house. This is where I want to live and die. For me, it’s a passion.” w
For more information, or to book a tour of Thorn House, see thornhouse.co.uk or call 01752 862494. Thorn Gardens are also open on 7 August through the Invitation to View scheme.
House of history
The exact date of the present house is unknown, however, it is on the site of an earlier building which goes back centuries.
Thorn House (previously known as South Wembury House) was refurbished in the early 19th century by Thomas Lockyer, one-time Mayor of Plymouth.
From about 1806 it became the Lockyers’ permanent home.
In 1876 Richard Cory, a wealthy London coal merchant, bought the South Wembury estate from the Lockyers.
The Corys added a ballroom and billiard room.
Guest included the Prince of Wales and his brother the Duke of Edinburgh.
In 1920 the house was sold to William Arkwright, a descendant of Richard Arkwright who made his fortune in cotton spinning.
Having sold his property, Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire, William Arkwright moved to South Wembury House, which he renamed ‘Thorn’.
The next owner was the Hon Mrs Ida Marie Sebag-Montefiore. An enthusiastic horticulturalist, she won an award at the 1934 Chelsea Flower Show.
She moved out of Thorn in 1938, having given some of the neighbouring land to the National Trust.
Over the next 20 years, the estate was broken up into smaller units. John and Eva Gibson have lived at Thorn since 1981.