And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time | Washaway on a Rainy Day
The setting of Pencarrow House – the south elevation overlooks a formally laid out garden around a fountain all in a vast green basin – is reminiscent of Curraghmore in County Waterford. It’s an unflowered rationalised greenscape. Coloured planting is reserved for the immediate surrounds of the house. The entrance front is such a classic three storey Palladian design (albeit a late rendition): two bays on either side of a central three bay pedimented breakfront. It found favour throughout the British Isles. Irish Georgian houses featuring this seven bay frontage include Abbey Leix, County Laois | Castle Ward, County Down | Leslie Hill, County Antrim | Stackallan House, County Meath.
An earlier house was mostly rebuilt by the 4th and 5th Baronets in the 1760s and 1770s. The architect of the elegantly symmetric south and east elevations was the illusive Robert Allanson of York. His low profile may be explained in part by him dying aged 38 in 1773. Pencarrow is his legacy. The charmingly asymmetric west (rough slate stone) and north (rougher stone rubble) elevations are clearly older – the Molesworths have been in Cornwall for 600 years or so. There’s lots of fenestration fun on the north elevation with Serliana, blind and false windows. An 1824 engraving of the (smooth stuccoed stone) south and east elevations shows no dentils on the cornice and no pediments over the windows. These were added in 1844 by the 8th Baronet using the Plymouth architect George Wightwick. The interiors date from these periods plus an Edwardian makeover in some quarters by the prolific Kent architect Ernest Newton.
Iona Lady Molesworth-St Aubyn, 15th Baroness, lives at Pencarrow with her second son James and his wife Gillian. Her elder son, Sir William Molesworth-St Aubyn, 16th Baronet, lives at Tetcott Manor in Holsworthy, Devon, a minor – relatively (no pun) speaking – family seat. She says, “The family are hands on with the everyday running of the estate, and together with a great team we keep Pencarrow thriving in the 21st century. You approach Pencarrow House by an impressive mile long woodland drive, passing an ancient fortified encampment and through banks of vibrant rhododendrons, camellias and hydrangeas.”
Lady Molesworth-St Aubyn records, “In 1959 my in-laws, Sir John, 14th Baronet, and his wife Celia Molesworth-St Aubyn moved to a nearby farmhouse and Pencarrow became empty for some 16 years. After much discussion about what to do with the house, including giving it to the National Trust, the only viable option left was to open it to visitors. A decision which, whilst challenging at times, we have never regretted. My husband Arscott left the army in 1969 and soon afterwards we started to make one part of the house habitable again; this included rewiring and replumbing. Due to the enormous cost, this took over five years, and the remainder of the house is, I am afraid, still an ongoing project.”
The gardens cover about 20 hectares of the 600 hectare estate. “The Italian Garden, Rock Garden and main drive were kept tidy, but the rest of the gardens had become an impenetrable jungle and the lake was barely visible,” her Ladyship remembers. “After many long months of clearing by my husband, friends, family and anyone willing to help, it was finally possible to walk all around the American Gardens and across to the Iron Age Fort. The Walled Garden and greenhouses, which during my father-in-law’s time were used to grow tomatoes and chrysanthemums, were turned over to self pick strawberries and raspberries. Nowadays this area has become an excellent location for wedding receptions and other functions.”
She thinks, “Pencarrow’s gardens are extensive and varied. They were designed and laid out by our radical statesman, Sir William Molesworth. He began in 1831 and continued during the intervals of his Parliamentary sessions until his early death in 1855. The green fingered Sir William started by converting the rather dull lawn in front of the house into the beautifully proportioned sunken Italian Garden centring around our fountain.”
Family archivist David Donaldson adds, “Much of the layout of the gardens as we know them today still bear Sir William’s imprint and, thanks to the meticulous records to be found in his Garden Book (still preserved at Pencarrow) we know not only what he landscaped, but also what he planted and where he planted.” An 1832 engraving of the Italian Garden is very recognisable except for shrubs planted in the parterre. A 1908 photograph shows heavier shrubbery and trees in the parterre.
“The house opened its doors to the public for the first time in 1975,” completes Lady Molesworth-St Aubyn, “initially for only two days a week. However, very quickly it proved to be extremely popular and we are now open five days a week and have a shop in the stables. As you wander into the courtyard at the rear of the house you can see three 17th century cottages, one of which we have converted into the Peacock Café.” It’s aptly named: peacocks perch proudly (and nosily) on various first floor windowsills around the house. Banoffee and cream tea chocolate bars are top sellers in the shop.