When you spot a damp patch on the wall, a broken roof tile or a leaking gutter, your heart sinks. Imagine, then, how Anthony and Elizabeth Fortescue must have felt when, in 1995, having just taken over the running of Boconnoc, an Elizabethan house in the heart of the largest park in Cornwall, they were faced with rampant rot, out-of-date wiring, and a virtually non-existent roof. ‘It hadn’t been touched for fifty years,’ says Elizabeth. ‘There were holes in the ceilings and an owl living inside.’
The ramshackle state of Boconnoc was all the more poignant considering its impressive history. Not only does it date back as far as Doomsday, but it has been lived in by the families of no less than three prime ministers. During the height of the Civil War it was used as the headquarters of King Charles I, and in 1717 it was bought by Thomas Pitt, founder of the political dynasty, with the proceeds of the sale of the Pitt Diamond, one of the most famous jewels in history.
Although every generation who lived at Boconnoc added their own stamp to it, it was Pitt’s great-grandson, also called Thomas, who brought about the most striking changes. He was a patron of the then fledgling neo-classical architect Sir John Soane, whose improvements and alterations to the house included creating the stable yard and altering the layout of the ground floor. ‘His style is very distinctive,’ says Elizabeth. ‘You can see it in the tall windows and the enfilade of rooms.’ (Soane also worked on Port Eliot, by the way, as per the last issue of The Good Cornwall Guide.)
In 1834, Boconnoc passed from the Pitts to the Fortescue family. During the Second World War it was occupied by American troops and the estate used as an ammunition dump, and then for almost 30 years, it lay unhappily unoccupied. Until the current generation of Fortescues took over. Single-mindedly, they set about getting Boconnoc back on its feet. ‘I remember when we were first married, looking at Boconnoc and Anthony saying: “One day the lights will be on again”,’ says Elizabeth. It didn’t happen overnight, however. The long list of works, which began in 1997, included replacing the entire slate roof, rewiring throughout, fitting new balustrading and leadwork, installing heating, and painstakingly restoring the incredible, Soane-influenced painted staircase. It took three years alone simply to clear the filled-in lake.
Today, drive through miles of parkland, pass an extraordinary obelisk (it’s a 123ft high memorial erected in 1771) and – just as you think you are definitely lost – you will arrive at breathtaking view of this almost-symmetrical, terribly pretty house, overlooked by the next-door 14th century church. Standing in the stable yard is like taking a step out of time, while in the house itself each room is a wonder, from the elaborate plasterwork of the elegant drawing room to the tiled fireplace and deep red walls of the Victorian smoking room (in fact, the walls were painted by a film crew, and the family liked the colour so much they decided to leave it). And the Fortescues’ hard work has been duly rewarded: just a few weeks ago Boconnoc was named winner of the Historic House Association/Sotheby’s Restoration Award, given for its overall revival and the outstanding renewal of the main ground floor rooms.
But there is no resting on laurels here. Over the summer, the Fortescues completed their latest feat: with the help of their interior designer daughter, Sarah, they have restored and decorated five bedrooms and bathrooms on the first floor of the house, adding to the two cottages and group of four tower bedrooms that were already available as holiday lets. And there are plans afoot for further improvements and additions, including a striking new arched pavilion in the grounds.
These days Boconnoc is buzzing. Weddings, accommodation, conferences and a heap of special events, from steam fairs to flower shows, are its bread and butter, and it is busy practically all year round. This hidden gem is well and truly shining again. ‘It has been so exciting to bring it back to life,’ says Anthony. ‘Seeing old and young having a good time here is a very good feeling.’
See for yourself
• Group visits to the house and gardens can be booked at any time.
• The woodland gardens will be open from 5 May 2-5pm for the National Gardens Scheme.
• Events in 2013 include the Boconnoc Wedding Fair, 10 March; Cornwall Garden Society Spring Flower Show, 6-7 April and the Boconnoc Steam Fair, July 19-21.
• Boconnoc is a delightful wedding venue, with a church next to the house, a civic ceremony room in the Stable Yard and accommodation for up to 20 guests.
• Stay at a self-catering cottage or a room in the main house.
• Boconnoc is also available for conferences, corporate days, team-building, lectures and private parties.
• For more information call 01208 872507 or visit boconnoc.com