Yesterday I took the train from Totnes, in Devon, to Bodmin, in Cornwall, from where, I had discovered recently, it is possible to walk along the carriage drive for a mile and three quarters to Lanhydrock House – “The finest house in Cornwall”. The weather stayed dry but the clocks were put back an hour on Saturday night so the days are now shorter.
When you alight from the train at Bodmin Station it is a bit like stepping back in time. There’s a hustle and bustle as people are met and packed into waiting cars and there’s a delightful station buffet … in the former signal box. Then the London train pulls out of the station on its way to Penzance, the cars roar away and all is still and quiet and you can hear the birds sing. But maybe it was just the whistle of a steam train whose line shares the station that took me back to earlier days.
At the end of the car park there’s a red gate. Go through it and you are already on the Lanhydrock House Carriage Drive. At first you walk through woodland alongside the River Fowey. After about a mile there’s a lodge house and car park. Cross the road and head uphill to another lodge, go through another gate and at the brow of the hill you can see the seventeenth century Gatehouse and Lanhydrock looms into view.
A bit of investigation before setting out lead me to discover in my Blue Guide to Literary Britain by Ian Ousby that Thomas Hardy based his description of Endelstow House, the home of the Luxellians in A Pair of Blue Eyes, on Lanhydrock House, moving it to St Juliot near Boscastle for the story.
“For by this time they had reached the precincts of Endelstow House. Driving through an ancient gate-way of dun-coloured stone, spanned by the high-shouldered Tudor arch, they found themselves in a spacious court, closed by a facade on each of its three sides. … The windows on all sides were long and many-mullioned; the roof lines broken up by dormer lights of the same pattern. The apex stones of these dormers, together with those of the gables, were surmounted by grotesque figures in rampant, passant, and couchant variety. Tall octagonal and twisted chimneys thrust themselves high up into the sky, surpassed in height, however, by some poplars and sycamores at the back, which showed their gently rocking summits over ridge and parapet. In the corners of the court polygonal bays, whose surfaces were entirely occupied by buttresses and windows, broke into the squareness of the enclosure; and a far-projecting oriel, springing from a fantastic series of mouldings, overhung the archway of the chief entrance to the house.”
A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy (Ch.5)
The house today is not the original seventeenth century edifice but a late Victorian reconstruction following a disastrous fire which destroyed most of the earlier building in 1881. It was taken over by the National Trust in 1953. After refreshments and a browse in the second-hand bookshop I toured the fifty rooms in the house open to the public. These rooms included many below stairs: kitchen, scullery, bakehouse, dry larder, fish larder, meat larder, dairy – all very Downton Abbey. Most interesting to me amongst the family’s rooms were a Family Museum, Captain Tommy’s dressing and bed rooms, the drawing room and the Long Gallery.
The obligatory visit to the shop revealed that the popular author E. V. Thompson based many of his novels on Lanhydrock.
By 3.30pm the mist was beginning to thicken so I made my way back to the Carriage Drive and enjoyed the reverse walk back to the station for my 4.25pm train back to Totnes. The cafe was closed, the steam engine was being shunted away and we stood in the gloomy, misty, light rain waiting for our Paddington-bound train.