Olga Polizzi creates the perfect place for a break from everyday life
It sits there like an enchanted place where elves float from chimney to chimney and the seven dwarfs could walk around the corner whistling at any moment. Endsleigh is a listed estate in the county of Devon, surrounded by over 40 acres of fairytale woodland. The sprawling grounds, with follies, grottoes and garden pavilions, were designed in the early 19th century by England’s last great garden architect, Humphrey Repton. It was commissioned by the Duke of Bedford, who owned a third of Devon at the time. The site reminded the Duchess of Bedford of her native Scotland.
The Duchess made a good choice. Endsleigh lies on the edge of what is now the Dartmoor Nature Reserve and is nestled in a beautiful hilly landscape through which the Tamar, England’s best river for trout and salmon fishing, meanders. The Duke laid the foundation stone for the fishing and hunting lodge in 1814, which became a summer residence for his large family of 13 children. But like so many great houses, Endsleigh lay dormant for a long time before being kissed awake by Olga Polizzi in 2004. As head of design, the well-known interior designer built up the Rocco Forte Hotel Group together with her brother Rocco Forte. About Endsleigh, she says she bought it more with her heart than her head. The building was badly in need of renovation. The expansive garden, with its award-winning trees and rare plants, had gone wild. Today Endsleigh is the perfect place to switch off and leave the hustle and bustle of everyday life behind. The only sounds here are the chirping of birds, the wind and the river. Ideal for taking a walk, playing croqué on the lawn or having a Devonshire cream tea in the drawing room and immersing yourself in the tranquil life of 19th century high society.
A walk in the park with the head gardener
The terrace overlooks the valley and you look across the lawn along England’s longest continuous ornamental border, the Long Border. In May 2017, Endsleigh was voted No. 1 by The Times in the Best for Gardens category – and that’s saying something in a country famous for its beautiful gardens.
For garden lovers who want to learn more about the history of Endsleigh Garden, a guided tour with head gardener Ben Ruscombe-King is highly recommended. Ben leads us on a detailed tour of the garden’s various highlights and curiosities.
The Duke of Bedford was a great plant hunter and it so happens that Endsleigh’s garden has an arboretum of very old trees, among which are quite a few National Champions. Ben shows us one of the past champions, a redwood planted in 1860. A storm involuntarily cut it down and it lost its title as tallest tree. In exchange, Endsleigh has since reclaimed the title of tallest Sequoia in the country for another tree. Ben cannot hide his pride in this.
White smoke for romance and other follies
English gardens are also known for so-called follies, unusual ornamental buildings. Endsleigh has several visual follies to offer here. The shell house at the end of the long ornamental border has walls, floor and ceiling covered with shells. Across the river, there’s Swiss Cottage, a simple cabin that once served one purpose, to produce lots of smoke. Until the 1950s, a servant would row across the river daily and light a fire in the Swiss Cottage. The smoke, which drifted picturesquely through the valley, could be seen from Endsleigh, where it created the deliberately picturesque impression of not being entirely alone in the Valley of the Tamar.
To an even greater folly, Ben leads us along winding paths. The garden has many small cul-de-sacs, deliberately designed by architect Rapton. The gentry wanted little adventures. The allure of getting lost and having to turn back was to add variety to their days in the country. The Duchess of Bedford had quite different ideas about variety. She wanted to escape from being a duchess in the summer residence, and so the duke had a small but fine dairy built for her.
Once a year, she went to the dairy in the outfit of a milkmaid and produced butter and cheese. For the perfect illusion, two longhorn cows were still kept. The homemade dairy products also made their way to the table, of course, Ben reports, and immediately leads us to the next garden trend from the 19th century, “rockery.” At that time, the first wealthy Englishmen traveled the Alps and had rocky passages built into their gardens as a reminder of the mountains.
35 gardeners worked year-round in Endsleigh’s gardens back then. Even today, Ben Roscombe-King tells us, the entire area of 43 hectares, has not yet been closed back. Only a year ago, he and his team of 5 discovered a waterfall created by Rapton, but completely forgotten. Meanwhile, a small path leads there. Behind it lies more land with possible botanical surprises. On the way back we pass another rapton tableau. This is another garden trend of the time, documenting Chinese influence.
Humphrey Rapton was a master of presentation. He convinced his clients with the help of his famous red books. A replica is on display at the Endsleigh Hotel and guests are encouraged to leaf through it.
Rapton worked with the before and after trick. He drew the actual state of the landscape and then had folding cards with the new garden dreams superimposed. In this way, he also convinced the Duke of Bedford.
Hunting and other pastimes
The hunting warden ( ghillie in Scottish) is also happy to give guests assistance with fishing or accompany them to the hunt. For those who don’t like fishing or hunting, a trip to nearby Tavistock is a good idea. The Paneer Market, is a covered market place with daily changing offers. Of course, there are also Antique Days, where you can grab an old piece, inspired by the decor in Endsleigh.
The cost of half board was not charged by the hotel