Through the keyhole: Fursdon House near Cadbury

PUBLISHED: 10:43 29 July 2014 | UPDATED: 10:43 29 July 2014

Fursdon House and estate has been in David's family for over 750 years

Fursdon House and estate has been in David's family for over 750 years


KATE WILLIAMS discovers the story behind the stunning Fursdon House, owned by one family for over 750 years,

Inheriting a stunning manor house in the heart of the picturesque Devon countryside may sound like a dream come true for many people.

The reality, however, which hit newlyweds David and Catriona Fursdon over 30 years ago, was a shock and a lifetime commitment of hard graft.

As one approaches the centuries-old Georgian house near Cadbury, swept along by the meandering elegant driveway which perches in the perfect place for visitors to be blown away by the views of the estate’s rolling hills, it is easy to get carried away with the romance of it all. It is very ‘Jane Austen’.

It would also be easy to overlook the sheer work and stamina it takes to ‘care’ for a house and grounds of this scale, and to tackle this task takes some gumption.

Back in 1979, having only been married for a few months, David received a phone call from his uncle, the owner of Fursdon House, asking him to visit. It came like a bolt from the blue when David, then working for the Ministry of Defence, and his new bride, Catriona, who was establishing a career in publishing, were offered the opportunity to inherit and run the estate, which had been in David’s family for over 700 years.

With their London life planned out in a very different way and David, that same weekend, having been offered a job he had dreamed of elsewhere, the young couple had a mammoth decision to make which could take them down a completely different path of life.

David explains: “We knew about the family house; we didn’t know much about the day-to-day running of the estate. We knew my uncle found it a challenge, but we didn’t realise how much until he contacted me to come down and talk about it.

“He didn’t want it any more, it was too much for him. He said he’d like to give it to the National Trust but they didn’t want it because there was no endowment, no money to keep it going. So he asked us if we would come down and run it.

“It was such a shock. We would have to give up our careers and come into the unknown really to a place he couldn’t make work and the National Trust didn’t want!”

Catriona says: “It was an amazing opportunity and, one minute, you think ‘what an exciting thing to do’, and the next minute you think ‘how terrifying!’ But how can you turn down something that’s been in your family for over 700 years?”

“There are many houses which have been bought by bankers with bonuses, who have an unlimited budget to let their interior design decoration skills go berserk,” says David. “But we didn’t even have enough furniture! My uncle had sold much of the furniture off to keep it all going, so we had to somehow do it on a budget. That actually took more imagination. There were hardly any curtains or carpets, it was very rundown.

“Then we discovered there were lots of leaks in the roof and damp in places, but it had to be done,” remembers Catriona.

David smiles: “So, over the last 35 years we have tried to slowly get it up to speed. But it’s an ongoing thing.”

The newlyweds, who had married the previous October, moved into Fursdon House in the summer of 1979.

Catriona explains: “It was really, really rundown — the whole of the estate, all the properties and the main house as well. And we’ve been working on it for, well, 30-something years!

“We first had to be ready to open to the public when my second son, Tom, was tiny in 1982. He was born at the end of July and we had to be open for the whole of the August. It was quite a busy time!”

The Fursdons are committed to open the house to the public for 30 days a year, but they actually open more than that. They open two days a week in the summer — June, July and August — and the bank holidays, plus the couple take informal guided tours of the house.

Not the entire house is open to the public though. David and Catriona do manage to save some of the rooms just for themselves.

“No one comes into the kitchen!” says Catriona defiantly. The beautiful farmhouse-style kitchen with light painted wooden unit doors and an impressive timber table which could happily seat several families gives off a real ‘hub of the home’ feel.

There is also a warren of small, snug rooms around the kitchen which are filled with comfy sofas and cushions and books — clearly a place to enable the Fursdons to relax at the end of their hard working days.

But it is the main rooms and their exquisite grandeur which really show off this stunning manor house. Steeped in history with a long list of 23 generations of Fursdons having taken residence over more than 750 years, many of the prominent family characters are featured in the hall in the form of a gallery of portraits as any stately home should house.

And the carpet, upon entrance, was weaved by the legendary Axminster Carpets firm, but designed by Catriona herself and a friend, embedding the Fursdon family crest within the pattern.

The house’s formal dining room boasts some fantastic Georgian features, the splendid fireplace and detailed ceiling coving, but the couple’s most exciting find was the oak panelling dating back to the 1400s which they uncovered when refurbishing the room. An enormous polished dining table takes centre stage though, with an array of antique furniture which Catriona has sourced over the years.

“We had these dining room chairs made, eventually, to match in with the original ones,” says Catriona. “A company in Tiverton made them and we had the crest put on the backs. We have had to be quite patient for many things.”

David says: “A lot of historic houses are often ‘stuck in a period’ but this house isn’t a museum, it is our home. We like to introduce new things as well which is why we brought in the carpets and, last year, we added some paintings by an artist we know. This house is different because it is actually lived in.”

The drawing room is a wonderful light room with a mix of antique, dark wood furniture and classic but cosy sofas, empowering a feeling of warmth, despite it grand status. The detailed wooden panelling and carvings which decorate the walls are truly beautiful but their history are somewhat a mystery. Shields of families who have married into the Fursdon clan are hung above the fireplace and fleeces made into rugs from Catriona’s own flock of sheep are slung casually over the backs of armchairs.

The library is an amazing room filled with antique furniture and centuries-old books on bookcases especially designed by one of the Fursdon ancestors to be flush with the walls to create more space for dancing.

“We painted it a Georgian colour deliberately, but some of the visitors don’t like it,” smiles Catriona. “They say, ‘Oh dear, what a horrible colour to have inherited!’ You do have to be quite thick-skinned, after all, it is still our home.”

Still owning around 750 acres of land, the estate had to sell some off to help pay for the astronomical repairs and David and Catriona have had to diversify to enable the house to earn its keep.

From the original dozen bedrooms upstairs, there are now nine, following the creation of two self-catering guest suites on the first floor and an estate cottage is also available to rent for holidays. Design expert Barbara Rouse helps Catriona with the fabric and interiors planning.

“The upstairs suites have the two best rooms in the house — one of which ought to be mine really,” laughs Catriona.

With its wealth of history and its stately grandeur, Fursdon House has been a happy family home for David, Catriona and their boys, Olly, Tom and Charlie, and will no doubt continue in its mission for generations to come.

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Fursdon favourites

David’s favourite room: “Probably the panelled drawing room because it is so light, because of the modern paintings and its history and because of the puzzles about the panelling”

Catriona’s interior design favourites: The hall Axminster carpet she designed with a friend incorporating the family crest and the throws made from the fleeces of her flock of grey-faced Dartmoor sheep

Paint choices: Couple’s own bedroom — Farrow & Ball Elephant’s Breath; gallery — Little Greene Gauze (with advice from Rupert White Interiors, Bampton); second bedroom —Farrow & Ball Lime White

Fabrics & textiles: Couple’s own bedroom — Romo Linara in Parsnip trimmed with Linwood Marlborough weaves in Sisal (main curtains); Linwood Marlborough weaves in sisal (headboard). Curtains designed and made by Barbara Rouse Design ( Headboards designed by Barbara and made by Luscombe Upholstery

Second bedroom — Natural Linen trimmed with Harlequin Picot braid (curtains); Linwood Cranbury Park in Duck Egg (headboard); Romo Linara Banana, Apple and Cloud and Linwood Drift in Rock Pool (cushions)

A living history

The Fursdons compile a small museum-style exhibition created from different artefacts inherited and found in the attic. A different theme each year, 2014 sees a commemoration of the First World War to coincide with the anniversary.

David’s grandfather, George, who was in the trenches, is remembered, and the couple have designed a very atmospheric ‘dugout’ filled with heirlooms and bygones including George’s uniform jacket and some letters he wrote from the frontline to his sister.

“It’s all quite exciting and very interesting,” says Catriona. “You have to start really exploring history.”

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