Luckily we ignored this and caught a bus which took us into the centre of the 880 acre complex at least a mile beyond the village itself. The site of the hall is near the River Dart valley and has abundant spring water which is used to advantage in the extensive gardens.
The estate has passed through a few families including the Champernowne family who lived there from the mid 16th century when the Spanish chestnuts were planted.
By the early 20th century the buildings were in ruins and the hall and grounds bought by the Elmhirsts, (Dorothy being a wealthy heiress). It became a centre for the arts and crafts and projects in farming and forestry attracting idealists from around the world. The gardens were restored and a trust was established in 1932. Entrance is free with a suggested donation of £3. There is a parking charge.
We explored some of the beautiful gardens after collecting a map from the visitor centre. We located Dorothy Elmhirst’s sunny border where the irises were in full bloom (a few weeks ahead of our local ones). The border was designed to peak in midsummer and features blue and yellow flowers with mainly grey foliage. This bordered the tiltyard – a misnomer as it had been formerly a lily pond. The gardens were fabulous especially with rhododendrons in flower and ingeniously placed statues, a swan fountain and at least two thatched summerhouses. One of these was a children’s playhouse in the 1930s later used as an office.
Apparently spring is the most spectacular season, with magnolias, camellias, cherry blossom and spring bulbs. We saw grassy banks which had been blooming with fritillaries and bluebells. The landscaping by paths, steps and clusters of trees was a delight. A plaque summed up the philosophy of the gardens:
“To see the world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour”
In glorious sunshine we toured meandering paths and steps admiring the vistas of trees and the accompanying birdsong. We looked closely at a Henry Moore sculpture ‘Reclining Figure’ where I noticed some fossil shells embedded in her neck, perfectly smoothed. From our viewpoint adjoining the tiltyard we could see the twelve Apostles (planted around the 1840s) – a row of topiared Irish yews. There is also a huge yew tree nearby that is between 1500 and 2000 years old.
The estate caters for visitors with mobility problems providing disabled parking and some suitable accommodation rooms as well as a scheme to hire a mobility scooter to tour part of the gardens. Both the White Hart bar and restaurant and the Barn Cinema have disabled access and toilets.