“ESCOT: The Fall and Rise of a Country Estate” – A social landscape.

This guide describes the history of the land and the people of the Escot Estate. This lies to the east of Talaton, near Ottery St Mary in East Devon. The first record of the name ‘Escot’ is in 1227. The word comes from ‘cot’ meaning ‘small house or farm’, and ‘Es’, to the east: in this case to the east of Talaton. Cot(t) and Cote are comparatively rare names in East Devon. They predominate in the poorer northern and eastern regions of the country where sparse settlements dictated by thin soils and forest cover made an outlying farm (cot(t)/cote) such a characteristic feature: hence, for example, Northcott, Southcott and Westcott. Just to complete the picture, Ton is an enclosure or farmstead and so Talaton means ‘the farm on the river Tale’.

This, then, is the story of Escot…

Harold Godwineson was King of England for just nine months. His defeat in 1066 by William of Normandy, the Conqueror, resulted in profound social changes throughout the land. Through a mixture of terror and bribery William firmly suppressed the native Anglo-Saxons. He brought his supporters over from Normandy, installing them in positions of power and rewarding them with large grants of land. From then on, for the first time in this country, the principle was established of passing on an estate intact, to the oldest son or to the widow according to Norman custom. The aristocracy of the next few generations was nearly all of Norman descent. (P3)

Thus it was that in 1249 Dame Lucia di Estcote inherited from her husband the estate of Estcot. Upon her death her son Baldwin de Leche became Lord and he in turn left it to his son Thomas Beauchamp of Ryme. Very little is known of Escot during these early centuries, but we can assume it was organised according to the prevailing feudal system. The Lord of the Manor kept the best land for his own use but the rest of the estate was in the form of large fields divided into strips for cultivation by the serfs of his rural community, or Manor. (P3)

The lifestyle of the landed gentry was totally different from that of the majority who ranked socially below them. The richest of them built large manor houses which were often only two stories high, built in a square around an inner courtyard. Outer facing windows were small to provide some protection against a local uprising of rebellious peasants. Inside, these manor houses usually had a large number of well furnished rooms, and eventually, great chimneys to carry away the smoke from their fine open fireplaces. Probably the Lady of the Manor would enjoy her own garden, full of fragrant flowers and herbs. In contrast, the homes of the poorer people, whether cottage or farmhouse, were simple structures, sparsely furnished. In Devon such houses were generally of cob walls, with packed earth floors and a roof of thatch. (P5)

During this period, in 1680 on the death of his father, Walter inherited the title and the family estates. According to Polwhele, a historian writing a hundred years later, Walter’s father ‘then just dead, had begun to build a seat at the ancient mansion of Mohuns Ottery in the parish of Luppitt, near Ottery, but Sir Walter Yonge, taking a liking to the situation of Escot, purchased it and immediately began to build the present seat.’ Work began on the design and subsequent building of a fine mansion at Escot. But in 1685 he encountered a problem with his work force. Nine of the workmen engaged in the building of the house sought his permission actively to support the Duke of Monmouth after he landed at Lyme Regis. Sir Walter allowed them to go, while refusing to take any active part himself. The rebels wished to fight for a new freedom, which they believed possible under the Duke. They sought freedom of worship, no popery and hopefully a return to the civil rights which the commoners had enjoyed under Cromwell. The men joined the rebel army, and engaged in the fighting, which culminated in the Battle of Sedgemoor, where Monmouth suffered a crushing and fatal defeat. The men were taken prisoner and at the Exeter Assizes were sentenced to death by hanging by the infamous Judge Jeffries. Traditions vary as to the exact location where they were hanged. In the grounds of Escot stands a tall stone pillar, one of a pair of gateposts which originally stood at Fairmile, west of the Fairmile Inn. A tradition claims that the men were hanged from this post, possibly as a grim warning to Sir Walter. (P10)

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 12.34.18His other world was that of a landed country gentleman. At Escot his great pride and passion was not only to build his fine house, but equally important, to develop and beautify the gardens and grounds. This was his lifetime work and joy. (P12)

When not in London involved in his Parliamentary duties Sir Walter enjoyed life as a landed country gentleman. He inherited the family seat at Cullompton together with various other lands and properties in the West Country, but Escot was his main pride and joy, because it was his own creation. He invested a large amount of money into building his mansion at Escot and in developing his park and gardens. (P12)

No clear plan of the layout of the gardens and grounds surrounding the house has survived. It is probable that John Locke (1632-1704), ‘The Philosopher of Freedom’ and the only Englishman to contribute to the American constitution, was involved with designing improvements to the layout of the Park. (P13)

Locke counted amongst his interests gardening and horticulture and he was known to be a friend of Yonge. Notably, an area of trees known as the Horseshoe Clump was planted in the upper park. Polwhele describes how ‘the folding doors of the dining room open into the Orangery, which is sheltered by a luxurious screen of laurel that grows wonderfully thick and high. Thence a fine gravel walk that winds amidst a variety of shrubs conducts us by a gentle ascent to the aviary. And we find ourselves on an eminence overlooking the orangery and enjoying a full prospect of the richly planted hills around us … Behind the house is a noble rookery. Perhaps there are no plantations in Devon so strong and so luxuriant as those at Escot. The firs, as well as the forest trees, are very tall and branching. The growth of these trees has been remarked to be very rapid, as soon as their roots have spread through the thick loamy substratum.’ To improve the view from the South of the house, an oval pond was part of the original plan. It may have formed the centre of a series of waterworks, in the fashion of the day. The water was drawn from springs rising to the south west, conveniently enabling the creation of the ice ponds. (P14)

William, born in 1693, like his father made his career in politics. He too was elected to represent the borough of Honiton in the House of Commons. He differed from his father in that he spent most of his time in London rather than enjoying life at Escot as a country gentleman. He took very little interest in the gardens and grounds of Escot apart from their maintenance. (P15)

Apart from wishing to create suitably impressive surroundings for himself and his family to maintain his standing in the county, Sir George had inherited his grandfather’s keen interest in developing and improving his house, gardens and grounds, according to the fashion of the time. He brought in Capability Brown, whom he probably met while Brown was working at Ugbrook Park in 1761. He lavished large sums of money on Brown’s proposal to create ‘one lake, by damming the stream in the valley north east of the house’. By the late 60’s or early 70’s two sizeable lakes, Lower Pond and Middle Pond, the latter with a small island, were made, separated by a cascade, with a lesser pool, Higher Pond, upstream. ‘These three lakes extend north/south to the east of the house for 1200 yards’. (P22)

Sir George, during his more prosperous years, under the aegis of Capability Brown, improved the layout of the grounds so successfully that they were probably unchanged a hundred years later. No expense was spared in the cultivation of exotic plants and fruits, which were brought in from various regions of the world, in the fashion of the day. Many of these species prospered under glass, while others flourished in the gardens. The Exeter Flying Post reported in 1775 that: ‘There is now a quantity of Fruit on the Plants at Escott … The Papaw and banana trees are in the greatest Perfection ever known in England, and we hear may be seen by the Curious.’ (P23)Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 12.43.32

It was customary for ‘the curious’ to arrange a visit to view the glories of the park and gardens. The most eminent personages arrived on August 13th 1789. On that day Sir George and his wife entertained King George III, Queen Charlotte and three of their daughters. The royal party, travelling from Weymouth to Exeter, had digressed to see for themselves the beautiful and impressive gardens and grounds.

A large crowd gathered at the gates of Escot to welcome and to cheer the royal family. As well as viewing, and probably sampling the exotic fruits and flowers of the gardens, the royal group would have seen the mature trees, the oaks, elms, firs and beeches which flourished in the grounds.

Fortunately for Escot, the Kennaways, who purchased the estate in 1794, were both able and eager to maintain the gardens and grounds and to make their own imprint. (P24)

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For these successful services John was awarded a baronetcy by the British Government. Kennaway family tradition has it that John was initially offered a lordship but declined it on the grounds that he had insufficient funds to support the lifestyle of a lord. Instead he was pleased to accept a baronetcy together with a life sized portrait of his employer, Lord Cornwallis. (P29)

The two brothers together began a new phase of life in total contrast to their years in India. Having succeeded in their respective military and commercial fields, they now aspired to a new status, that of English landowners and gentry. Although England was moving through a time of considerable change with the growth of the Industrial Revolution, the ownership of land was still the hallmark of a gentleman. As befitted their new status, in 1794 the brothers purchased the large house and estate of Escot, for which they paid £26,000, most of the money coming from the large fortune which Richard had amassed in India. (P31)

Heavily engaged in all these commitments, Sir John devoted relatively little of his time to the actual running of his estate. We have to remember that he spent the first sixteen years of his adult life in the totally different lifestyle of the British Military in India. He had no first hand experience as a landlord. Probably because of this he gave more support to the East Devon Militia than to his own tenants. He appears to have been somewhat remote from them, for he left most of the running of the Escot estate to Samuel Trowbridge, a bailiff. Samuel worked to a simple programme of maintenance. Repairs were carried out by workmen employed on the estate, but very little capital was invested in development or improvements. At this period, the invention of simple agricultural machines was leading inexorably towards tremendous changes in agriculture, but progress was slow in reaching the West Country and the way of life at Escot continued virtually unchanged. Work on the land, in the bakery, the laundry, the stables and within the house was all still very labour intensive. Escot provided employment for a number of people from Talaton and the surrounding area and, for some, simple homes too. Probably because the grounds had been so well designed and capably laid out when Sir John purchased Escot, he felt little need to make alterations or improvements. (P33)

In December 1808 disaster struck. At 3.30 in the afternoon, as the family and guests were sitting down to dinner, fire broke out in one of the bedrooms and spread with alarming rapidity. Within three and a half hours the house was a burnt out ruin. To guard against such an event Escot had maintained its own fire engine, and also stored a large volume of water under the rafters. However, the blaze was so fierce that molten lead dropped everywhere from the roof, making it impossible to reach the water. The fire engine arrived from the Barracks, complete with military guard, but was powerless without water. Family tradition claims that a lady’s dress left drying on a clothes-horse, was left too near an open fire and started the blaze. Another version states that a candle set fire to a curtain. Tenants and local people rushed to help rescue the valuable contents of the house but the fire was so intense that very few items were saved. Many irreplaceable treasures were lost in the blaze, including furniture, paintings and china. One life was lost during the rescue attempt when a respectable yeoman, Frances Pyle, ‘while endeavouring to render assistance, was killed by a fall from a ladder, leaving a widow and six children to lament his loss.’ (P34)Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 12.54.25

The house was not insured. Sir John was actually on the board of a local Fire Insurance company, but had not yet signed the documents to insure his own property. He bore the calamitous loss with amazing fortitude, sustained by his strong Christian faith. He wrote in his journal a few days after the fire ‘I do not suppose that £25,000 would … replace the house and furniture as it before stood. May God in his infinite mercy sanctify it to me, and make this worldly loss conducive to my spiritual gain … I am rather doubtful that this house, while it stood, did not daily tempt me to break His Holy Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not worship any graven image’.’ Sir John is reputed to have said to the young lady owning the dress which he thought caused the fire, ‘My dear, I forgive you, but I never wish to see you again.’ (P35)

Two years later, in celebration of his 21st birthday, John walked round the Estate with his father and Mr Smith, the gardener, looking for places to plant more trees. This experience strengthened his love for and involvement with the grounds and gardens of Escot. Twenty years later, John, as the new Baronet, had the added responsibility of rebuilding the mansion. He followed his father’s plan to re-use the site of the former house. In 1837 John Henry, grandson of the first Baronet, laid the foundation stone. Henry Roberts, the chosen architect, designed the exterior in an elegant Greek Revival style. The chief difference from the earlier building was in the raising of the house and the creation of a terrace to the south and west. Indeed, the burnt out rubble of the previous building was used to provide a firm foundation to elevate both house and terrace. The main entrance was changed to face east, looking across the parkland, and the south side opened onto the extensive garden terrace, which was embellished with several stone urns imported from Malta. To the north, part of the hillside was cut back to make room for the kitchens, bakery, dairy, and the bothy (the single male quarters). Inside, the house followed broadly the plan of the previous one, with large elegant rooms, including a drawing room and library decorated with cornices and mouldings. Virtually none of the family furniture, valuable china, books and paintings had survived the fire, except for the prized portrait of Lord Cornwallis, presented to the first Baronet when he left India. (P38)

In his private life, Sir John took great pleasure in the gardens and grounds of Escot and carried out various improvements and developments. He maintained and improved the Wilderness as well as the kitchen gardens and nursery. This followed the fashion of the time which was to pursue interest in smaller garden projects rather than the extensive parklands of the previous age. In 1844 he built bridges over the Tale and constructed miles of park fencing. In 1858 the first reference to the purchase and planting of azaleas and rhododendrons was recorded. (P40)

In 1860 change arrived at Escot with the coming of the railway. The northern Park boundary was moved southwards to accommodate the new Exeter to Yeovil railway which was to run through the northern edge. To compensate, an area to the south east was opened up and a block of woodland, the Boathouse Copse, planted. Nearer the house two acres of garden were enclosed by high walls, using bricks reclaimed from the old fire-damaged house. Within the shelter of this walled garden, fruit, flowers and vegetables flourished, sufficient to supply the needs of the entire Kennaway household. Sir John had previously consulted with Sir John Claudius Loudon, a well known gardener of the time, for advice on improving the layout of his garden. Another acquaintance was Sir Stephen Cave whom he had met through a mutual interest in anti-slavery. Sir Stephen designed an extensive fernery with a fine collection of rare native ferns. (P41)

Water meadows were an important element of agriculture in those times. Fields lying in a river’s flood plain were periodically dammed and their waters used to flood the neighbouring pastures so that the sediment and the river waters might improve and prolong the grass harvests. (P42)

In June 1858 Sir John introduced a novelty at Escot, an aquarium. Only recently had a glass been developed that was strong enough to contain the weight of water. The Kennaway boys collected water plants for it. John, Charlie and Emily, fishing in the pond, caught three little carp, some minnows, sticklebacks and water boatmen and three newts. Their father bought goldfish, beetles and tench to supplement their stock. This interest in pond life was part of a national surge of interest in natural history, stimulated by the work of Charles Darwin and others. (P43)Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 13.00.30

William Makepiece Thackeray, the well-known author, was another person who enjoyed the beauties of Escot Park and gardens. Thackeray as a young man stayed with his mother and stepfather at Larkbeare, a hamlet just outside Talaton. He was introduced to the first Baronet and became friendly with his children. Twenty years later in 1852 he recalled his memories of Escot and used them as a setting for his novel Pendennis. He used features of the house, the grounds and the waters, thinly disguised by different names. He described ‘the rapid and shining Brawl skirting the woods of Clavering Park, behind which swells a fair background of shining hills’. In Pendennis, Ottery was renamed Clavering and Escot became Clavering Park, the oval pond in front of the house was renamed Carp Pond, and the River Tale became the Brawl. Major Pendennis in the novel represented Sir John Kennaway himself. Thackeray also made reference to other recognisable features in the Escot estate, including an ancient hollow oak tree under which his hero Pen composed a number of poems and in which he hid his fishing tackle. (P44)

The life-span of the third Baronet encompassed more rapid social, economic and religious changes than that of any of his predecessors. Life for the tenants was altering as Escot became less of a self-sufficient community. By the time Sir John Henry inherited Escot in 1873, newspapers sent daily from London by train were bringing regular news and a greater awareness of the world outside the locality. Before the coming of the railways, few of the inhabitants of Escot and Talaton would have travelled more than twenty miles from their home in a lifetime. Now they could take inexpensive train journeys to visit places further afield, widening their horizons. As well as carrying passengers, the trains enabled the rapid movement of goods and farm produce around the country. (P45)

 Inevitably the wholesale value of British produced foodstuffs dropped steadily. The income of farmers and landowners dropped with it. For the first time in centuries, the landed gentry relied more on the income from rents and investments than on the sale of their farm produce to provide them with an income. Sir John, in accordance with the general trend, was forced to increase rents, while continuing his father’s policy of improvements to and maintenance of the estate cottages. He sold off some of the farms to tenants. From the 1870s, British agriculture slid into a severe depression and Britain’s continuing prosperity now depended on her industrial expansion, especially in the mining of coal and the production of vast quantities of iron and steel for export. (P46)

Among these was Edward Lear, the popular humorist, who poked gentle fun at his friend in a popular limerick. Sir John was not immune to the fashions of his day. After the Crimean War, for the first time in two hundred years, beards were back and Sir John was noted for his long and luxuriant beard. In fact, it was a king among beards, inspiring Lear to write:

There was an old man with a beard
Who said ‘It is just as I feared!
Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren Have all made their nests in my beard.

His private life with his family and the rural aspects of his life at Escot were equally important to Sir John. He was devoted to his wife and to their three children, Gertrude, born in 1874, Joyce in 1876 and finally, in 1879, a son and heir, yet another John. When at Escot, Sir John enjoyed all the normal pursuits of a country gentleman. He frequently joined in the hunting, shot rabbits and game birds round the estate, and found time to go fishing. He was justifiably proud of his house and grounds. Having inherited gardens and parkland that were mature and well laid out, it was his pride to maintain these to a high standard with an efficient team of gardeners. (P50)Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 13.06.57

After one of these events a local journalist wrote a lengthy account for his paper. ‘On September 14th 1877 in the morning before the garden party, rain fell dolefully all the morning and the sun shone in a shamefaced sort of way in the afternoon. However, those invited were tempted by the beauty of Escot and were found roaming in its grounds, playing tennis on the lawn, or congregated on the terrace overlooking the lake and the pretty vista behind. The flower garden with its subtropical bed in the centre, and tasteful bordering forms a picture in itself … its trim and well kept appearance reflects no small credit on Sir John’s gardener, Mr Underdown … the conservatory, though small, contains some choice specimens … the roof is spangled with the star-like ‘Taxoma’ and the house contains some beautiful specimens of the bell shaped ‘Layera Rosa’ and one or two of the garden lilies of Japan.’ (P51)

His main purpose for this journey was to collect and bring home rare cuttings of azaleas and rhododendrons to enhance the grounds of Escot. They were planted in the Wilderness and some magnificent specimens survive to the present day. On his return he was called to the Bar and subsequently commuted between London and Escot. In London he successfully combined work with a full social life. At home in Devon he gave increasing support to his father in the daily work of running the Estate. (P57)

The new Sir John’s first major task was to repair the depredations which the war had inflicted on the Estate. Because of the shortage of manpower and materials, various buildings were in need of repairs. Many trees had been cut down and sold as timber to help the War effort so Sir John began a major programme of tree planting for which he used machinery. Indeed he turned to machinery to do much of the essential work on the farms. So many young men had lost their lives or been seriously injured during the war that manpower remained scarce. Those who had returned safely were changed. The fighting had drawn together men of all classes and different backgrounds in shared experiences of danger and the need to work together, so some of the barriers had been broken down. Although the class system continued, each group had a better understanding of each other and a greater respect. Economically, life in the early twenties was hard. Inevitably, taxes rose, mainly for the wealthy who had to pay a third of their income to the government. (P61)

Perhaps the greatest change in lifestyle since the Kennaways arrival at Escot came in 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War. Sir John was by now too old to be recalled to the armed forces, but gave sterling service in the Home Guard. His two sons, John Lawrence and Richard Noel, were only six and four years old respectively and their sister Mary Joyce (Marigold), was even younger. However, Escot did not escape the impact of war on family life. It became a temporary home for 40 evacuee children from London in the care of the Waifs and Strays Society. The accounts show that in 1942 wages of £13 were paid quarterly to a Mr Collins, in charge of the ‘waifs and strays’. The Kennaways moved to an estate property at Fairmile to avoid the noise and lack of privacy caused by the presence of so many children in the house. Nevertheless Sir John obviously had an affinity for the children. On one occasion he dropped his penknife in the walled garden and it was found by one of the boys. He gave the boy a coin as a reward and, seeing the joy this induced, thereafter he would periodically drop his penknife on purpose. (P66)

John Lawrence inherited the Baronetcy in 1956, and, with it, an Escot that was fraught with financial problems. Previously, his life had followed a traditional pattern with education at Postbridge School Dartmoor, followed by Harrow. He then broke with the classic tradition of his forebears and, after only a brief time at Cambridge University, he chose to study at the Rural Estate Management branch of Wye College (London University), where his main interest and forte lay with forestry and timber. When he took on the burden and privilege of Escot he devoted himself especially to maintaining the great variety of mature trees at Escot. The flower beds were somewhat neglected as he had no particular interest in blossoms. He did make some changes to the house, in that he pulled down the old nursery at the rear. This part of the house was in need of a great deal of renovation, so he decided that, as these buildings were no longer essential, he could not justify the expense of bringing them up to mid 20th century standards. Fortunately this process of demolition did not include the attractive buildings round the old courtyard, so this area survives, including the old dairy, the bread oven and the bothy – former sleeping quarters for single males who worked in and around the house. (P67)

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Money was scarce because Escot was still reeling from the Death Duties imposed upon the decease of the 4th Baronet. The high maintenance cost of a large estate, and the fluctuating economics of modern agriculture also created a huge financial challenge. In 1983, Sir John’s son, John- Michael, had completed his education and returned to Escot. Soon after, Sir John Lawrence made a big decision. He realised that John-Michael was much more passionately involved in all aspects of the running of Escot than he was himself. In 1987 he with the entire family agreed to hand over the house, the estate and all the responsibilities these entailed, to him and the fifth Baronet withdrew to live elsewhere. (P68)

1984 found the Escot estate in a parlous state. In common with many English traditional rural estates, the challenges of crippling inheritance taxes, high maintenance costs of a stately home and the fluctuating economics of modern agriculture had reduced the estate to a position that the original Kennaways could hardly have believed possible. Attempts by the fifth Baronet to diversify had been either ill-judged, unlucky or perhaps a little of both. The vigour and optimism of a new generation was called for and so it was that in January 1984 John-Michael Kennaway was invited by the wider family to take up the reins.

What lay ahead were 25 years of struggle in which there were some highlights but perhaps rather more unlucky, demoralising setbacks. Government legislation, natural disasters and a major highway driven through the heart of the estate all played their unhelpful part. Critically, perhaps, the main characters in the unfolding story, John-Michael and his friend Lucy Bradshaw-Smith (soon to become his wife), possessed the key qualities of perseverance and tenacity in abundance. Crucially they shared a love of the natural world and a selfless commitment to the Escot cause. They had complementary skills: John-Michael was trained in aquaculture and Lucy in catering. What they did not know they soon learned through experience, as is the custom in the countryside. And so in January 1984, the latest and most crucial episode in the estate’s history began. For Escot, the stakes could not have been higher. (P60)

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On 22nd October 1988 the couple married and set up home in Escot House. They immediately took stock of the business viability of their ventures to date. They took the view that fish farming had little long term future and that, while pets and ornamental fish sales (as opposed to fish farming) might be profitable, opening the gardens to the public was likely to offer much greater rewards. Accordingly, in 1989 the fish ponds in the walled garden were filled in and the area found a new role as a Victorian rose garden. Escot Aquatic Centre was created largely in the old pig rearing area, or linhay, at Home Farm. This business concentrated on the sale of ornamental fish and a range of pets and pet supplies. In the same year, Escot Gardens were opened to the public. A grand total of 500 visitors paid 50p for the tour: a start had been made.

However, just as enthusiasm for the enterprise began to take root, a near hurricane hit East Devon on 25th January 1990 and the estate lost some 5,000 trees and 200 metres of the walled garden. This was the first of many setbacks the couple were to endure, though this, like those later, failed to deter them. Convinced that the garden needed wider appeal, the Kennaways introduced a pair of otters to the estate, and, on April Fool’s day, wild boar too. When one wild boar contrived to escape, this produced welcome press coverage and visitor numbers for 1990 leapt to 4,500. (P71)

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By 1992, a pattern of estate life had been established. The Pet and Aquatic Centre was nominated UK Pet Centre of the Year. Building on this success, John-Michael started a highly successful new business of water garden design and construction (Gentlemen Prefer Ponds). Events were becoming a regular feature. Lucy was busy drawing up plans for a restaurant and the House was being used increasingly for functions. However the unquestioned highlight of 1992 was the Police Ball, during which the safe was stolen from the Estate office! On a more sombre note, battle lines were drawn up between conservationists and the authorities when plans first conceived in the 1940s for a new dual carriageway straight through the eighteenth century parkland of the estate finally came to fruition, thereby isolating Escot Church from Escot House.

Development, both commercial and domestic, continued apace in 1993. On 1st April the Coach House Restaurant was opened to the public. This major investment illustrated the Kennaways’ confidence that opening the gardens to the public represented a key element in achieving future economic prosperity for the estate.  (P72)

Bicentenary year was also dramatically memorable for Escot’s aquatic business because of a national outbreak of Spring Viraemia of Carp (SVC). Escot’s main supplier had tested positive to the reactor virus and so by association Escot became part of the outbreak chain. The entire stock (excluding tropical fish) had to be slaughtered and the site disinfected – without compensation. This involved humanely killing all the aquatic centre pond fish and using hydrochloric acid to sterilise the system. As a result, much of the plastic pipe work dissolved and had to be replaced. Harder to bear was the compulsory destruction, without sampling or testing, of all lake and stock pond fish. The one acre lake and seven stock ponds were drained, the fish killed and burned under supervision of the Environment Agency, and everything covered in quicklime, thereby killing adjacent yew trees that cannot tolerate alkaline conditions. The fishery had been built up over ten years and contained beautiful carp up to 30lbs and other specimen species. Recovery took a further ten years: the financial loss was calculated at around £30,000.

Meanwhile commercial activities continued to grow and 1994 saw the first wedding reception in Escot House, an aspect of Escot business that would expand considerably in years to come.

In spring 1995 the old ice ponds (originally providing ice for the ice house nearby) became an eight acre Wetlands and Conservation Area – an important habitat for a range of endangered species, and a free community amenity. No plans for the ice ponds have ever come to light but the principle was shallow, static areas of water that would freeze easily. Also in 1995, birds of prey displays were introduced to the gardens for the first time by local enthusiast Bill Jelley. (P75)

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In 1996 Escot was granted a Civil Marriage Licence and became one of the very first private venues in Devon to take advantage of this opportunity. Escot House retained its primary role as a family home, though parts of the upper floors were rented out as flats. At this time the House was repainted and the entrance stairway redecorated with a jungle mural. The effect was heightened by an extraordinary collection of exotic plants including ferns and palms throughout which birds and insects abound. Inspiration for this eccentric facade came partly from the story of Mark Kennaway, a nephew of the 4th baronet. In 1902 he had bought an estate in the Malayan jungle which, for sentimental reasons, he also named Escot. (P76)

Once again, however, it was events from the outside world which proved most significant of all. The threatened A30 dual carriageway construction was held up for some time by the efforts of a group of protesters led in the final stages by Daniel Hooper (better known as Swampy), a troglodytic environmental protester whose activities were, frankly, very much supported by the local community. For some time prior to the completion of the new road, permanent protest camps existed on both sides of the river valley. These camps, known amongst protesters as Trollheim and Fairmile, included a number of tree houses and networks of underground tunnels and bunkers. The occupants of the camps were eventually evicted in January 1997 amid considerable national publicity.

The construction of the new road caused a significant loss of business to the estate with very little compensation. However, it was also an opportunity to take stock and make plans for the next phase of the recovery plan, and, at this point, Godfrey Kent, an erstwhile naval commander but now specialising in growth strategies for stately homes, was appointed as Escot’s Development Officer, a position he held for some 15 years. (P77)

However, February 2001 saw the national outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Considerable areas of Devon suffered badly and from East Hill, adjacent to Ottery St Mary, smoke from the carcass-burning pyres could be clearly seen on the horizon over Dartmoor. The wind could have easily carried the virus into our midst but fortunately no Escot farm was infected. However, the rural tourist industry was in freefall and the estate’s main concern was the inevitable reduction in visitor numbers to the gardens. Though locals were very supportive, many potential visitors assumed they would not be welcome in the countryside and stayed away. In the event, the gardens remained free of restrictions, though the wild boar were kept well clear of the public.

Like many rural businesses, the economic impact of the outbreak caused the estate to seek to diversify still further in efforts to maintain income levels. And so it was that Escot House’s three main public rooms with their stunning views over the park were made available to a new conference business that soon became a profitable feature of the estate business portfolio. (P79)

Market research confirmed that visitors to Escot enjoyed their visit but National Trust properties and the natural beauty of the East Devon countryside both provided strong competition. It was therefore decided that the gardens should seek out a particular market: Escot was to specialise. The chosen target was to be families with small children. The key strategy was to provide families with not only beautiful things to see but also exciting things to do, and whenever possible those activities should be ones that families could take part in together. (P80)

Building on the 1996 experience of Campus, in 2002 the estate hosted a new music and arts festival, Beautiful Days. Owned by the rock band The Levellers, this eclectic mix of music, art and crafts grew steadily and sold out every year, soon reaching a steady state of some 15,000 visitors. In 2007 a separate open air concert featured Australian Pink Floyd and, in 2010, Escot reached another milestone as a pop venue with international stars JLS and James Morrison.

This commercial success was recognized by a British Small Business Champions Award in 2004, and in 2009 the gardens were South West Small Visitor Attraction of the Year Silver Award Winners. (P83)

And so as 2010 approached, gardens visits, conferences, events and weddings were well established businesses and Escot had been formally designated as one of Devon’s top attractions. With the conversion in 2007 of the old kitchens and bothy area into rental accommodation, a significant buildings modernisation programme had been successfully completed. Agricultural lettings were all taken up. Much, therefore, had been accomplished since the dark days of the 1980s. Escot had re-established the balance between the two essential elements for any successful private estate: a happy family life and wealth creation. A platform for further growth had also been established. (P83)

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On 30th October 2008 a remarkably localised overnight hail and rain storm of extraordinary proportions threatened to disrupt this progress. In the early hours of the morning a foot of hail fell on Ottery St Mary and the Tale Valley, followed immediately by four inches of rain in an hour and six inches in two hours. This inevitably resulted in dramatic flash flooding. As one local resident put it: “I woke up this morning and the car was missing. It had obviously floated away.”

Both 1844 brick bridges across the river Tale were washed away, together with three others elsewhere on the estate. The 1844 bridges had been very substantial and their absence threatened the 2009 Beautiful Days Music and Arts Festival until temporary bridging could be constructed. The permanent re-build was completed in May 2010. Fortunately, the very considerable expense involved was covered by insurance. (P84)

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Channon, L (2012). ESCOT: The Fall and Rise of a Country Estate. Devon: Ottery Heritage.

Channon’s book highlights that whilst Escot Park is known as a “natural” place, its modern day appearance has been specifically sculpted over hundreds of years to suit the social trends of a particular time in history. Whilst it may appear to the unaware eye that the parkland is so naturally beautiful, every details, down to the positions of the trees and lakes, has been carefully designed and thought about to bring the best out of the now 1200 acre estate. I am going to photograph the estate as it is today, drawing upon facts from its history, to show how a natural landscape is actually created with social expectations and desires in mind and never stays the same; it is the changing social landscape of a country estate: Escot Park.

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