The present Kingston House was completed by 1735, for John Rowe a wealthy catholic wool merchant at a staggering cost of £16,100 which was a fortune in those days. However the general site of Kingston has been occupied for many centuries. The Hext family were in residence in 1172, in an earlier house not exactly on the same site, but where there are outbuildings on the west drive.
The house immediately preceding the current one, sixty yards to the south was occupied in 1688 by William Rowe whose family had owned the Kingston land since 1502. The Rowe family were Catholics and therefore banned from high office but during the reign of James II, William Rowe became High Sheriff of Devon and was sent to greet William of Orange when he was blown of course and landed at Brixham unexpectedly. He rode with William of Orange from Brixham to Forde House in Newton Abbot in atrocious weather and it was recorded that after 'putting up with William for three days' he died at the age of 77 years. At this time the land consisted of about 250 acres. It was to increase to 400 acres in the early 20th century before declining again.
The life of the house centred on Broadhempston village. There is a map of the estate dated 1815 which shows an avenue of trees lining a drive straight towards Broadhempston from Kingston House. This is now sadly gone, but the remains of the bridge over the river hems still lingers on under the brambles.
Within the house is a beautiful example of an early 18th century marquetry staircase, inlaid with at least seven English woods. It is thought that this may not be the original to the house but purchased at a later date by John Rowe on one of his trips to continental Europe. Seventeenth century panelling is incorporated into to a closet adjoining one of the bedrooms, and a door and carving form the 15th century (possibly rescued from the previous house which burnt down). Leading off this bedroom is an early china closet or curiosity cabinet that has had many layers of emulsion paint scraped off to reveal the original wall paintings of exotic birds and animals. During the eighteenth century there was a wallpaper tax so this method of decorating walls became a popular and more affordable substitute.
Under part of the landing is a priest’s hole where they hid James Dominic Derbyshire, a priest who masqueraded as a gardener at Ugbrooke. In reality he had trained in Belgium for the priesthood and rode to various catholic families to enable them to celebrate mass. To celebrate mass was punishable by death and although the law was never enforced the Rowe family would have been unaware. If they heard a horse or a visitor they would have secreted Father Derbyshire in the priest’s hole until the coast was clear.
From 1750 onwards the woollen trade in the West of England began to decline, being overtaken by rival weavers and merchants in the north of England and the emergence of Liverpool as a major trading port. Sadly John Rowe had borrowed extensively, most from his relations to build the present house and they wanted to see their funds returned. By 1789 he was in a debtor’s prison in London where he remained until his assets could be sold. Once the estate was settled, he was released from prison and settled in Norfolk. The Kingston component of the estate was bought by two speculative property developers along with the village of Broadhempston. The two men divided the estate between them. William Tozer took the Broadhempston and William Champion took the Kingston portion. They wrote their names with a red brick on the kitchen wall where they remain to this day. William Champion must have raised the finance through the Exeter Bank as he died within the year leaving the estate to his children. The Bank then foreclosed and put the estate for sale.
The next incumbent was James Bradbridge who purchased the estate from the Exeter Bank in 1787 paying £5,500. During his tenure the ornate cornices were added to the galleried landing and the acanthus leaves, cherubs and flowers to the cornice in one of the bedrooms which he used as his own bedroom. Bradbridge died in 1814 and two years later Kingston was acquired by the Rendell family who remained for 120 years.
Many alterations were made by the Rendell’s as they were a farming family and therefore more interested in running their business than living a fashionably elegant life. They turned the house around, making the south door as the main entrance using part of the original front steps which were removed to create a shorter flight leading up to a new portico at the door on the south side, reusing the pilasters taken from the marble hall. A passage was formed across the drawing room from the new front door and continued on across the marble hall to join the passage to the north door. The marble hall became the kitchen with an enormous iron range and an eighteenth century house keepers cupboard placed across the door to the common parlour. This was found sawn in half in the undercroft and is now back in the original kitchen in the place that it was made to fit.
By 1937 Kingston was occupied by Miss Mary Rendell, both spinsters and their bachelor brother William. Then latter died on the way home from a Parish Council meeting in Broadhempston and the sisters had to put the house on the market.
Mr and Mrs Pengelly bought the house with 250 acres of high quality land. A number of house contents were also bought during the auction of effects such as a four poster bed and a riding crop. The crop today hangs on a kitchen dresser and the four poster bed is once again in one of the bedrooms. In 1940 the War Office requisitioned Kingston and billeted 100 troops. Pengelly could not bear the thought of this and sold the house for £9,000 to Colonel Scott who due to his prolonged absence abroad fighting in the war, installed a manager to live in the house and run the farm. This became a period when various different owners cared little for the house, seeing it as an unnecessary nuisance and being more inclined to lavish attention on the farm lands. That is until 1985 when Michael and Elizabeth Corfield rescued the house and began the long process of studious and sympathetic restoration.
Kingston House is the embodiment of early eighteenth century architecture and is considered by many historians to be the finest surviving Georgian gentlemen’s residence in Devon. The elegant house is complemented with a series of gardens, some interconnecting as an enfilade of rooms that have been sympathetically restored and planted according to prevailing tastes of the period which was not overly prolific with flowers.
Court Garden (also known as the 'card garden')
The hornbeam hedge (Carpinus Botulus) surrounding the garden is clipped twice each year- narrow at the top and broad at the base. The dwarf box cones (Buxus) are also clipped twice a year (May and August)The original owner of Kingston was a keen cards player and this is reflected in the layout of the garden each suite (hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades) being represented in the design. They are planted with Primula Auricula or Bears Ears or Mountain Cowslips. John Gerrard in his herbal (1597) devotes a chapter to an account of this plant. They are noted for their diversity of colour and different faces, each adding a new grace to its kind.
The narrower borders in the court garden are planted with Santolina Chamaecyparissus - common name cotton lavender or holly flag. These are hardly evergreen perennials with greyish white leaves growing from 10 - 24 inches high bearing yellow button like flowers from June to August. The leaves have a delicate odour when crushed.
The Santolina is under planted with yellow tulips which are spectacular when in flower April to May. In the middle of the garden is an attractive box shaped like a clover leaf. It is planted with lavender which flowers from July to October with a beautiful scented flower, contrasting with the dark green box foliage.
The design is an amalgamation of 18th Century ideas but the infilling of the small borders with tulips is inspired by the Dutch. The tulips popular at the time were not simple one colour varieties but brightly hued red and yellow parrot tulips, the parroting being caused by a virus and very highly prized. The two trees in the gardens closest to the barn are mulberry trees. Raked gravels of different shades in patterns was very fashionable in the early 18th century. The urns in the centres are copies dated 1732-1735 from Haddo House in Scotland, designed by William for the second Earl of Aberdeen.
The South Garden features a pleached lime walk which is being grown as a feature of the main lawn area, whilst the other side of the garden begins with the wild flower garden, (a riot of primroses, snowdrops, narcissi, bluebells, pink campion, wild garlic and wild daffodils. Walking towards the house one passes the remains of a 17th century threshing barn, now part of the walled vegetable garden, with the doorway providing a tantalising glimpse of the formal design of the vegetable garden beyond. The south aspect of the house is graced with the magnificent Wisteria Sinensis with Rosa Banksii resplendent in spring and an enormous yew hedge cut narrow at the top and broader at the base so that heavy snow fall does not damage the tree, an arch giving onto the formal Rose Garden, completing the symmetry of the South Garden.
The Rose Garden was used by one of the previous owners of the estate as a fruit garden. It was decided to change it to a rose garden in the fashion of the 19th century and the plan drawn up consisted of a fan of 8 beds with centre piece, each one planted with a different David Austen rose. This left space for two larger rectangular beds giving 10 beds in all. Once the hard landscaping was underway, it was discovered that the top soil had increased by 8 inches. When this was removed, the original pathways complete with their slate keepers were discovered. The Rose Garden's most recent edition is a David Austen English rose 'Gentle Hermione'. Other varieties include 'Financial Times Centenary', Rosa Mundi and 'Pretty Jessica'.
The walls are Grade II listed from the early 18th century. They are made from a stone structure faced on the inside with red brick arches to encourage warmth and ripening of the fruit. The walls are topped with an unusual slated roof with small entrances for the resident Jackdaws, which were reinstated in 1992.The espaliered fruit tress- nectarines, apricots, plums, pears and apples are interspersed with climbing roses and clematis. The flower beds are planted with species which date back to c18th English gardens- for example Paeonia, Solidago, Sedum, Dianthus, Lavandula and Chierianthus. There is a beech hedge (Fagus sylvatica) separating the Rose and Walled Garden.
You can find the striking architectural plant Cynara Cardunculus, commonly called cardoon or thistle artichoke from the Aster family. The stems can be blanched liked celery, boiled and eaten. Left to grow the main stem can produce a large freshly seed head which can be cooked and eaten in the same way. The flower is a beautiful purple colour which resembles a giant thistle with pale green leaves. There is slate edging to the individual vegetable plots. It is possible that the slate was mined from within Staverton parish at Penn Quarry (now disused). Herbs grown in the Kitchen Garden include thyme, sage and rosemary. Another interesting herb grown at Kingston is the horseradish (Armoracia rusticana). This was once planted on the side of railway lines to stabilise the soilas it has a tap root which can grow up to 10 inches. It is high in vitamin C and stimulates the respiratory and circulatory systems. It is said to be useful for bites, stings, burns, cuts and chilblains.