Cream tea and meeting the Countess of Devon at Powderham Castle
The other week we were very excited to be invited to Powderham Castle to have a look around and meet the Earl and the Countess of Devon.
Having never met any real nobility before, we didn’t have a clue what to wear. At this stage I should point out that I am quite renowned for wearing the wrong clothes to events – posh frocks to tours of building sites or casual day dresses to extravagant first night launches (as some of you no doubt, will have witnessed). After much deliberation and the hiding of some choice items of clothing (the tiger onesie primarily) we got ourselves dressed in respectable smart / casual attire, fought smallie in our daily effort to convince her to brush her hair (which we/she did but as you’ll see in the photos was short-lived) and headed to the castle feeling nervous and debating whether we needed to curtsy.
If you haven’t been to Powderham Castle, it is a located in lovely Kenton, a little village on the edge of Exeter. Known as the home of Devon, it has been the home of The Earl of Devon for over 600 years. The castle itself, was built by Sir Phillip Courtenay in the 14th century and is lived in by the current Earl Charles Courtenay and his wife Allison Joy. We first came to the castle during our viewing weekend before we moved here and more recently I went to the brilliant Radio One Big Weekend.
On the day we came, the team had received some good news about an opportunity that I can’t divulge (but you’ll hear about soon enough) so our date sadly wasn’t to be. We were however, lucky to bump into the Countess while we were waiting for our cream tea. Countess Courtenay, or AJ as she prefers to be called, is petite, as well turned out as you’d imagine for a Countess, really lovely and down-to-earth.
In the rush of Easter holidays, I was very naughty and I had neglected to do any research, consequentially, I was quite surprised that AJ had an American accent… I was even more surprised in the car on the way home when Google informed me that I had met not only British nobility but Baywatch royalty! It turns out (you probably know this already) that AJ Langer is an actress from the US who was famous for her roles in My so-called life and Baywatch.
The story goes that AJ met the current Earl in Las Vegas, their eyes met across a crowded room and the rest is history – it’s a wonderful modern day romance story, and somehow it serves to make them seem a lot more approachable.
AJ is (in my mind) ‘effortlessly cool’, she was rocking the British country nobility look, and as a recent country convert and someone who has issues dressing herself, I mentioned to hubby that I’d like to dress like her and he seemed to think it was a good idea. She gave us a warm welcome and suggested we pop down to the walled garden to check out the albino hedgehog (which I must admit, I was a bit excited about the prospect of doing but sadly we ran out of time).
We got talking and I asked her what it is like to live in a castle, she said it was a bit of a shock at first and then explained that they keep to only a few rooms, her daughter chose the smallest for herself – the big rooms can be rather daunting and it can be hard to find each other!
Once AJ had been whisked away for more planning, we settled down with a complimentary cream tea (cream then jam, obviously) and had a look through the guide book we had been given.
It is alleged that the Earl of Devon invented the Devonshire cream tea. On further investigation (according to a bunch of historians in Tavistock) it was invented when Ordulf, the Earl of Devon was restoring Tavistock’s 10th century Benedictine Abbey after it had been plundered and badly damaged by a band of marauding Vikings in 997AD.
“Ordulf was helped by local workers, and to reward them, the monks fed them with bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves. And so, the Devon cream tea was born!” (source BBC, where I live)
I suppose you could say that it was the Earl who invented it (by default!)
The cafe in the courtyard of the castle is rather lovely and serves delicious cakes and coffee, on a sunny day it’s nice to sit on the tables outside and watch the bustle of the castle. When we were stuffed full of sugary goodness, the lovely Ingrid gave us a private tour of the castle (mostly because we weren’t sure if our errant four year old would be able to concentrate for long enough on a big tour with lots of people).
The castle is stunning, it’s fascinating historically and I think the personal touches from the Courtenay family make it all the more special and welcoming. There is a lot to take in on the tour but here are four things to look out for:
The grandiose Dining Hall which was built by the 10th Earl of Devon and completed by his son. The room is full to the brim of portraits including a huge painting with William, 1st Viscount Courtenay, in the painting William is leaning against a small table and that table is still in the room (on the left of the photo).
The bright turquoise walls in the staircase hall take a moment to get used to, but when your eyes adjust and you see the Rococo style plasterwork you can’t help but gawp. The work was created by John Jenkins in 1756 and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Rococo plasterwork in England – I’m no expert, but it is certainly a sight to behold.
No castle is complete without a ghost and Powderham is said to have a few, one of which is said to hang out on the haunted landing, where – according to an old story – the bones of a woman and a baby were found in a secret room at the bottom of the stairs. Over the years there have been reports of a grey lady seen on the landing and other ghostly goings on. I took several pictures on my phone (on ghost watch – as you do) and can confirm, in one of the pictures there is an orb (which my husband informs me is the reflection of the light in the window).. I’ll let you be the judge!
There is a stunning State Bedroom above the second library, with a very decadent red and gold four-poster bed, that was originally made for the somewhat extravagant 3rd Viscount. Random fact: Earl Hugh Courtenay (Charles’ father) was born in that very bed the day after the exeter blitz in 1942.
There are also secret doors and stories galore, the staff who run the tours are very energetic and knowledgeable.
It’s not all history lessons, there is a lot more to do at the castle, if the kids are too little to fully appreciate the tours, head to the play area in the walled garden, where you’ll find Courtenay Fort. Spanning twenty one metres, with a bridge, nets, parallel bars, a climbing wall, monkey bars, and slide, it is perfect for your little darlings under-12’s to wear themselves out.
There is also a zip wire, animals to play with and regular shows and interactive activities for the children to get involved in, read more about that here.
Here’s some of the cuteness from the animals at the Walled Garden..
On this visit we were limited by time and didn’t spend much in the play areas, instead we made egg decorations and watched the Pocket watch theatre company do their thing with their Easter themed science show.
We really enjoyed our visit and we will definitely be returning the the castle soon, each year we buy an annual membership to an attraction and this year it just might be Powderham. At £75 per family which includes 50% discount off admission to Pennywell Farm and Kents Cavern plus free off peak parking at Haldon Forest Park, it seems like a good deal to me!
More info on prices and opening times here.
Powderham is a lovely day out, we felt very welcome in the home of Devon, thank you to AJ, Monty and Ingrid for the tour, the cream tea and the warm welcome.