Many parents living in the Home Counties would happily sell their large family house with a view to helping their children buy homes of their own, or reducing their Inheritance Tax liabilities if they could find an appealing alternative in an area they would wish to live in. One family at least could resolve their dilemma by buying the lease of one of Devon’s finest country houses for the price of a country cottage in the fashionable South Hams. Savills in Exeter (01392 253344) are asking £750,000 for the new 21-year lease of historic Puslinch House, one of Devon’s few ‘perfect Queen Anne’ houses (Country Life, November 18, 1933), which stands in 5.85 acres of glorious formal gardens and parkland overlooking a creek of the river Yealm, seven miles south-east of Plymouth. In addition, a nominal rent of £1,500 per annum will be payable for the first two years, which will rise to £6,000 a year for the following 15 years, and, there-after, to a full open-market rent for the remaining four years of the lease.
Puslinch, listed Grade I, was built between 1720 and 1726 for the Yonge family, who still own the freehold. The house is one of a group of classic, Queen Anne style country houses known as the Plymouth Group, which includes Plympton House and Mothecombe in Devon, and Antony House in Cornwall, the latter now being owned by the National Trust. All were built at about the same time, on the back of the wealth derived from Plymouth’s role as a busy naval base in the 18th century almost certainly by the same local architect, who, according to Country Life, was ‘probably’ a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren. James Yonge was a successful naval surgeon practising in Plymouth (the fourth generation of his family to do so) when, in the early 1700s, he acquired the Puslinch estate on his marriage to local heiress Mary Upton. Breaking with the Devonshire tradition of the time, the couple decided to replace the original Tudor manor house with an entirely new building, rather than remodel the old one, at an estimated cost of £9,000 to £10,000.
Puslinch was one of the first country houses in the county to be built of brick, under a slate mansard roof with pedimented dormers, the walls surmounted on all four sides by a beautifully cut stone ‘box cornice’. The house is built on four floors, each façade having its own unique character. The vaulted basement, currently used as offices, is accessed from the east front through an ancient granite archway, and the lower-ground-floor windows have stone mullions and transoms all sourced, no doubt, from the medieval manor nearby. For all its grandeur, the new Puslinch was built ‘for comfort before show’, and was and is essentially a charming, easily managed, family home. The Victorian writer Charlotte Yonge recalls lively summer visits to Puslinch, where her uncle, the Rev John Yonge, was the ‘squarson’, his house filled with the noise and chatter of his 10 children, with dozens of other Yonge relations, among them the Coleridges of Ottery St Mary, who lived not far away.
For Simon Jenkins, who includes Puslinch in his England’s Thousand Best Houses, ‘the most remarkable feature of the interior is its completeness’, with the rooms ‘as they would have been in the 17th century with a state bedroom (now the library) on the ground floor, and closets adjacent to each bedroom on the first’. Four doorways lead from the handsome panelled reception hall into the main reception rooms one at each corner. Only the drawing room has been altered, with the addition of a single-storey extension in the mid 19th century. All the main roomshave their original Georgian panelling, painted except for the dining room, which is lined in dark oak.
A handsome oak staircase leads to the first floor, where the rooms follow the same classical symmetry of the floor below, with each of four bedrooms having its own en-suite bathroom; the east staircase leads to a further four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a nursery at the top of the house. Much of the ‘completeness’ which makes Puslinch unusual among 21st-century Devon country houses is due to the passion for perfection and the singular eye for detail of the present incumbent, Old Amplefordian Sebastian Fenwick. Despairing of finding a house of this quality to buy, he took on the lease in the early 1990s, and set about restoring a ‘tired’ Puslinch and its gardens to their original splendour. An avid collector, Mr Fenwick and his wife, Lucy, have filled the house with pictures, antiques and artefacts of all kinds, to complement the Yonge family’s own collection of furniture and family portraits which will be staying at Puslinch to welcome the new lessee.
Mr Fenwick credits his wife with re-laying much of the very beautiful formal gardens that surround the house to the south and west. Here, a series of enchanting garden ‘rooms’, lined with herbaceous borders and divided by listed Georgian walls and tall yew hedges, screen the swimming pool and outdoor dining area from general view. Further away from the house, another patchwork of hidden garden areas includes an arboretum, a small vegetable garden, a croquet lawn and a hard tennis court. Meanwhile, the timeless setting is secured by the magnificent Repton park of Kitley House on the far side of the Yealm estuary, which provides a permanent barrier to any future development within the area.