We visited Poltimore House as part of the annual Heritage Open Days scheme. Every September historic and cultural venues across England open their doors to the public as part of the scheme. From small community venues to large National Trust properties, a huge number of sites take part, with many putting on events and talks.
Like many, we relish the annual chance to feel like a Lord or Lady for the day – strolling through expansive gardens and wandering through ornate drawing rooms – all for free! Over the years we’ve visited some of the big local landmarks as part of the festival including Killerton House, A la Ronde, Haldon Belvedere and Castle Drogo. However, we also like to try and get to some of the less well-known sites and 2017 was no exception…
Visiting Poltimore House
Despite being only a stone’s throw from Exeter you’d be forgiven for not knowing about Poltimore House. Tucked away on the edge of the village of Poltimore, the Grade II* listed building has had a varied and fascinating history.
By turns a girl’s school, a boy’s school, a nursing home and for thirty years a working hospital, it’s a property that has seen a lot of life. The history of the house is told through a series of leaflets, signs and the helpful input of volunteers roaming the rooms of the house. But it’s a property that tells its own story, and we’ve never seen anything quite like it before.
Poltimore House was damaged by a fire in 1987 and fell into a spiral of poor fortune and neglect with the ravages of the weather and vandalism taking its toll on the property. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that preservation works began in earnest.
Wandering through the lower floor of the house is an experience like no other. With missing floorboards, caved in ceilings and crumbling walls there were rooms that seemed on the verge of collapse and there are more than a few joists and scaffolds in place to keep things together. And yet there are strong indicators of the splendour and glory that preceded these times; patches of unspoilt plasterwork, ornate picture & door frames and grand columns throughout.
There is, of course, a sadness to the state of disrepair the house is in – something The Poltimore House Trust is working hard to address. There are grand plans for its future restoration and a desire to cement its position as an arts and cultural venue within the community. But there is also something incredibly enchanting about Poltimore House as it is now – crumbling ceilings and all.
The house has a striking gothic feel to it, nowhere more so than in the covered courtyard. An enormous roof protects the building from damage by wind and rain and casts the property in dramatic shadow. It is a setting that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel, with more than a hint of the deteriorating Satis House about it.
It’s an incredibly atmospheric space and one that is put to good use in local film, theatre and music performances. We can only imagine what listening to ghost stories, or watching Shakespeare performed in this space might feel like and hope to return for such an experience.
After such an engrossing and immersive experience in the house, it was strange coming back out into the daylight of the surrounding grounds. The house is set in a broad vista of fields alongside a small chapel – but the Devon countryside feels a world away from the gothic interior.
As well as the house there are some visitor facilities, including a small café and shop with information boards inside. The enthusiasm of the volunteers for the task ahead of them is evident in the displays here and the sheer number of hours that have gone into preserving the house and grounds.
Of course, the hope is that the house is fully restored, and it will be incredible to see it return to its former glory. But to see the house as it is now is a rare experience – a testimony to the ravages of time and a glimpse at the imagined settings of gothic novels and film.
Poltimore House is only open on set open days and for special events throughout the year. Check the diary to find out when the doors are next open.
Heritage Open Days is an annual event. In 2018 it will take place from the 6th – 9th September and 13th – 16th September. Find out more.