- Parkland and gardens
Bystock Court is a good example of a modest country house in Edwardian neo-Baroque style, with confident deviations, by the noted architectural practice of Wimperis and Best of London. It was once the centre of a large country estate, now considerably reduced by the suburban expansion of Exmouth in the 1970s.
The 1838 tithe map indicates that the house stood within 172 acres of garden, orchard and woodland, as well as farmland, the full estate being considerably larger; this area was extended to 223 acres by the time of the 1905 sale. The land to the south and west of the house is now mainly built over, but extensive areas of woodland remain to the north, largely keeping the names they have had since the time of the 1889 OS map, or earlier.
A house at Bystock was owned by a branch of the Drake family from the C17, and probably earlier. From 1742, and for most of the C18, Bystock belonged to successive members of the Jackson family.
When Edward Divett senior (1767-1819) bought Bystock in 1801 the bill of sale described the 250-acre Bystock estate as: ‘in excellent order, well wooded and watered….meadow and arable land….with a considerable stock of cattle….orchards’ and a ‘comfortable mansion house….built of brick and in very good repair……on an eminence well sheltered from the north and east with views of the coast from Torbay to Exmouth’.
Edward Divett senior built a new house, a symmetrical villa, at Bystock circa 1801. During the occupation of Edward Divett senior, major improvements were made to the gardens and pleasure grounds. A new gardener was employed (James Law, a Scotsman, who started in about 1803 and stayed for 61 years) A number of garden structures wereerected and species trees were planted. These included: Black Mulberry, Scarlet Oak, Holm Oak, Scots Pine and Turkey Oak.
Edward Divett junior (1797-1864) MP for Exeter inherited the estate on the death of his father. By1838 there was a service wing to the north, and this was extended later in the C19. As head of the household at Bystock, he had the responsibility of managing the estate and, it seems, set about making changes to the house and grounds….. ‘chaste and elegant character….one of the prettiest seats in the south-east of Devon’ (Stirling, 1838) with a ‘well wooded park and beautiful gardens’. The gardens not only looked beautiful but were providing prize-winning exotic fruit: grapes, peaches, granadillas, figs and pineapples, all cultivated by James Law the head gardener.
After the death of Edward Divett junior at the end of August 1864 the livestock (including 290 sheep, 24 bullocks, 15 horses, 21pigs) on the estate was sold and shortly after that three parcels of land and property were advertised for let by tender for a term of 10 or 14 years. Bystock House itself was let from the summer of 1867 until the house and estate was sold in 1871.
In1871 John Pablo Bryce (1846-1902) of nearby Marley House (now demolished) bought the house from Divett's trustees. Bryce, born in 1846 in South America, where his Scottish father had established a bank, was High Sheriff of Devon in 1896; he died in 1902. Bryce added a large block at the south end of the building in a loosely neo-Jacobean style, with full-height bay windows, providing a ballroom and other large public rooms.
The most remarkable work of this phase was the construction in circa 1880 of a large 'rockery', to the west of the house by the German landscape gardener, F W Meyer, employed by Robert Veitch, the prominent Exeter nurseryman. The rockery, fed by a series of ponds which may have earlier origins as fishponds, was described in the contemporary gardening press as being of exceptional size, including a 12-foot cascade and a large cavern studded with stalactites and stalagmites.
In 1905 the house was bought by Frederic Coleman Hunter (b. circa 1865), youngest son of William Hunter (d. 1883), owner of the Kimblesworth Colliery in the Durham coalfield; his preparations for altering the house were disrupted by a fire which badly damaged the building in March 1906. The principal part, on the site of the circa 1800 building and the southern extension, was entirely replaced in 1907 to a design by Wimperis and Best. At the same time, the southern portion of the existing wing, which had been damaged by the fire, underwent substantial rebuilding, with changes evident to the fenestration, though the floor plans remained largely unchanged; an extension was also made at the north-east end of the building. In 1914 Ernest Ellis of Exeter and Exmouth was employed to build a further extension to the north, and alterations were made to unify the appearance of the wing.
During the Second World War Bystock was used as a convalescent home for Polish servicemen. In 1965 an Interdenominational Community Centre was opened at Bystock Court by a Christian association, and from 1983 the house was a care home for people with learning disabilities and mental health needs. It is now a private residence.
The rockery is now in a ruinous condition but elements of the original design may still be identified. A rectangular yew enclosure, located to the east of the ponds, dates from the early years of the C20 is now overgrown. The pleasure grounds in general are now much overgrown and altered, and a number of new functional buildings have been erected. The former kitchen gardens, to the east of the house, have been built over. Of the three lodges built by Edward Divett in the C19 - one marking the eastern entrance to the estate, and two at the south entrance - the eastern lodge is listed, whilst one of those to the south was de-listed having been moved, and the other is thought to be considerably altered.
The following description of the gardens of Bystock Mansion appeared in the Western Times on 5 October 1880
On a lofty eminence overlooking a large extent of Devon scenery, rich and rare, with Haldon in view, stands Bystock Mansion, erected there, it may be concluded, within the Hanoverian period. Adorning the grounds in front is a beautiful pleasure garden, covered with beds of flowers, bright and beautiful, and in the centre a tall artistic fountain feeding Flora's domain. Next come the level and lovely green plots, prepared for tennis, croquet, and such like exercises of the youthful elite. Beyond is the Rockery, surrounding an ornamental lake, pierced with the mysterious Cavern, rather the work of art than nature, but that is not to be discovered except by the initiated. The horticulture and floriculture, continually adding to the charms of the Bystock grounds, are in the able hands of Mr. R.T Veitch, of the Exeter Nursery, whose taste and unlimited resources are well known in Devon. For this particular kind of work he has in his establishment a clever master of the gardening art from the Vaterland, where he was trained in the College of Horticulture, for in Germany there are colleges in which young men are taught by accomplished professors, not only the methods of highest culture for all the growths in Nature, but also languages, science, etc., such as befit a collegiate course. This student from a German Horticultural College is Mr. F. W. Meyer.
The wealthy owner of Bystock has nothing to check him in gratifying his taste for the best and most beauteous in Nature and Art. Thousands of loads of earth were laid down to make the playgrounds so level, and cover them with a turf carpet so green and tempting to the youthful foot. The cost of the Rockery beyond, which is to turn a mere mud-pit into such a picturesque scene, need not be speculated on. Central in the Rockery is the ornamental lake, the water supply coming from the higher grounds and so directed by art as to perform a strange part in the sights here to be witnessed. The rocks around, high and low, big and small, and of divers species, are not native to the place, although looking quite at home, but have been all brought there from various places at great labour and cost – Thorncombe, Tavistock, and other places, and so adjusted in perfect imitation of nature that it requires some faith in your informant to admit that it is the work of the human eye and hand. By invisible rivulets the water is brought on, and rushing over the artificial Rockery some twelve feet high, makes a magnificent waterfall, especially on a sunny day. This can be played off from more than one opening, while in some safe siding the admiring spectators can be seated on strange looking seats, made of ancient oak, old at least as the days of the Norman invasion. These successful imitations of the antique are to be found in every convenient corner, sometimes as a long garden seat, sometimes a stump of a tree, sometimes as an oak. A wall twenty feet “deep” has had to be sunk to keep the reservoir safe for the water system. On the banks of this lake grow the oak and other trees – the cedar of Lebanon among them, supplied from the Exeter Nursery; and among the rocks, which look like an earthquake rent on the Pyrenees or the Alps, are seen growing the ferns, rhododendrons, and a number of other green beauties, in chinks and corners, all looking as natural as life. The water from the main lake is passed on to another, and between them is to be formed an Island, and on it will be a summer house such as they get in California – the hollow trunk of an old decayed oak, having comfortable room inside - and a boat-house like a Swiss chalet.
The great centre work, and the most wonderful of all, must now be entered - the Bystock Cavern. You are led to a rough, jagged opening in the rock, forming the base of the cliff, looking as though it had passed through a perpetual and violent action of water from the remotest geological period. Those who have been in the Cheddar, Chudleigh, or Kent's Caverns, and noticed the stalactites hanging from the roofs made by the water percolating through the limestone, charged with calcareous matter, and the stalagmites formed by the like drainage rising up from below, and destined, in some future age, to meet and amalgamate, will at once see that before him is the exact counterpart of these caverns in every aspect, even to the twinkling of the bright, glassy, particles in the stalactite substance. The German artist had visited divers caves of Nature's work, made sketches of them, and, both in the chemical composition of the rocks and their aspect, all bore to them a perfect likeness. In the natural caverns there are found small hollows full of water, and a most curious optical effect is produced on the introduction of a light by the reflection therein of the roof with all its curious formations. The Cavern is a complete, perfect model of Nature's work in every point, and at night when the rugged, contorted, but light-coloured and sparkling rock-hollow is illuminated with a red light, such a weird scene is produced as is not likely ever to be forgotten. From the roof hangs down, not only the ordinary stalactite, but there is a sort of sheet, like loosely-folded drapery, which in Cheddar is called The Curtain, and this too is reproduced in this artificial Cavern. On moving out of what is the main entrance there appears on one of the side rocks the following verse:-
Drip, drip, drip, dripping,
A crystalline drop, each pendicle lifting,Slowly descends and slowly uprears,
Stalagmite rising; stalactite dipping,
The tenth-of-an-inch in a thousand years.
Further description must be excused; the work must be seen to be believed, understood, and appreciated.
“This is to certify that the erection of this Stalactite Cavern and surrounding rocks was begun in the month of August 1879, and that on the 18th day of August, 1880, the proprietor, J.P.Bryce, Esq., has kindly consented to lay in person the finishing stone.”
“This Cavern has been named 'Mercedes' Cave' in honour of Madame Bryce, who evinced a special interest in the proceedings, and whose refined taste has rendered valuable assistance in this production of art.”
“All the plants were selected from the nurseries of Mr. R.T. Veitch in Exeter. The stones were supplied from quarries at Burlescombe and Tavistock. The work was designed by Mr. J.W.Meyer landscape artist to Mr. Veitch.
“May ‘Mercedes’ Cave’ exist for many centuries and be a source of entertainment to the proprietors of Bystock and their guests for many many generations. May it be a place of recreation for the pleasure-seeker and the lover of art, and likewise a place of study and retirement for the thinking philosopher and the troubled mind”
Happy the man who to the shades retires,
Whom Nature charms, and where the muse inspires;
Blest whom the sweets of home-felt quiet please,
But far more blest whom study join with ease.
Bystock Court is listed Grade II. SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: against the 1907 part of the house to south and west is a wide brick terrace, approached by steps, and edged by a stone balustrade with stone urns marking the openings and obelisks marking each corner. At the southern entrance to the site stand a pair of granite gate piers with quadrant walls, thought to have been associated with the earlier house.
Gray, T, The Garden History of Devon An Illustrated Guide to Sources, (1995), 62-3
Macarney, M E, Recent English Domestic Architecture, (1908), 34-5, 193-7
Pevsner, N, Cherry, B, The Buildings of England: Devon, (1989), 446
'The Gardeners' Chronicle' in , (9 April 1881; 24 October 1903)
'The Gardening World' in The Gardening World, (18 January 1896)
Todd Gray Devon Country Houses and Gardens Engraved, (2001)