by Margaret Powling
It doesn’t take a gigantic leap of imagination to consider what it might have been like, almost two centuries ago, to arrive by carriage at Lupton House; to be swept around the drive which encircles the front lawn and to be received by your host at the gracious manor house, its somewhat severe Palladian façade having been re-modelled in 1843 in the Neo-classical style, with gracefully arched Venetian windows and a proud Tuscan porch.
But this early Victorian make-over, in the Georgian style, was just one of the many metamorphoses of Lupton, a Grade II Listed mansion in Churston, in Devon. In Anglo-Saxon times the area was known as Lochetone, or “locked-in”, and the Domesday Book records the land as being tended in 1050 by Otre who paid geld (tax) for one virgate of land, the equivalent of around 30 acres today. One of the most tenuous of the landowners was the Upton family who held the manor and estate for 300 years and, indeed, the name of Lupton is a derivative of L’Upton as used by the Norman French of those times.
“Unfortunately, little is known of that period,” says Janet Howard, one of the Trustees of the recently formed Lupton Trust, “but it is believed that extensive remains of older buildings may lie behind and beneath the old servants’ quarters of the present house.”
To say that Lupton House is not the house it once was is perhaps an understatement, but like the dowager duchess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, you can see the bones of what must once have been a thing of great beauty. In 1765 the existing house and estate was purchased by Charles Hayne, a wealthy merchant who also served as High Sheriff of Devon, for the sum of £7,190. It was Hayne who had the existing house rebuilt in the Palladian style in 1772.
One of Lupton’s more-famous residents was Francis Yarde-Buller, created a Baronet in 1789. He was known as ‘Judge Thumb’ because a satirical cartoon by James Gillray, published in 1782, lambasted Yarde-Buller for allegedly ruling that a man might legally beat his wife if the stick he uses is no thicker than his thumb. The emphasis here must rest on the word “allegedly” for it is more likely that Judge Thumb’s epithet was because of his legal document Nisi Prius, now considered ‘a rule of thumb’ by lawyers. It was the 3rd Baronet, John Yarde-Buller – appointed first Baron Churston of Churston Ferrers and Lupton in 1858 – who engaged architect George Wightwick to remodel the house in the fashionable Neo-classical style.
In 1926 fire destroyed the upper storey and interior, and fine panelling and decorative plasterwork were lost. But the house was restored and in 1943 both the house and land were requisitioned for the war effort and played a major role in the support and training of the USA Infantry in their preparations for Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings. “Flattened areas, still visible in the field beyond the tennis court are clues to the position of their bell-tents and field kitchens which are known to have been there,” says B P Hinton in the booklet For the Love of Lupton.
After WW2 Lupton was let by Lord Churston when, with little alteration, the tenants turned the house into a country house hotel. Later, it was a series of preparatory schools until its closure in 2004, when the property was vacated. Lying empty it became the target for vandalism and would have fallen into total disrepair had not the Lupton Trust (now a registered charity) been formed in 2008 specifically to bring this historic house, garden and estate back into use for the benefit of the local community.
In many ways Lupton’s history would mirror that of many of our historic country houses were it not for one important and perhaps unique detail: hidden under mountains of grass and simply waiting to be discovered is an 18th century Italianate garden thought to have been constructed during the time of the 3rd Baronet John Yarde-Buller. Such gardens – terraced, and ornamented with balustrades, statuary and fountains - were popular in England in the 1820s. Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) was an enthusiast but it is thought that the first gardener and writer to praise this style for its symmetry was Scotsman, J C Loudon (1783-1843). However, Italianate gardens fell out of favour during the 1870s when new fashions superseded them.
“The garden has been hailed as a ‘rare and innovative gem’ by English Heritage,” says Howard, and the Lupton Trust recently learned that it had secured £75,750 in grants - £25 from English Heritage and £50,750 from the Heritage Lottery Fund - for the development phase of the garden’s restoration.
Kim Auston, landscape architect for English Heritage, who visited the gardens last year, said, “These gardens are particularly interesting as they are a rare survivor of an Italianate design in Devon.”
Today, the Trust’s Lupton Project is ‘to create a thriving centre for the wellbeing of the community, community groups, charities and social enterprises which will be financially self-sustainable through a combination of renting space, support, training, social enterprise, volunteering and events.’
“The restoration and refurbishment of Lupton will create a community of hope and opportunity for all who are in need of better health and social support,” says Howard. Already groups are using the house for Zumba fitness, Yoga, and other therapies, and visitors can enjoy the delights of the The Healing Café, meander through its tranquil woodland paths, or simply relax under the majestic Lucumbe Oak.