The Modern Estate:  Powderham & the Courtenay family

The Modern Estate: Powderham & the Courtenay family

The Courtenays

The Courtenays

As we read in the last issue, the current Earl and Countess of Devon, Charlie and AJ Courtenay, took over  management of Powderham in 2015, following the death of Charlie’s father, Hugh. Having lived previously in California, where their two children (Joscelyn and Jack) were born, this entailed a major change for the young family. While mourning their unexpected loss and dealing with probate, they moved into the Castle, succeeded to the Earldom and took on responsibility for the many enterprises that comprise Powderham.  With support of a close-nit and dedicated staff and community, they kept the show on the road and look back on their first year at Powderham with pride.

As their second Powderham season begins, the pace has not slackened.  The Powderham Estate extends over 3500 acres, centred around the Castle on the banks of the Exe estuary.  With a team of 15 (extending to 50 during the summer) and tenants and licensees employing many more, Powderham supports a surprising diversity of local business that sustains its unique heritage.  Powderham enjoys a reputation as a major visitor attraction, a wedding and functions venue, and is a leading venue for outdoor events.  The Estate is also home to a variety of producers selling venison, lamb, beef, cereals, shellfish, timber, flowers, photography, toys, fabrics, wildfowl, ironwork, woodwork, arable seed and much more.

It was Charlie’s grandparents who first opened Powderham to visitors over 50 years ago – one of the first private homes to do so.  Visitors arrived in pre-booked coaches and took a short tour followed by a Devon Cream Tea served in Peggy’s tea room.

Christopher, the Earl, enjoyed meeting visitors, telling jokes and sharing stories of his family home.  They also opened their doors as a domestic school for young ladies, providing education that was lacking in post-war England.

Historic documents on display at the castle

Historic documents on display at the castle

The visitor attraction has evolved over 50 years and, while the tours of the Castle and the famous Devon Cream Tea remain, there is now considerably more on offer.  Powderham is open between April and October, and visitors can explore the grounds and discover the Courtenay’s unique place in history.  Knowledgeable guides entertain visitors on Castle tours, exploring magnificent state rooms, hearing fascinating history, and finding secret doors aplenty.  Over 600 years of family occupation means each room has a story, and Powderham is remarkable for its variety of interiors that tell a history of British architecture: from the medieval grange (now Chapel) and the astounding Rococo Staircase Hall, to the remarkable Regency Music Room and the Gothic revival masterpiece that is the State Dining Room.   Outdoors, visitors wander the extensive grounds from the magnificent Belvedere tower, to the American Woodland Garden and the Victorian Walled Garden, with its children’s Courtenay fort, friendly animals and flower-decked Glass Houses.  A tractor trailer safaris around the Deer Park, and to see the remarkable fallow deer herd.  Anyone with a passion for trees will be astounded by the ancient oaks, chestnut, lime and cedar trees that surround Powderham, as well as the remarkable specimen trees, including a world-renowned Wollemi Pine – a prehistoric tree only recently re-discovered and planted by Charlie’s father.

2017 brings some exciting developments for visitors:

  • A fascinating historical exhibit comes courtesy of Powderham’s partnership with the Exeter University Department of History and Digital Humanities.  Never-before-seen highlights from the Courtenay archive reveal the millennium of Courtenay history. The centrepiece is the recently unearthed Courtenay Cartulary, containing ancient deeds that tell the history of medieval Devon plus an early family tree. Alongside will be a sumptuous twelve-foot genealogical scroll painted in 1640, on the eve of the Civil War.
  • The Castle’s medieval Solar (the family room) is revitalised this year with a brand new display, including fine ancient furniture recently donated to Powderham.  This will return the room to its former glory and allow visitors to re-imagine life for its early occupants.
  • For the first time, Powderham welcomes well-behaved dogs, which can visit all areas except the Deer Park and Walled Garden.  They can even enjoy the Castle interiors, but may be sensitive to ghosts.
  • Powderham will host a three-week visit by post-graduate archaeologists and architectural historians from the University of Pennsylvania.  This team, hosted by Plymouth University, will study in depth the fabric of Powderham to understand its remarkable developments during the eighteenth century.  Public talks and displays will be offered.
  • Later in the summer, engineering work will start on the Belvedere Tower, with support from Natural England. The works program will focus on shoring up the brickwork, before inserting a roof for the first time in over 50 years. 

Powderham, of course, offers much more than a fabulous family day out.  For centuries, Powderham has been a centre for community and the remarkable interiors, gardens and grounds were designed specifically for entertaining on a grand and generous scale.  These magical spaces are available for hire, allowing many the opportunity to make Powderham their home for a day; whether to celebrate their wedding, a party or simply to wow family, friends or clients. The recent development of accommodation in the Georgian Stables House, plus a bridal suite in the Castle, allows guests to sleep on site, surrounded by history.   

Powderham events

As well as private hire, Powderham’s majestic setting suits large scale events.  Over 50,000 enjoyed BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend last summer, as Powderham rocked to Ellie Goulding, Chase and Status, Mumford & Sons, and local band Coldplay.  The event cemented Powderham as a leading live music venue, and 2017 welcomes Bryan Adams, Olly Murs, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, as well as Little Mix. July’s Let’s Rock festival features chart toppers of the 80s, including Level 42, Belinda Carlisle, Jason Donovan and Toyah, while September’s Lockdown Festival welcomes leading dance acts of today, including Dizzee Rascal, Basement Jaxx and Sigma. Within the Castle, Powderham offers its inspired program of classical performances – Music in the Castle.

Powderham will also host events for many other tastes: Toby Buckland’s spring Garden Festival is followed by the Crash Box Club car rally in July; August welcomes the Spirit of the Exe Festival, the South West Coffee Festival, and the Powderham Country Fair, and the return of open air theatre and cinema; October sees the return of the Powderham Food Festival, and the Michaelmas fair is in November.  Thereafter, the Castle and Park will enjoy a well-earned rest, while attentions turn to more rural pursuits across the Estate, including the classic Devon pheasant and partridge shoot and a busy Point-to-Point racing season at Blackforest Lodge.  Beyond its busy schedule of activities and events, Powderham hosts and supports an array of local enterprises that provide a variety of healthy, local produce and employ many local people. Powderham is an example of a sustainable, small-to-medium-sized family business that has been in operation for nearly 700 years – a fact of which it is very proud.

Notable Powderham-based businesses include:

  • The Estate produces wheat, barley, oats and oil seed rape, as well as venison from the fallow deer in the Deer Park. It also manages extensive and varied woodlands, and is responsible for maintaining much of beautiful countryside along the western edge of the Exe Estuary. 
  • Pasture is let to livestock farmers, who produce a variety of excellent meat, including England’s earliest (and arguably finest) spring lamb.
  • The Exe Estuary foreshore grows the famous Exe Estuary mussels as well as a variety of other delicious shellfish.
  • Popular activities on the Estuary include moorings, the award winning River Exe Café, as well as the Starcross Yacht Club, which was founded in 1772 and is England’s oldest yacht club.
  • The Country Store complex includes the General Trading Company, the House of Marbles, the Powderham Farm Shop, the Orangery Restaurant and the Urban and Rural Plant Centre. 
  • At Stile Farm can be found Stile Farm Feeds alongside Matford Arable Systems and a busy horse livery business.
  • At the Powderham Sawmills are the award winning ASH Ironworks, Steve Kingdon’s woodcrafts, Poppy’s Flowers, and the brilliant Tim Shepherd, a specialist in time-lapse plant photography.

Powderham Castle viewed from the Exe EstuaryOver and above all of this activity, Powderham remains what it has always been since it was built – the home of the Courtenay family.  Such a variety of activities, coupled with the support and goodwill that Powderham enjoys from Devon and beyond, allows the family to hope that this can long continue, and they look forward to the privilege of preserving this historic and ancient place for centuries to come.

Editor – if you haven’t visited Powderham, already, there are many reasons to visit the castle and enjoy what’s on offer.  We all wish Charlie and AJ a long and successful tenure of this most historic piece of the Devonshire landscape.

Next Post:
Previous Post: