A Devon landowner has turned his estate into a sculpture and wildlife haven

PUBLISHED: 16:04 04 September 2020 | UPDATED: 16:50 07 September 2020

Philip Letts wanted to mesh rewilding and environment with private art exhibitions and a permanent collection. Photo: Devon Sculpture Park

Philip Letts wanted to mesh rewilding and environment with private art exhibitions and a permanent collection. Photo: Devon Sculpture Park

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Philip Letts has turned the Mamhead Park (South) estate over to wildlife and artists

The first thing Philip noticed was the view. Photo: Devon Sculpture ParkThe first thing Philip noticed was the view. Photo: Devon Sculpture Park

I discovered Mamhead Park (South) seven years ago. The first thing I noticed was the view. Stretching over Starcross and Exmouth, estuary vistas out to the open sea, it’s something unmissable.

Next were the fields; large, sloping fields, over-grazed scorched grass and hectares of bramble, gorse, foxglove, and fern choking out young, deciduous trees trying to make a stand. But I couldn’t get over the view.

When I finally reached the main house at the end of a long, private driveway dotted with follies and ancient buildings, I realised the true gem of the estate. The old Roman bathhouse, Romanesque extensions on each side with signature Robert Adam domed architecture - staring out over the sea.

It was possibly one of the most magnificently authentic properties I’d laid eyes on. I had to work on this diamond in the rough.

The estate established breeding and reintroduction for endangered or rare breed animals. Photo: Devon Sculpture ParkThe estate established breeding and reintroduction for endangered or rare breed animals. Photo: Devon Sculpture Park

This was a place of great history, harking back to the Domesday Book like my ancestral home at Shapcott Manor in North Devon. But this once vast estate and mystic Exeter retreat had lost its mojo, remaining a shadow of its former glory, like so many of the tragic stories I had read in the Letts diaries we publish. It needed life breathing back into it and a future fit for the 21st century.

When we got started, I knew it was the perfect blank canvas for rewilding. The woods, Capability Brown trees, the kitchen garden - it was all laid out as a rural lab for natural climate solutions. We had already done rewilding at a family property outside New York city. I decided this would be the spot to perfect our smaller-scale rewilding framework, and our ‘wildlife gardening’ techniques.

From then, numerous projects were spawned. To introduce smaller-scale rewilding herbivores, we established breeding and reintroduction for endangered or rare breed animals. We began a project of rehabilitating the grasslands and bramble. Our soil and habitats act as carbon sinks for the area, putting emissions back into the ground where they belong.

Philip Letts wanted to mesh rewilding and environment with private art exhibitions and a permanent collection. Photo: Devon Sculpture ParkPhilip Letts wanted to mesh rewilding and environment with private art exhibitions and a permanent collection. Photo: Devon Sculpture Park

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My family and I worked for years to produce our hedgerows and our latest eco invention, the wildlife biodomes, which are a staple of our rewilding tours. I saw my children turn from teens to young adults. The eighth generation of the Letts diary family blossoming in this wild place and now as much a part of the project as anyone.

Rewilding is all about bringing things back to nature, establishing a sustainable way of self-preservation - we tried to emulate that in our wild kitchen. We began to grow an abundance of wild fruit and vegetables to support our Mediterranean-style cooking. Using fresh produce, we’ve promoted healthy eating in our menu of estate made, gluten free, fertiliser free, chemical free, and vegan options.

Wellbeing was always important to this estate. The serenity of our retreat-style destination has been said repeatedly to help our visitors with their own mental wellbeing. We’ve practised nature-based wellbeing with organisations like Creative Minds, and have some exciting ideas for wellbeing projects in the works.

Establishing a private sculpture park was no small feat. I knew I wanted to mesh rewilding and environment with private art exhibitions and a permanent collection, so we had to produce visually-appealing versions of both. Devon Sculpture Park was born.

We started supporting some street-style art, which I had been quite inspired by in my abstract photography. I carried this into our first art installation at DSP in 2019, Man Vs. Nature. The idea was to incorporate urban art to clash against the original, ancient sculpture and our natural creations for rewilding and eco-system enhancing purposes; an environmental exhibit.

Word got around, and soon we had interest from environmental sculptors like Chris Speyer, Terry Howe and Teresa Wells, MRSS. Now, we have a large, diverse group of talented environmental artists who work and exhibit here; with exciting projects always underway.

While the art is changing, as art always will, one thing stays the same. Our environmental message. Our rewilding practices. Our passion for tackling the environmental crisis. That is what Mamhead Park (South) and DSP is all about. It’s what I saw for it when I took on the project seven years ago. Not only for us, but for others too.

Through our educational rewilding tours and workshops, we have put in the work to expand rewilding practices to everyone, not just elite landowners and large farmers. Mamhead Park (South) breathes again with its new purpose set in motion.

Find out more here where you can also pre-book a visit

A TRUE WILDLIFE HAVEN

This new rewilded landscape has attracted myriad butterflies, moths, insects, birds and small mammals. Some we have spotted here include the rare high brown fritillary, hummingbird moth, water voles, and the grey long-eared bat. Birds of prey abound and deer find cover for their young. Pheasants are often seen popping out of scrub and verges.)

DID YOU KNOW?

DSP hosts a series of private events and activities including educational and informative rewilding and environmental art tours.

We also host immersive and interactive workshops, collaborate with other exciting projects and artists, and have a volunteering program for anyone who wants to get involved!

There’s always something happening here.

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