Port Eliot is fascinating, beautiful, and contradictory. It is a rambling, stately property, yet also a very much lived-in (and rather cosy) home; it is impressively grand, yet in places shockingly worn and threadbare; it boasts masterpieces by 18th century portrait artist Joshua Reynolds, and also an enormous, love-it-or-loathe it mural by modern artist Robert Lenckiewicz; it is a public venue, open for festivals, weddings, tours and coach trips; yet also a private retreat for owner Lord St Germans, whose family has lived here for an impressive 447 years. As he himself says: ‘Like most houses, Port Eliot has a front door, and about there the similarity ends.’
Here’s the history bit: built on the site of an Iron Age settlement, Port Eliot was originally a priory and during the Middle Ages was a flourishing monastic port, approached by boat across what is now the park. But Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries put paid to up to a thousand years of religious occupancy, and in 1565 one John Eliot, from a prominent West Country family, was awarded possession of the rambling medieval buildings, a higgledy piggledy mix of 9th century foundations, 10th century walls and 13th century lancet windows.
Over the next century or so, the Eliots came into big money and picked up a peerage. Richard Eliot, having married the wealthy illegitimate daughter of a dancer and an MP, was patron to local up-and-coming portrait painter Joshua Reynolds; his son Edward, the first Lord Eliot, commissioned the then avant-garde architect John Soane to turn the place from ‘a set of rude rooms into a fine set of apartments’, and the landscape designer Humphrey Repton to create the park (the estuary having been diverted), gardens and a series of walks. In 1826 the entrance hall was redesigned and two wings added to house the kitchens, sculleries, larders, laundry, china closet, knife room and the multitude of other below-stairs rooms required for the smooth running of such a great house, which would have employed at least 60 servants.
Today, Port Eliot survives with just a handful of staff and could be described as having a definite air of faded grandeur. Yet this is not a criticism. The house is extraordinary, because of, rather than despite of, the peeling wallpaper and decayed silk upholstery, and is stuffed at every turn with fascinating objects and works of art, from a priceless 17th century boule armoire to the dining room installation by Michael Howells, who designs catwalk shows for John Galliano and Christian Dior. If anything, the patina of age simply adds to its mystique, and the down-to-earth attitude of its occupants towards the treasures that surround them is nothing if not refreshing. Opposite the early Queen Anne wedding chest is an overloaded coat stand sheltering piles of muddy wellies. A Van Dyke looks across the Morning Room to some old slippers and a stack of unopened letters. A pair of elegant whippets roams contentedly, and from time to time there may even be a dog bone on the antique rugs.
The current Lord St Germans grew up here and inherited the house in 1964, since when he parked his Harley Davidson in the Round Room and commissioned the Lenckiewicz mural, but has changed little else – other than modernising the 19th century bathrooms and building a maze. He just loved it the way it was. ‘The contents of the house reflect the accumulation of an ever-prospering family,’ he says. ‘Being a large house, there was never any reason to throw things away. My wife and I thought long and hard about what we should do to the house before opening it to the public, but in the end the day came and it was just open. Some might say Port Eliot is a tip; others say it is a classic example of gilded decay. To me, it’s just home.’
See for yourself
• Port Eliot house and gardens are open to the public daily (except Fridays) until 8 July, from 2pm to 6pm. They will reopen next year in the spring. Go to porteliot.co.uk for more information.
• For a chance to tour parts of the house rarely seen by the public, book a place on An Invitation to View, on 5 and 12 September. Go to invitationtoview.co.uk or call 01206 573948.
• Large groups can book a special visit. Call 01503 230211 or email email@example.com.
• Getting married? Port Eliot is licensed for weddings. Call Jo Buchanan on 01503 230211 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.