Restoring a Forgotten Castle

PUBLISHED: 17:33 20 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013

Pentillie Castle is located on the banks of the River Tamar

Pentillie Castle is located on the banks of the River Tamar

Pentillie Castle stands in a commanding position on the edge of the River Tamar. With views across the Tamar Valley to the heights of Dartmoor, it is easy to see why Sir James Tillie chose this spot to build his home in 1698. The realisation of Si...

Restoring a Forgotten Castle

Rebecca Matthews explores Pentillie Castle, which has an enchanting history and is undergoing a restoration programme

Pentillie Castle stands in a commanding position on the edge of the River Tamar. With gardens that slope down to meet the riverbank and panoramic views across the Tamar Valley to the heights of Dartmoor, it is easy to see why Sir James Tillie chose this spot to build his home in 1698. The realisation of Sir James's plans marked the beginning of a fascinating story, the latest chapter of which is beginning to unfold, as Pentillie's new owners launch their vision for the building's future.

Sir James Tillie was a land agent whose rise from humble origins is, to this day, shrouded in controversy. Tillie was an employee of Sir John Coryton, who owned a large estate in and around the Tamar Valley. When Sir John suffered a sudden and agonising death at the premature age of 42, James Tillie married his widow, Elizabeth, thus significantly increasing his wealth. Although suspicion was rife that James Tillie had poisoned his employer, the allegations were never proven.

Sir James hatched some intriguing plans, designed to ensure his association with Pentillie would continue long after his death. These plans included the commission of a life-size statue of himself, which although currently being restored, still has a place in the entrance courtyard of Pentillie. He also ordered the building of a three-storey mausoleum in another rather imposing position, called Mount Ararat, with extensive views over Pentillie and the Tamar. He left strict instructions that his body was to be placed in a sitting position in the mausoleum, dressed in his finest clothes, wig and hat, and surrounded by a chest containing his personal effects.

He intended to sit there, on this lofty corner of the Tamar, and await his resurrection - which he anticipated would be within two years - so he might return to Pentillie. As the two years passed, both his remains and the roof of the mausoleum deteriorated and it was necessary to carry out a burial. Today, the mausoleum is in need of restoration and lies amongst woodland, where a marble statue of Sir James was erected after his burial.

When Sir James died, childless, in 1713, the estate passed to his nephew, James Wooley, who changed his name to Tillie on moving to the house. Rather intriguingly, the Tillie family met its second encounter with the Coryton family when James's daughter, Mary Jemima, married Peter Coryton. As the heiress of the estate, Pentillie became part of the neighbouring Coryton estate.

The Coryton family amassed considerable wealth during the course of the 18th century, with over 20,000 acres of land. They commissioned the renowned landscape architect Humphry Repton to remodel the house, gardens and surrounding parkland. He planned to transform the building into a castle. The architect William Wilkins, famed for his Gothic style, and designer of Cornwall's Tregothnan, implemented Repton's proposals in 1810. The extensive rebuilding process involved the addition of three wings to form a central courtyard on the western side of the original house.

The Coryton family lived at Pentillie for the following two centuries. In 1919, Captain Jack Coryton inherited the estate, and it was speculated that financial pressure and the death of his eldest son in the Second World War eventually caused Jack to lose his fervour for running Pentillie.

His remaining son, Jeffrey, inherited the castle in 1965. It was an antiquated building in poor condition and it lacked practical amenities - there was just one bathroom to service 18 bedrooms. Jeffrey and his wife, Kit, decided to remodel the building into a large but manageable house. The extensive work was completed in 1968, just as Pentillie became a Listed building.

A childless Jeffrey had lined up his first cousin, Ted Spencer, to run the estate after his death, and Ted duly moved to a farm on the estate to learn farm management. When Jeffrey died unexpectedly in 1980, Kit appointed Ted as heir, providing he changed his surname to Coryton. She then withdrew into the castle, and neither Ted nor his wife, Sarah, and three children, Sammie, Oliver and Roonie, stepped inside the building until after her death in September 2007.

For the past 27 years, the Coryton family had never contemplated what they would do when they inherited the estate. The decision was recently made to keep the castle and main estate, and to establish a business to help fund its refurbishment. The house and grounds have long been shut away from public view, but the Corytons have now decided it is time to share it with others.

The castle's renovation project is extensive and ongoing, and the prospect of working on Pentillie was enough to draw Cornwall-based architects Jonathan Mansfield and Graham Locke out of retirement. The work began in January 2007 and it is estimated that the entire refurbishment will be complete by summer 2009.

While working within certain guidelines because of Pentillie's status as a Listed building, many of its existing bedrooms will be redesigned, and all will be en-suite, with each named after the various families associated with its history. The building was in need of a new roof and extensive replastering, and the building's exterior is now a soft yellow colour.

The castle has a stirring sense of grandeur. The entrance has lofty ceilings and antlers mounted on plaques, stuffed birds in glass cabinets and tall bookcases. The walls are adorned with portraits of ancestors and sketches of the building after the 1810 development.

The drawing room is one of the few rooms that has remained furnished during the interior's restoration, and its warm and cosy ambience is most striking when the sun starts to slip down beyond its large windows. "It really is beautiful in here late in the day," says Sammie.

Regarding the interior design, Sarah says, "Our chief concern is that Pentillie feels like a home rather than a hotel." Sammie agrees, "We would like each room to have an individual character." All rooms will be tackled one by one and will contain antique furniture and paintings, which befit the property.

From outside, Pentillie has an arresting presence and the gardens in front of the house, which are currently in the process of being developed, will be beautiful next spring. In particular, the wisteria walk will provide a delightful backdrop for weddings, which the Corytons plan to host as part of their plan to let the building for exclusive hire. The lawns, designed by Humphry Repton at the turn of the 19th century, are perfect for a marquee.

Clearing and maintaining the many gardens is an enormous undertaking which will take place over the coming years. Sarah and Sammie have tentative future plans to establish a cookery school in the kitchen garden, which currently lies hidden beneath a thick cloak of weeds and brambles.

Another enchanting feature of Pentillie is the Victorian Bathing Hut, which has its own quay and opens directly onto the river. With its lead-lined windows, potent sense of history and views across the water, it is sure to charm future visitors to this forgotten stretch of the Tamar.

The story of Pentillie will be screened in November as part of a new Channel 4 series called Country House Rescue.

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