Mothecombe Gardens lie at the mouth of the Erme estuary, surrounded by the Flete Estate. They are approached through the hamlet of Mothecombe, which consists of fifteen thatched estate cottages. It is like stepping back in time…
Mothecombe House is a Queen Anne house with additions by Sir Edwin Lutyens. On the south front there is a walled garden with Lutyens Terraces planted with wisteria, irises and agapanthus, and a lawn with herbaceous borders. A door leads to an orchard underplanted with daffodils, with a camellia walk to the woodland garden. Here the camellias, magnolias and cherries give way to rhododendrons, hydrangeas and mixed shrubs. These are underplanted with masses of snowdrops and hellebores followed by Solomon’s seal and sheets of bluebells as spring advances. Turning the corner one suddenly hears the sea, and can access the private beach through a wicket gate.
Returning along the bottom path, two giant gunnera of elephantine proportions flank a pool, and a thicket of brilliant willow and cornus appear luminous in the low winter sunshine, followed by Pieris forestii and deciduous azaleas. The next blaze of colour is in the bog garden, with masses of cool green ferns and huge arum lilies, skunk cabbage, iris, primulas, astilbes and hostas. In June, there is a dramatic display of flowering cornus above the bog garden, which is fed by a stream which winds between colourful banks.
Finally, beside the gardeners’ bothy and potting shed, designed by Lutyens, are the glass houses and walled gardens which have been replanted with masses of lavender and flowers to feed the bees and butterflies. Grassy paths lead through shrub roses up to the Duchess’ Walk and hazel tunnel to Mothecombe Grove and the Autumn garden and back between two pillars of Eucryphia which absolutely hum with bees in August.
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Tour of Plants
Mothecombe House is a Queen Anne house built in 1710, with Victorian kitchens ,and a dining room and garden passage designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. In summer, huge pots of coral coloured geranium Frank Headley frame the entrance .
On the south front there is a walled garden with Lutyens Terraces planted with wisteria, irises and agapanthus, and a lawn with herbaceous borders. These are packed with alliums, foxglove,salvia, Stachys lanata,geraniums and alchemilla, as well as towering blue echium pininana, much loved by the bees. A door leads to an orchard, where the remaining old cider apple trees are underplanted with daffodils. Beside the stream are large Magnolias campbelli Mollicomata and Soulangeana, and several smaller specimens including M stellata through the orchard. Also a Davidia involucrata followed by Cercidiphyllum japonicum and Clerodendron fargesii on the bank above the path, with a row of huge double white flowering cherries. These are succeeded by a Halesia monticola and Parrotia persica.
Massive camellias arch over the path as it enters the woodland garden between two pillars of Eucryphia x nymanensis which are humming with bees throughout August. Here the camellias, magnolias and cherries give way to rhododendrons, hydrangeas, Crinodendron hookerianum, Amelanchier and mixed Acers. These are underplanted with masses of snowdrops and hellebores followed by Solomon’s seal and sheets of bluebells as spring advances. Turning the corner one can see the grooves made in the stone by the cartwheels as they hauled seaweed used for fertiliser, and perhaps barrels of smuggled brandy from the beach. The path leads through a gate to Mothecombe beach, with the little teahouse built into the cliffs, and the ruins of the seawater bathing pool.
Mothecombe House was built in 1710 for John Pollexfen, a farmer, and occupied by his descendents until 1800 when it was bought by Henry Legassicke. The original cross passage farmhouse, now much altered, still stands, and is the green cottage behind the main house. The remains of the farm buildings are behind the cottage and on the Duchess Walk. The walled garden, cut flower garden and old stables are contemporary with the 1710 house, and the vegetable garden and small paddock occupy the old village allotments.
Henry Bingham Mildmay bought Mothecombe in 1873 to be near his wife’s childhood home, Flete and her sister, Lady Revelstoke at Membland in Newton Ferrers. Three years later he bought the Flete estate and much land and property around Holbeton to join Flete and Mothecombe and constructed a five mile carriage drive beside the river Erme to connect the two houses. He constructed the path through the orchard to the beach, the slipway and the teahouse adjoining the old lime kiln, and enclosed a second garden for vegetables. Henry Mildmay only lived in Mothecombe for a few years while Norman Shaw enlarged Flete, and then installed a caretaker until his unmarried son and daughter, Alfred and Beatrice moved in.
In 1925 Alfred Mildmay commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to design a new dining room to replace an ugly Victorian addition, the garden passage, vaulted courtyard and install bathrooms. Lutyens also remodelled the terrace and walled garden and designed the garden buildings with the characteristic sweep at the corners of the roof. Mildmay planted the magnificent tree rhododendrons and the troughs of agapanthus on the terrace and long borders, but nothing else remains of his plantings.
Flete House was occupied during the war by Freedom Fields maternity hospital, and Henry’s son Francis continued to live there with his daughter Helen, until he died. In 1950 she moved to Mothecombe following the drowning of her brother Anthony, the only son of Francis and heir to the Flete Estate. She constructed the bottom path through the orchard and opened up the ponds and bog garden. She planted the camellia walk and many ornamental shrubs and trees throughout the garden.
Since 1982 Helen’s son Anthony and his wife have continued to create the present garden. The long borders are emptied and replanted about every five years. Two new glasshouses and a polythene tunnel were erected. The fruit cage has been replaced by ornamental flowerbeds and many of the vegetables are grown in the cut flower garden. In 1989 the bog garden was cleared and replanted and two retaining walls built, and the banks of the stream by the cottage were planted. In the gales of Spring 1990, a huge swathe of trees were flattened, losing 1000 trees across the estate. This exposed new areas of the gardens to strong winds, so two new hedges of mixed indigenous species were planted, and the whole of Mothecombe Grove has become a massive sheet of bluebells, campion and foxgloves. In 1994 an area below the Duchess Walk was cleared and planted for Autumn colour, and magnolias, rhododendrons, camellias, cornus and acers were planted in the woodland garden. In 2002 a paddock behind the old farmhouse was planted with acer and red oak for Autumn colour, and birch, acer, willow and arbutus for the coloured bark in the winter.
Flete Estate Office
Telephone: 01752 830234