Portsmouth Arms is a tiny village with 4 dwellings, a sawmill,rail station cottage, farm and Inn. Nevertheless it is situated in a beautiful part of the countryside and worth stopping to see.
The Portsmouth Arms hotel has a good reputation for excellent food and company.
THE EARLS OF PORTSMOUTH
Travellers on the road from Exeter to Barnstaple will notice high on the hill above the river the sad ruin of a once great house.
At one time the whole economy of a wide area revolved around the mansion; but apart from german prisoners of war in the 1917 period, no one has lived there since 1910.
The story of the great estate still arouses considerable interest particularly among north devon folk. few are alive who can remember the last years when the family occupied the house, but stories about the Portsmouths and the West Country gentry they entertained, which have been handed down, recur in conversation.
Eggesford, meaning the Ford of the Eagles, was an estate owned as far back as 1233 by the Reigney family. It was handed down for at least eleven generations. Then in the 16th century, through marriage, it became the property of the Coplestone, a prolific West country family.
Edward Chichester, afterwards Viscount Chichester, married the Coplestone heiress and inherited Eggesford through her in1606. Some years afterwards the first house was built and was later garrisoned for the king in the civil war. It was later taken by Colonel Okey after the siege of Exeter in 1645.
The Fellowes family (later through marriage, the Earls of Portsmouth) owned the property and rebuilt the house in 1718 on the site of the previous one which was in the valley close to the church. This building was replaced by another, more or less on the present site in 1820 and finally another replaced this in 1854. Built by the 5th Earl, (Isaac Newton Wallop) he resided in it for the next 60 years.
The 1850`s saw Eggesford in its heyday. The property was extensive, the grounds and the house were magnificent. There were 6 lofty reception rooms, each 20 by 30 feet, all splendidly panelled with richly decorated ceilings. There were 30 bedrooms and dressing rooms plus almost as many servants rooms.
Self sufficiency for the establishment was almost complete with it`s laundry, dairy, carpenter`s and blacksmith`s shop and sawmill. The kitchen gardens covered over 3 acres and there was stabling for 50 horses.
The main carriage drive to the mansion was 1 mile long and there were 7 miles of private walks, some through avenues of magnificent chesnut trees. Of the house staff 22 were kept fully occupied in trimming and attending to all the lamps in the establishment. There were at least 20 outdoor staff including gardeners and grooms.
The kitchen gardens, down by the church (now a lovely garden centre) produced every kind of fruit and vegetable, which were transported to the house by pannier donkeys.
Entertainment at Eggesford house was on a grand scale.In those days life for the county`s sporting gentry was a vigorous one. In season there was hunting every day and at the end of the day`s run the company sat down to a gargantuan dinner, the consumption of which was in itself a notable feat.
Charles Kingsley and Parson Jack Russell shared a birthday with Lady Portsmouth and they used to meet regularly at the house to celebrate this occasion. Another frequent visitor was the American poet James Russell Lowell.
Some of the family were great characters. The 4th Earl, born in 1772 was one of the famous sporting squires of the 18th century. Though a justice of the peace he claimed, even if he did not exercise them, almost feudal rights; he dispensed justice in the main hall of his house, seated in an enormous chair made from an elm tree grown on the estate and shaped exactly to fit his posterior. The feet of the chair were mounted on the hooves of a favourite hunter. As well as a great character he was also a coachman of no mean ability.
A story is told that when the family were travelling abroad in their own 4 horse coach they stayed awhile in Paris, and when about to leave the city, found the elder son was missing, "Never mind," exclaimed his lordship, "I'll soon get him." And seizing his coach horn, he amazed everyone in the Palace Vendome by blowing long repeated blasts until the errant child rejoined the party.
The 5th Earl, who inherited in 1854 was a chip off the old block. He too was an expert with horses and a favourite trick when driving a coach was to toss a sixpence ahead of the horses and so manipulate the coach that the the front wheel passed over it - all without stopping.
He married a sister of the 4th Earl of Canarvon who presented him with 6 sons and 6 daughters.
When the Exeter - Barnstaple railway was built in 1854, the survey carried the line through the Earl`s estate, in return for which he reserved the right to stop the trains for the convenience of himself or his guests at any time. Later when a station was provided at Eggesford, all trains had to stop for anyone who desired to travel.
When the Earl died in 1891 there was no hunting in the district for some days in tribute to his memory. On the day it was resumed, the fox found safety by going to earth in the freshly-distributed family vault in Eggesford churchyard-- which would have delighted the sporting Earl.
The Portsmouths did not live at Eggesford after 1911 (some say the estate was gambled away in a card game)
The 1st sale of some of the property took place It included areas of Chawleigh,Caldridge, Nymet Rowland, Winkleigh,
and North Tawton -- some 1500 acres.
The house and the rest of the estate was put up for auction by the 6th Earl in 1913 when the whole comprised 3,277 acres. There were 700 acres of woodland, several large farms, the Fox and Hounds hotel, numerous smallholdings and 6 miles of salmon and trout fishing.
The rent roll amounted to £3,564 and the value of the timber was estimated at £40,000.
The preamble to the sale catalogue read :-
Eggesford house which is substantially built of Elizabethan design is a delightful Country Seat occupying a beautiful position some 415ft above sea level in the centre of a magnificent timbered park of about 300 acres with panoramic views over the valley of the Taw to the woodland heights beyond.
The property was sold to a syndicate, but a year later was put to auction again, asking price £100,000. It was eventually sold for £85,000. The house , as a seperate item, was withdrawn at £7,000 and left empty, except when prisoners of war were detained in the servants quarters.
In 1920 an unsuccessful attempt was made to persuade the county council to take the building over as an isolation hospital, after which the mansion decayed as it was stripped of all useful materials. One of the rooms was found to be papered with Victorian "penny black" stamps. In farmhouses and houses about North Devon are reminders of Eggesford as windows, panels were bought or looted and built into them.
In 1918, trees were planted by the Forestry Commission, which thus became our 1st National Forest and the forerunner of the present nation-wide scheme for the preservation of forest land.
Author Eric Delafield for The Western Morning news
|read "The Lost Houses of Eggesford" for more stories about the Portsmouths
visit Eggesford garden centre,
Eggesford Church for fine view of the ruin
The Portsmouth Arms Hotel to see a fine portrait of Isaac Newton Wallop and the Portsmouth`s coat of arms.
submitted by Dee at Portsmouth Arms
tel ;-01769 561117
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