To lose a house to fire is always a tragedy, but when the house is one of the very few Grade I-listed houses in an area it is a particularly hard loss. Dunsland was a fascinating house both architecturally and historically and its destruction after surviving decades of neglect and having undergone an extensive - and nearly complete - restoration deprived north Devon of one of its few large houses.
There had been a house and estate at Dunsland for hundreds of years. Remarkably, it had only been sold three times - once in 1428, 1945 (having passed through inheritance in the intervening years) and 1950 - before its final sale to the National Trust in 1954. The original Tudor house, built no later than 1500, stood slightly to the west of the later house and contained traces of a much older building. A substantial portion of this house did survive as the south wing, serving as the kitchen and service rooms until it was abandoned and un-roofed in the early 1950s. The original house would have been quite simple, with rubble-built walls 4-5 feet thick with only the quions being squared. As the house grew it was sub-divided into two floors. All the windows were small, with wooden or stone mullions and they all, with one exception, faced inwards to the courtyard. Inside, little had changed in some aspects; meat could still be hung on hooks in the chimney to be smoked, a 'cloam' (pottery) bread oven built into the wall was still used to bake the daily bread up until 1939, and in the upstairs Housekeeper's Room, a huge, locally made cupboard with over a hundred individually labelled drawers stored the necessary supplies required to keep a remote household self-sufficient.
Dunsland was mentioned in the Domesday book. It then slips back into obscurity until it's noted that in 1428 the male line of the Cadiho family, who had owned the estate for approximately 400 years, had died out and the house passed, via the married daughter's inheritance, to the Dabernon family. This was short lived and within two generations had been passed again through a married daughter's inheritance to the Battyn family who held it until it passed once more through a daughter to the Arscotts and then by the same route to the Bickford family.
It was the Bickfords who were responsible for the major improvements and enlargements which created the final Dunsland house. They were a wealthy family from Plympton in south Devon who owned land around St Keverne in Cornwall. Grace Arscott was the last of that family and Dunsland passed to her and her husband William Bickford. Grace outlasted William but when she died in 1686 their son, Arscott Bickford, inherited the estate and it was he who created the final Dunsland house. He married three times with the second and third of those marriages both to members of the powerful Prideaux family. Both these wives seem to have brought little land with them but they did bring money which allowed Arscott to create the new north wing and other improvements to the house.
Though the exterior of the house could be regarded as rather provincial, the quality and variety of the interior decoration - especially that of the Drawing Room - was equivalent to that of the great houses of the Home Counties or the Shires. There was little comparable to it elsewhere in Devon at the time. In particular the Drawing Room ceiling plasterwork and the wood carvings were some of the best in the county. The ceiling had a wide cove decorated with a continuous chain of festoons supported by plaster ribbons. The middle centred on an oval garland of roses surrounded by rectangular panels meeting circular panels in each corner. The longer rectangles contained scrolls of acanthus with animals and birds just visible in the foliage, with the shorter rectangle containing the family crests surrounded by military trophies. Though very detailed, the work was rich without appearing too heavy. The chimneypiece was also a curiosity having a conventional lower part in keeping with the style of the rest of the room, whilst the upper part showed a different hand entirely. The overmantel had been carved with great skill and care and had, somewhat inevitably, been linked with Grinling Gibbons as it contained many of his familiar motifs. However, though good, it is not to Gibbons exceptionally high standard and is more likely to be the work of a local man, Michael Chuke, who had been apprenticed to Gibbons and returned to work in Devon, achieving much acclaim over time. It is also possible that the overmantal was brought from the demolition sale of nearby Stowe House in 1739.
The new North, or Restoration, wing was built of local stone and faced with ashlar with a series of terraces in front. It was this wing which contained the fine rooms - a central salon, drawing room, library and parlour. Apart from the finely decorated Drawing Room mentioned previously, the other rooms were decorated in a simple style with moulded panels, with the panelled walls painted to resemble walnut.
The period at the end of the 1600s marked the high point in the Bickford family fortunes and, though long, the decline continued until 1945. However, this also meant that the house was largely untouched and no further grand projects were undertaken leaving the house to pass into the 20th century looking much as it had three hundred years earlier. The house had passed through the families until the 29th owner, Arscott Harvey Dickinson, put it up for sale in 1945. Though he had bravely tried to maintain the house, the impact of the two World Wars and a shortage of staff and money had left the house, according to the sales particulars as 'in need of considerable repair and redecoration'.
Dunsland was following a familiar pattern at this point. The house and woodland was sold to a Mr De Savoury from London who promptly and rapidly started felling the valuable timber - the house was merely a sideshow to his main interest and would probably have been demolished or allowed to fall into ruin. However, in 1949 the architect Philip Tilden was dispatched by the Devon County Planning Authority to inspect and report on Dunsland. By this point the decay of the previous years was accelerating - the magnificent drawing room ceiling was close to collapse due to a rotting timber beam and the bottom had fallen out of one of the huge slate rainwater tanks in the ceiling so that whenever it rained the water poured onto the main staircase.
Tilden had recently restored the nearby Wortham Manor and his practice specialised in rescuing and restoring historic houses for his clients. In spite of his report no action was being taken - so Tilden sold Wortham Manor and stepped in himself in 1950. As he said in his autobiography1:
"...my wife and I felt we had no alternative but to buy it ourselves...We did emergency repairs to keep out the weather, paid the timber merchant five pounds for every tree he left standing, fitted a small kitchen into one corner of the hall, with two bathrooms over, and moved in."
However, despite his brave action, and living in such spartan conditions, Tilden was growing old, his health started failing, and he lacked sufficient funds to complete the project. He tried to reduce the size of the project by unroofing the oldest part of the house - the kitchen wing - but these actions were merely delaying the decline of the house. Tilden died in 1956 and his widow could not continue the project.
Rescue came in the form of the National Trust who had recently been left a legacy to specifically buy property in Devon or Cornwall. With this money they purchased the house and 92 acres of woodland and set about the huge task of restoring the house. An emergency £30,000 grant from the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works was spent on restoring the exterior and with further grants and a group of dedicated volunteers the house was gradually bought back to life. The house was furnished with surplus furniture from other National Trust properties and included other loaned items such as ten Chippendale chairs from the conductor Sir Adrian Boult. A team of ten local skilled craftsmen had spent over two years meticulously restoring the interior and finally it was let to Mrs Caffyn and her son who also acted as tour guides. Dunsland House had probably not looked to be in such fine condition since the completion of the North wing over 250 years ago. Everything was in place for Dunsland to take its place among the National Trust's collection and to open for the summer season in 1968.
In has never been established how the fire started, but once it had, it spread rapidly through the house. The construction of the house, with its wood panelling and the central staircase which acted as a flue, meant that the fire could not be contained and the building was gutted from end to end. By 7:30am the next day, 18 November 1967, the house was no more than a charred, smoking shell. Nothing could be saved or salvaged - the firemen recalled how they could see the furniture inside highlighted against the flames but because of the ferocity of the fire they could not enter the building.
Once the fire was out it was quickly discovered that the shell was in such a parlous state that it could collapse at any time. Restoration was not an option as all the contents had been lost, and such was the heat of the fire it meant that the stone had lost its bonding with the brick, necessitating a complete rebuild from the foundations up - effectively a completely new house that merely looked like the old Dunsland. With the threat of falling masonary the decision was taken to quickly bulldoze what remained and the rubble was used to fill the basement along with whatever else had fallen into it. All that remains of Dunsland now is a plaque set into what was once one of the courtyard walls - a sad end to over 900 years of history.