Powderham Castle: A behind-the-scenes tour
Jeremy Flint meets the modern Earl of Devon for a behind-the-scenes tour of this historic castle and family home, Powderham Castle
Words and photos by Jeremy Flint
Powderham Castle is one of the UK’s most unique, historic homes, set in an enviable position on the Exe Estuary within an ancient deer park, near Exeter, in the heart of Devon. Powderham’s exterior is an extraordinary sight. The outstanding battlement towers, crenelations, and Gothic style that you see today are all thanks to the renovation work of the Victorian architect Charles Fowler, (the same architect who designed London’s Covent Garden Market).
Originally constructed by Sir Philip Courtenay in 1390, this ancestral home has been the ancient seat of the Courtenay family ever since, enduring over 600 years of evolution, hardship and resolve by the family.
Today, this magnificent, fortified manor house is home to Charles (Charlie) Courtenay, the 19th Earl of Devon (a lawyer) and his wife, the Countess of Devon, Allison Joy (‘AJ’) Langer – an American actress who starred in Baywatch and My So-called Life – and their two children, Lady Joscelyn and Jack, Lord Courtenay. They are the 28th generation of the family to enjoy living in this incredible home.
This romanticised medieval castle, which retains lots of old objects and stories, now meets the modern by hosting weddings, concerts, and events. Charlie says:
“Powderham Castle has long fulfilled its initial purpose combining as a family home and a centre of the community. The current life here happens as much as past life has always occurred here, and that dichotomy is one of the interesting things about an active, lived in, historic home like Powderham.”
AJ didn’t know Powderham Castle before she met Charlie and so she came here with a fresh understanding and new insight. She has grown to love living in an English castle and the challenges it brings. Charlie had more of a comprehension of how Powderham works after growing up here, “I am grateful to have AJ by my side,” he says. “The spouse to these houses, not just AJ, but every generation, brings something new and AJ has very much been able to do that.”
Charlie loves sharing Powderham for study purposes and runs education programmes with Plymouth, Exeter, and Bath universities. “It’s not our job as stewards to dictate the history, it is our job to care for the history and make it available for others to learn and take inspiration from,” he says.
Touching on the history of Powderham, Charlie says, “The castle came into the Courtenay family as a manor in approximately 1325 when Hugh Courtenay, 10th Earl of Devon, married Margaret de Bohun, whose grandfather was King Edward I. She brought Powderham as part of her dowry and bequeathed it to her son, Sir Philip Courtenay, who built the current castle.” Charlie started his chapter as the Earl of Devon after succeeding his father, Hugh Courtenay, in 2015, and has since learned about some of the interesting characters that lived at Powderham before him. One ancestor whose story fascinated Charlie was Richard (the son of Philip who built the castle) who was a bachelor, best friends with King Henry V and keeper of the King’s purse.
“Richard financed the Agincourt campaign and died at the siege of Harfleur from dysentery. Henry had Richard’s body embalmed and sent back to Westminster Abbey to be buried alongside him in his tomb, a story I knew nothing about until watching a production of Henry V,” says Charlie.
More recently, William 3rd Viscount Courtenay was one of the more captivating members of the Courtenay family. He lived here with his 13 sisters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and was responsible for much of the interior and landscape design that you see around the castle. Charlie says: “William famously had a homosexual relationship with William Beckford of Fonthill. This scandalised Regency England and lead to Beckford’s exile and William was also exiled some 25 years later for homosexual activities and lived out his days in New York and then Paris.”
Charlie’s grandparents were responsible for much of the 20th-century survival of Powderham. Charlie says, “Recently we discovered their love letters from the 1930s, which give a fascinating insight into the circumstances of their marriage (she was previously married to his cousin, the Earl of Cottenham), life pre-World War II and its impact on their romance. Discovering and sharing these stories has been enthralling for us.”
Being the custodian to this magnificent enterprise does not come without its challenges, though. Charlie says: “Operating Powderham as a business feels equally exhilarating and terrifying. Living here provides a great opportunity to work with neighbours and deliver a lovely experience for visitors, which is fun. It’s also a constant job to choose how to allocate your resources and balance our own lifestyle with the needs of the heritage buildings, the collection, and the landscape.”
Charlie and AJ address these challenges by working independently of Powderham, as a lawyer and actor respectively, to support themselves as a family, without drawing on Powderham’s assets. Anything Powderham generates is reinvested into the fabric and the business. Recently, a Belvedere tower, on Historic England’s at-risk register, was solidified and re-roofed. The main towers were also re-roofed, and the crenelations were rebuilt during the pandemic. Flood channels have also been managed and a welcome centre opened to allow better access and a longer season.
Unsurprisingly, the castle holds some interesting artefacts. Charlie and AJ came across a picture frame of a coin of Joscelin of Courtenay, the eldest child of the patriarch of the family (from the 12th century) who their daughter Joscelyn was named after. “Allowing Joscelyn to feel that link back to a crusading knight of the 12th century was fascinating, especially as a very modern, young Californian girl” says Charlie.
Charlie’s favourite parts of the castle are the grand Dining Room, where he hosts dinners, and the Channon Library – a domestic library built in the 1740s by the first Viscount, furnished with amazing bookcases by a local artist, John Channon, and a remarkable space for learning and studying in today.
The secret doors and hidden ballroom are other favourites that the Earl and Countess have recently opened to the public, which were previously not on show. Charlie says, “I never considered it a hidden ballroom until we introduced yoga into the castle a few years ago and the yoga teacher told everyone to turn towards the hidden ballroom (the Music Room).” Since then, Charlie often takes visitors through the secret door at the end of the room into the Music Room – built by the 9th Earl, the 3rd Viscount, to celebrate his 21st birthday.
With Powderham’s links to the past, the castle has so many stories. Charlie says one particular one discovered through his grandparent’s letters, often plays on their minds. “It is a ghost story around the haunted landing and the blackout during WWII, when my grandmother closed all the shutters with my grandfather being away at war,” he says. “The next morning, she discovered the shutters at the head of the big staircase had all been screwed shut. “She was appalled at the carpenter for doing this to protect the castle from the bombers, but he said, ‘no ma’am those are haunted shutters and we had to screw the shutters back into the wall 30 years ago.’”
It is said the grey lady (an old family nurse who appears when someone in the family is particularly ill) was responsible for closing the shutters and protecting Charlie’s father when he was born on the night that Exeter was bombed.
“Ghost stories at Powderham, particularly the grey lady, tie us with affection to the castle. The presence of everyone who has occupied it before are a friendly energy and want us to be here, and I have never personally met a ghost” says Charlie.
Almost every century of history, from the Norman conquest to today, is represented on Powderham’s visitor tours where the aim is to offer a bit of something for everybody. This includes the castle’s LGBTQ+ stories and the castle’s contested history, as well as discussing family members who were involved in the Empire.
“Ultimately, we seek to present Powderham as a family home and try and avoid feeling too much like a museum,” Charlie says. Traditionally, Powderham has always allowed access using guided tours, but it has recently increased accessibility by introducing audio guided tours in different languages, as well as sign language options, which are helping it reach a more diverse audience. Audio tours, Charlie believes, are less intimidating for families with children than large groups, and they also have the potential to add a personal element to the visitor experience.
On the tours you get close access to the spectacular State Rooms, with their lavish interiors and Georgian décor, including the State Dining room (where carved coats of arms on the walls trace the Courtenay family’s story), the Libraries, the Marble Hall, the Rose Terrace Entrance, the incredible Music Room, and the spectacular Rococo staircase.
It’s quite the day out, by all accounts. To book tickets and take a tour of the castle and scenic estate, go to powderham.co.uk
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