A rare glimpse inside the private estate that owns 5,000 acres of South Hams coast and countryside

By Toby Leigh in Feature

What is life like as custodian of a 5,000 acre South Hams estate, responsible for historic buildings, some of Devon’s most glorious countryside and, to some extent, the people who live there?

We asked Anne Mildmay-White, owner of the Flete Estate with husband Anthony, when she was kind enough to welcome The Gazette to Mothecombe House last week to talk about its past, present and future.

The 5,000 acre estate includes land on both sides of the river Erme, swathes of coastline and beaches, farmland and woods. It has important historical links with Ermington and Kingston, as well as the village of Holbeton, much of which is owned by the estate.

The estate is bounded to the north by the A379. It used to include land north of the main road as well, but since the war only Ermington Wood remains. Although the Mildmays were not originally a Devon family, they have links to the area and its grand houses stretching back centuries, through marriage to the Bulteels.

In the 1870s Henry Mildmay bought first Mothecombe House, then Flete House itself and the estate, and they have remained in the family ever since.

The centre of the estate was traditionally Flete House, the turrets of which can be seen peeking through the trees from the A379 at Flete bridges. The property has a fascinating recent history, having been requisitioned as the maternity hospital for Plymouth during the second world war, when Freedom Fields Hospital was bombed.

Although the house took a bit of a battering from the hundreds of medical staff and patients, Anne said it has given the estate a higher profile locally. She said: "Because it was a maternity hospital during the war, and because of the existence of so many ’Flete Babies’, a lot of people feel a connection to the house, and the estate. And because it was a private house virtually right up to the second world war, it had a large staff creating a real community and generating local employment.

"Whenever we put something up on social media or on the Flete Estate blog, lots of people write in with their memories and occasionally photographs. In some cases it has helped to connect people who lost touch years ago."

Flete is one of a dwindling number of big estates still in private hands in Devon, along with vast properties like the Clinton estates in the east of the county and the Powderham Estate.

Anne said: "I can absolutely see why people made dynastic marriages in the past, or married American heiresses. You have to regard old buildings as a very expensive hobby. Every square foot of roof has a lifespan, and when you mulitply the cost of that by all the buildings in the estate... It’s important to have a good mix of enterprises."

A major part of Flete’s business nowadays is letting holiday cottages, with nine properties scattered around the wooded estuary. Anne said balancing the demands for immaculately presented holiday properties with the practicalities of dogs, wellies and being five minutes from the beach can be challenging. But she added: "It’s lovely reading the guest books because so many people see it like we do. Not everyone wants a hot tub - we read about people stargazing, and there’s one guest who has been coming for years to study the moths and butterflies."

A unique feature of the estate is its miles of private carriage drives, running from Flete House down to the estuary and on to the sea, and connecting with the nine-mile Revelstoke Drive which linked former families of Flete with relatives at Membland near Noss Mayo.

Anne explained: "Originally the carriage drives went up both sides of the river, and wherever was a particular destination, they built a tea house - they did things in such style back then. The family would have taken a picnic and had a fire and some tea, before driving back, it would have been a bit of an expedition.

"It’s terrible, but my mother in law told me they used to go in a waggonette, a kind of open carriage, and the governess had to cycle along behind. Real shades of yesteryear."

Another way the estate takes advantage of its breathtaking surroundings is by welcoming film crews. Period dramas like Sense and Sensibility, Rebecca and Hornblower have been shot on the estate, as well as 70s sequel International Velvet and more recently, the film of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, released this summer.

The family is aware of its unique position in local society, and the responsibility and obligations it brings. Anne said: "People whose families are somewhere for a long time tend to be very aware of their place in the community, and their responsibilities. Most people actually don’t go in and asset strip, sell all the cottages and buy a helicopter, and also there’s an awareness that if someone different comes in, they could change things quite a lot for everyone - and people don’t like change."

The Mildmay-Whites are happy to use their property to fundraise for local causes, with frequent open garden events to bring people in from outside, and avoid placing too much of a fundraising burden on the relatively small number of local residents. Common beneficiaries are Holbeton church and the primary school, in which Anne takes a particular interest, as all three of her children attended.

She continued: "It’s easier to fundraise from garden events, as the house doesn’t accommodate more than about twenty people at one time.

"When we needed to raise £15,000 for the church heating we did a lot of garden openings, and house tours. It’s a bit strange having people coming into your private family home, and showing them your bedroom, for instance. You can’t do too many each year."

Looking to the future, she said: "Holbeton really needs more population. Both pubs struggle and the school register is a bit low, although it is improving, and the shop and post office are quiet. But Anthony believes strongly that a village needs a pub, a shop, a school and a church, and supports the village a lot.

"We are very aware of how privileged we are to live here, and we are committed to our part in maintaining a viable community in Holbeton."

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