Lindridge was easily one of the finest houses in the south west - possibly even of national importance in view of its particularly fine interiors. The devastating fire on 25 April 1963 robbed the nation of an elegant building which had commanded its fine views across the valley for over 300 years.
The site of Lindridge was, from 1044 until 1549, the site of the country retreat for the Bishops of Exeter. There are no known images of the orginal Elizabethan house but it must have a house of some significance as its owners included Elizabeth I, James I, and the Earl of Salisbury. In 1614, the house was bought by one Richard Martin, a lawyer, for £2,900. In 1617 he decided to build a new house to reflect his success. The orginal house was subsumed into a much larger house which covered over an acre. However, Richard died in 1618 before he could see his grand plan completed. It was left to his brother Thomas Martin, who had inherited Lindridge, to complete the transformation. Thomas himself enjoyed the house for only two years before his death in 1620, the property then passing to his son, William Martin. The estate then passed through various Martins until it was sold to Sir Peter Lear in 1660.
Peter Lear was originally from Devon but in 1645 he started travelling, ending up as a very successful plantation owner. However his health was failing so in 1659 he decided to return to Devon. He returned with his great wealth and fame, and was promptly made a Baronet by the newly restored Charles II. Sir Peter sought peace and quiet in his native Devon and bought Lindridge in 1660. A remarkable transformation for a yeoman's son from Ipplepen in just 15 years.
Sir Peter set about rebuilding Lindridge with no expense spared. Considering the quality of the work it's unsurprising that they continued until at least 1673. The Restoration was a period of renewed confidence after the dark days of the Commonwealth and many fine houses were built at this time with the rewards of supporting the Royalist cause. Sir Peter demolished two flanking wings of the original 'pile', retaining just the central section creating a house 9-bays wide by 6 deep. It was this house which remained, though with further alterations, until 1963.
However, it was internally where Sir Peter was particularly successful. Having travelled widely and been well acquainted with the quality of work available in London, Sir Peter was determined to match the finest that he had seen. Christopher Hussey, writing in Country Life in 1938, thought the quality so high that he assumed that craftsmen from London had been brought down to excute the work. The wainscotting and fireplaces were of the highest quality with the doorcases being exceptionally fine. However, it was the ornamental ceilings in the Ballroom and Morning Room which were particularly of note. The Ballroom measured 50ft by 30ft and work was completed in 1673 and was marked by a plaque over the chimney with the date. The historian Polwhele, visiting in 1793 described the ballroom:
"It has six windows; and its rich, carved work, copper ceiling, and the panels of burnished gold, are highly ornamental".
The 'copper ceiling' referred to an unusual and impressive technique whereby the plaster flora and foliage decorations were attached to the base by means of copper wire. This produced an overall effect of greater delicacy and skill than the usual mouldings. Very few of these type of ceilings have survived - another example at Dunsland, in north Devon was also lost to fire. The same technique was also used in the morning room - again an indication of Sir Peter's wealth.
Lindridge was owned by a succession of Lears until 1747 when it was bought for £8,000 by John Baring of Exeter. However, he died the next year and the house passed to his son. John Baring the younger inherited the house and estates but his business was mainly based in Exeter. Needing a house closer to his work, Baring sold the house to John Line in 1765 who lived there until his death in 1777. Line's widow married into the locally prominent Templar family who owned it until 1920, making very few changes and thus preserving the splendid Carolinian interiors.
By 1910, the house was being let and Lord Cable took a lease for £380 per annum. In 1915 he arranged a new 40-year lease at £643 per annum and embarked on a series of alterations, before buying the property outright for £75,000 in 1920. The alterations, completed by 1916, significantly changed the appearance of the house. Until this point the house was faced with plain stucco and simple sash windows. The alterations removed the plain stucco and refaced the house in red brick with the windows given glazing bars and shutters. On the south and east fronts, the parapet was removed and the central window on each side enlarged and given a semi-circular extension which now interrupted the cornice of the roof-life. Large stone urns were also placed at each corner of the roof plus two more on the south front where the projecting end bays met the roof. This period represented one of the high-points in terms of the care of the house - not only was the house updated but also the famous gardens were laid out at this time.
Lord Cable died in 1927 and the house passed to his daughter, Ruth, who married Edward Benthall (of Benthall Hall, Shropshire). The Benthall family business was based in India but following nationalisation after independence in 1947, the family was left with very little. Lady Benthall preferred to live in the south of France, whilst Edward Benthall lived a meagre, batchelor-like existence in Lindridge. Money was scarce so there were few staff and most of the major rooms were closed up.
Sir Edward died in 1961 leaving the house and estate to his son Michael. Michael felt little connection with the house and, as he was based in London as director of the Old Vic theatre, had little use for a large house in Devon. In December 1961 Lindridge was put up for sale. The house and two farms were bought, for £60,000, by the ever-rapacious timber merchants who proceeded to fell most of the ancient trees. The house and 60 acres were quickly re-sold, for £15,750 to a Mr Brady of Brixham.
Despite the relative neglect of the last 40 years the house still contained its fine interiors. In June 1962, Lady Benthall held a sale of most of the contents (furniture, linens etc) and some fittings - the 5ft 6ins tall by 3ft 9in wide ballroom chandelier going for £4,200.
Local concern as to the future plans for the house were allayed when Mr Brady announced that he wished to restore it to its former glory and live there with his wife and daughter - funded, in part, by opening the house and gardens to the public. He is quoted as saying "I feel a place like this is part of our national heritage and that as many people as possible should be able to enjoy it". However, the locals were less impressed when he also announced that he wished to build 100 holiday chalets in the grounds - 250 objections scuppered that plan.
The plans to open the house and gardens went ahead with a limited trial in 1962. The brochure shows people wandering in the gardens and relaxing by the pool. The brochure also proclaimed that "The Ballroom, Morning Room, Dining Room and Main Hall have all been recently restored to suit the requirements of the House now that it is open to the Public". All looked set for a successful start to the next chapter in Lindridge's history.
The fire started in the early morning of 25 April 1962. It awoke the tenant who ran to the nearby farms to raise the alarm and although fire engines from five stations attended, a severe lack of water hindered their efforts. As part of the fire insurance, the swimming pool was to be kept full as a reservior but it had been emptied for cleaning prior to the opening. With only the water from the lily ponds there was little the firemen could do. By morning, all that remained was a roofless, blackened shell.
For the next twenty years various schemes and owners flirted with Lindridge but nothing happened. Finally, plans for demolition of the shell and the building of a luxury development were approved and now, where the beautiful and elegant house once sat, a new red-brick patische apartment block stands.