A Historic Estate

PUBLISHED: 11:16 01 May 2009 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013

Port Eliot, Photo: Ian Wilkinson

Port Eliot, Photo: Ian Wilkinson

The estate of Port Eliot in St Germans on the Rame Peninsula is one of Cornwall's most important. The ancestral home of the Eliot family (later Earls of St Germans) is open to the public for 100 days a year.

A Historic Estate

As this is the time of year that Port Eliot is open to the public, Ian Wilkinson urges us to visit one of Cornwall's most important historic estates

Port Eliot is one of the most important estates in Cornwall and certainly one of the most beautiful. It has been the ancestral home of the Eliot family (later Earls of St Germans) since the 16th century, and until recently public access has been strictly limited. However, in 2008 Lord and Lady St Germans decided to open both the house and the grounds for a period of 100 days each year, so between 1 March and 30 June 2009 you can visit on any day except Friday. Port Eliot lies in rolling countryside in the village of St Germans on the Rame Peninsula, with grounds extending down to one of Cornwall's hidden estuaries, the River Tiddy, which, further downstream, becomes the Lynher.

Peregrine, the current Earl of St Germans, has lived in the house for over 60 years. "It's been a great privilege to live here for most of my life," he says. "We are surrounded by beautiful things and it's very comfortable. We have a very extended idea of privacy and there is little here to irk the eye. I've changed very little in the time that I've been here. It's been re-wired, of course, and I've managed to drag the bleak Edwardian bathrooms into the 20th century. My wife has re-decorated some of the rooms and they're beautiful, but substantially the house is just as it was. In fact, we have a copy of a magazine article published in 1947 and everything's much the same."

"It also has 100 rooms and only 11 radiators," Lady St Germans adds. "We haven't addressed that yet!"

Part of a tiled floor remains in the house that dates back to the 4th century, as well as some foundations and walls dating from the 9th and 10th centuries. It was originally known as Port Priory, and from 937-1565 the building was home to a community of Augustinian monks. It was purchased at the time of the Dissolution by John Eliot.

Successive generations of the Eliot family (including that great Cornishman Sir John Eliot who defied Charles I and died in the Tower of London in the cause of parliamentary liberty) have each made their mark on the estate over the past 400 years. None more so than Edward, the first Lord Eliot, who, in the 19th century, commissioned the architect Sir John Soane to transform a disparate collection of medieval buildings into the grand house you see today.

The grounds he entrusted to the care of Humphry Repton who created the park and estuary walks. "I first came here in 2001 and it was enchanting," says Lady St Germans, "a secret place that few knew about. On the one hand it underpins the privacy and tranquillity we enjoy, but equally I love showing people the wonderful walks, the river, the pampas grass, the orangery and formal gardens. We recently had around 130 visitors and it's wonderful just watching peoples' faces as they turn a corner and another unexpected feature or view opens up!"

Set in 40 acres of land, Port Eliot has 11 staircases, 15 back doors, 82 chimneys and a roof that covers half an acre. Its grand scale is evident from the front door into the vast space that is the hall. It is here you get your first taste of the art treasures that adorn the walls of all the great rooms on the ground floor. Port Eliot houses several masterpieces by Reynolds, Romney, Ramsey, Van Dyck, and many of the Dutch Old Masters, and in the hall is a group of paintings of the Flemish school, depicting the Twelve Stations of the Cross. Hung at a lower level are three portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, part of a significant collection of work by this famous Plymouth artist. There is also a rather unusual-looking chair, which was designed for the comfort of the hall boy, the lowliest of the domestic staff whose job it was to listen for approaching carriage wheels and quickly open the door to the new arrivals.

Beyond is the lobby and here one is struck by the vibrant green wallpaper (the pigment of which is obtained from arsenic!) and by several scale models. There are also some splendid pieces of period furniture including a Queen Anne wedding chest, a pair of Irish yew tables and a letter table.

The adjoining morning room is a grand yet homely room and Lord St Germans' favourite. "I've sat in this room every day since I was 16!" he says. Despite its period furniture and rich red and gold furnishing, it has a lived-in feel. A log fire burns almost constantly and sunlight streams through the full-length windows. This room houses arguably the most important piece of furniture in the house, a Louis XIV Boule armoire. Still in use to this day, it stores not arms but a large vinyl record collection! This beautiful creation vies for attention with a series of ten Van Dyck portraits hung in a magnificent baroque frame above the fireplace, among other paintings.

Lady St Germans' favourite room, the salon, is on the other side of the house. "It's a very elegant room, classical and very calming," she says. It's also quintessentially English - from the paintings, the furniture and even the carpets. The view of the park is wonderful!

Both the drawing room and the dining room are elegant and feature work by Michael Howells, the acclaimed production designer and art director, and a friend of Lady St Germans. The drawing room has an enormous chandelier featuring spring flowers and feathers entwined round a metal frame that emits tiny pinpricks of light. The dining room ("It's a hundred yards from the kitchen so we're always eating cold food!" says Lord St Germans) contains a brand new installation, a tableau describing 'a day in the life' of the house, using a variety of artefacts, utensils and domestic memorabilia. It's entertaining, instructive and very clever!

I have left my personal favourite until last. The round room is 43ft in diameter and 18ft in height with a domed ceiling. Lighter than the other rooms, it features a substantial wooden fireplace, a magnificent French crystal chandelier, a circular Aubusson carpet that was originally housed in a Russian palace, and a splendid Harley Davidson... no, I'm not joking!

But the room is dominated by Robert Lenkiewicz's 360° mural. I asked Lord St Germans how long it had taken the artist to paint it. "About 30 years," he replied, "off and on - but mostly off!" Like much of Lenkiewicz's work, it's complex and multi-faceted, depicting The Condition of Man in a series of images ranging from despair to harmony and beauty. To describe it in detail would warrant an article in its own right; the artist himself even referred to it as 'The Riddle Mural'. While trying to figure it out, you might notice a pair of old leather boots under the dining table and a coffee cup balanced on the architrave above the door, both left by Robert on his final visit.

It's touches like this that makes a visit memorable. It's not ordered or manicured, and unlike many stately homes it's obvious that people have lived here for many centuries. Lord St Germans says: "Some might say Port Eliot is a tip, others say it is a classic example of gilded decay. My wife and I love it the way it is."

Port Eliot Estate Office, St Germans, Saltash, PL12 5ND. (01503 230211; www.porteliot.co.uk. The Port Eliot Festival of literature, art, music, drama, food and more takes place on 24-26 July, www.porteliotfestival.com.

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