Cullompton’s magical garden.

PUBLISHED: 09:48 07 April 2015


SUE CADE unearths a magical garden in East Devon

For many years, I was intrigued by the sight of a large house on a hill just outside of Honiton on the Cullompton road. It appeared to be quite derelict, surrounded by a great deal of dense foliage - like something out of Sleeping Beauty.

One day I glanced up, and the house, quite simply, was gone.

Fast forward a decade or so, and I am driving through the gates of what I now know is the Tracey Estate to meet with members of the Furnival family. Howard and his mother, Amanda, are going to give me the lowdown on the historic grounds and the manor house that was.

Howard tells me the estate dates back to the twelfth century when part of Ivedon Manor passed to William de Tracey (one of the knights responsible for the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket) through marriage, and was renamed Tracey Hayes.


The grounds were established in the first half of the 19th Century by Henry Baines Lott and cultivated further by the subsequent owner, railway engineer George Neumann. My burning question is what happened to the manor house, once home to many a society do à la Downton Abbey. Howard explains that after the Second World War the estate declined dramatically, due to death duties absorbing funds that could have been used for repairs. Laurel encroached on the once orderly grounds, and the house fell into disrepair as Howard’s great uncle and aunt struggled to maintain the building. “It was a difficult decision to take,” Howard says, “but the house was finally demolished in 2003 after being deemed a dangerous structure.”

The Furnivals continued to live on the estate in a refurbished stable block and in 2011 decided to restore the gardens in what would become a true labour of love. Amanda explains they are the most complete ‘Lucombe and Pince’ planned gardens in existence. “We’ve had a number of grants but most of the work has been manually undertaken by Howard and his brother, Edward.”

The boys have worked hard. “The first job was to cut back the laurel that had overtaken the garden – a massive project that is still ongoing,” Howard says. Their labour has borne fruit, as a number of delightful Victorian features and specimen trees are once again seeing the light of day. I spy a well-tended walled garden with newly planted fruit trees and a charming Rosary that lies beneath steep slate steps. This sunken oval garden is full of atmosphere, and I am, momentarily, lost in another era, imagining Victorian ladies promenading and children skipping round the outer path.

We follow a complex circular Victorian pathway that circumnavigates the gardens and adjoining arboretum. Howard indicates numerous impressive trees – spectacular Wellingtonias and Redwood Sequoias brought to the country by Victorian plant hunters, and ancient indigenous Lucombe Oaks.

Tracey estate - specimen treeTracey estate - specimen tree

I am charmed by the recently uncovered natural bathing pools – there are two, one to collect the water, the other for bathing. I ponder what the Victorians wore when they reclined in the pool, and whether the butler was on hand with a towel.

Howard points out a yew circle he is still freeing from the choking embrace of the laurel. This was once used for Victorian family picnickers to enjoy views of the Otter Valley below. Honiton town has expanded to become part of the vista but there is still an agreeable outlook to the River Otter with its wildlife, including kingfishers, white egrets and my favourite, herons.

Overhead are giant nests. Tracey is home to one of the largest heronries in Devon – established in the First World War.

Alongside the restoration work, third sibling Charlotte and partner Justin farm sheep, cattle, pigs and pheasants on the 450-acre estate. Farming and restoration make for intense work, but the family is aiming to revive the fortunes of the Tracey Estate for future generations.

Tracey estate - the old houseTracey estate - the old house

“We want the estate to become self-sustaining, not just through farming but by opening the gardens to the public for recreation, and schools for education,” explains Amanda. “Tracey lends itself as a wonderful alternative setting for weddings, parties and music concerts.”

I take my leave with a true appreciation of the story behind the house that disappeared and the historic gardens that are just re-emerging.

History of the Tracey Estate in a nutshell

55AD The Romans come to Devon – a small hoard has been found near the estate at the top of St Cyre’s Hill

1200 Sir William de Tracey builds a residence on the land

1470 Thomas Chard, prior of Montacute, is born at Tracey

1776 The estate is sold to Thomas Jenkins, also lord of the manor of Sidmouth

1811 Tracey is purchased by Henry Baines Lott, MP for Honiton

1830s Gardens redesigned by Lucombe, Pince & Co of Exeter. The estate passes to Henry Buckland Lott

1847 Lott is bankrupted and the estate purchased by retired railway engineer, George Neumann

1898 Tracey is inherited by Neumann’s daughter, Emily ‘Gertrude’ Weldon

1955 Tracey House is listed Grade II and described as in a very poor state of repair. Applications for grants to repair the house are turned down

2003 Tracey House is demolished

2011 The Furnival family commences work to restore the gardens.

Typical Victorian features

In the 19th century, plant collections from around the world were the order of the day, particularly arboretums to hold the specimen tree collections.

Brightly coloured bedding plants planted in formal beds were de rigeur. Plant collectors brought orchids, ferns and rhododendron back to England, along with alpine plants which led to the introduction of the rockery.

Lawns became a more common sight, with not only rural estates but city gardens showing off swathes of manicured grass, helped by the invention of the lawnmower.

Walled kitchen gardens were utilised for the production of ever more exotic fruit and vegetables, with glasshouses enabling more fragile plants to be grown.

Later in the century, wild gardens grew in popularity, and the more formal planting was eschewed for more native plants and features that integrated with the theme, such as the outdoor bathing pools and tree circles seen at Tracey.

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