Words by Dan Warden
Replete with tales of intrigue, spiced with royal encounters and defined by the marks of luminaries, Boconnoc’s history spans nearly a millennia.
Image by Tim Charles
Throughout this iconic estate, monuments stand testament to the centuries that the house and grounds have weathered: a 15th century church with King Charles’ coat of arms and a letter thanking Cornwall for its support during the Civil War; a Georgian bath house – one of only four in the country – with a myrtle bush at the entrance, planted from Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet.
In recent years the Fortescue family, now in its sixth generation, have undertaken and completed the tremendous challenge of restoring the main house. It’s the story of a father’s vision; of his daughters who picked up the mantle, seeking to immortalise his legacy. We’re lucky enough to speak to Sarah Fortescue, founder of her own interior business and accessories brand, who tells us about Boconnoc today. Reminiscing about her childhood years, she talks about her family home and touches on the dear place it holds in her heart.
From left; Elizabeth Fortescue, Clare Fortescue and Sarah Fortescue. (Image: Sheerlove Photography)
A brief history
Boconnoc Estate and Manor were taxed in the Domesday Roll of 1086. After changing hands a number of times, Sir William Mohun bought the property nearly 500 years later and set to rebuilding the house. Formally, this had been a medieval tower known as the ‘Tower of Boconnoc’ and it dates from the 13th century. Sir William passed it to his son, Sir Reginald (of his father’s name), who was made a Baronet in 1612. It would remain in the family until Charles, 4th Baron Mohun, was killed in 1712 in a duel with the Duke of Hamilton. Charles’ estate passed to his second wife, who sold it in 1717 for £54,000 to Thomas Pitt – late Governor of Madras. Pitt is known for making his fortune by selling the ‘Pitt Diamond’, which he acquired from a precious stones merchant some 16 years before in India.
Pitt’s diamond, which he sold to the French Crown, would later be set in the crowns of not one, but two French monarchs, as well as in the hat of Marie Antoinette – the last queen of France – before the French Revolution. Later, after the bloodless coup d’état which ultimately saw Napoleon Bonaparte installed as First Consul of France, the stone, which currently holds a value of around £56M, was set into the very pommel of that historic emperor’s sword.
In 1804 – nearly a century since the Governor of Madras acquired the estate – the heir, hereditarily named Thomas Pitt, died in a duel with his friend, Captain Best. The estate then passed to his sister, Anne, who married William Wyndham, Lord Grenville, the Prime Minister. 30 years later in 1864, upon the Lady Grenville’s death, Boconnoc was bequeathed to George Matthew Fortescue, son of the late Lord Grenville’s sister, Hester, who married the first Earl Fortescue of Castle Hill, Devon. The rest, for want of a better phrase, is history.
The century and a half since have seen a number of works take place on the house and grounds, some reparatory, others additional, but all maintaining the estate’s traditional and historically prestigious aesthetic.
More recently, the house was used by the American Army for strategic planning during the Second World War, also housing an American bomb-disposal unit. Then, from the late ‘90s until 2011, a major restoration and refurbishment project took place, bringing the house and gardens back to life. Today Boconnoc is a memorable destination tucked away in the Cornish countryside, with cottages and the main house available to book for boutique stays and private events.
Sarah, tell us more about the restoration
“The restoration of Boconnoc House was huge. The house had been empty for 40 years or so, with the great south facing gallery wing taken down in the ‘60s due to damp, and a support structure erected against the house. As a child, wandering around it, I remember large areas of walling that had fallen through, revealing the bones of the house. The now beautifully restored staircase was once a damp, unloved space, with a hole down to the basement where one side had fallen in. Looking upwards, you could see the rafters of the roof.
“My father ambitiously took on the restoration in the late ‘90s, opening the estate to the public in order to fund the project.”
Sarah remembers when the old tower was restored into a flat with a kitchen on the ground floor, catering to members of the public. She recalls setting up shop with friends, “selling soup and a sandwich,” with the proceeds going back into the next detail of the restoration. “It was by no means an easy feat. The roof was the first thing to be completely redone, and as my father moved through its old walls, he built a team of talented craftsmen, guided by him, to bring Boconnoc House back to its former glory.”
How did you tackle the interiors?
By 2010 the house was ready for decoration, which is where Sarah stepped in. “I worked night and day for eight months to complete the first floor bedrooms and bathrooms. It was a tremendous challenge, but one that my father was determined to see completed. His true devotion was rewarded with two awards in 2012: The HHA Sotheby’s Award for Restoration of a Country House, and The Georgian Award.” Inside, Sarah wanted to echo the stories of her ancestors at Boconnoc. “They were intrepid travellers! Governor Pitt of Madras, who was in India; Hester Stanhope, the great woman explorer: I wanted to echo all of that.”
Do you spend a lot of time on the estate?
“I spend much of my time there.” Boconnoc holds its ‘ancientness’, as Sarah puts it, “with a great sense of peace and quiet, with the ancient woodlands surrounding it and scarcely mown meadow grasses, where colonies of bees and other insects thrive. The energy here is truly extraordinary, and although it is my home, it always leaves me in complete wonder. Walking through the woodlands [replanted and extended in the 1800s by Lord Grenville and his wife, Anne Pitt] is a sensation at all times of year, particularly in summer when every bit of life is exploding from the earth and trees. But my favourite spot is across the park from the house. Perched amongst the ancient woodland, it looks back over the parkland and grounds, up to the deer park. It has a stunning scattering of buildings, all dating back to different moments in time; the stable yard, for instance, designed by Sir John Soane and surrounded by the fabulous sub-tropical fauna and flora of the gardens.
“A more private, Great Gatsby-esque pocket is down the garden walk, behind the house, where suddenly an enclave erupts out of the rock, lined in palms, tropical ferns and myrtle, and a beautiful stone bath once used by Lady Hamilton. It overlooks Valley Crucis – a sweeping scene of oak woodland in full bloom, a stream meandering through its course.”
“Waking in Boconnoc,” Sarah explains, “there is still the soft cooing from the doves that roost above the window sills of the house. It’s a wonderfully cathartic sound. It all provides food for the soul. Whether you’re visiting Boconnoc for five minutes or staying for five days, it never fails to restore and inspire.”