Remembering Dunsland 50 years on

Historic photo of Dunsland House

In the rolling countryside just east of Holsworthy is a forgotten gem known as Dunsland. This estate used to be home to a grand stone-built mansion before a terrible fire completely destroyed it 50 years ago. It is now a beautiful and intriguing place to visit where you can stumble across decorative building stones, a coach house, fish ponds and other features of a bygone era that still remain hidden by foliage.

With a history dating back to the Domesday Book (1086), the Tudor manor house of Dunsland would have been on par with the grand estates of Arlington Court to the east or Saltram to the south. Of the seven families who held Dunsland, none have left any significant mark on local or national history. However the interior of the house was impressive in both scale and decoration, with visitors often commenting on the amazing ceilings and panelling (recorded, luckily, in a few remaining photographs).

Dunsland after the terrible fire in 1967
Historic photo of Dunsland after the fire
Dunsland after the terrible fire in 1967

The National Trust bought the house in 1954 and spent many years restoring it. Not only had the beauty of the place been recovered but Dunsland was again beginning to play a part in the life of the local community and often hosted popular music recitals. The last of these were given to a packed audience on 14 November 1967. Three nights later the house caught fire and within a few hours was reduced to a smoking ruin.

The cause of the fire was never fully established. Thankfully the Trust caretakers, who had worked for years bringing the house back to life, escaped with their lives – alerted to the blaze by their dog, Rover. Unfortunately the house was deemed too expensive and unsafe to recover, and the National Trust made the difficult decision to demolish the remaining ruins.

The old coach house at Dunsland
Dunsland coach house
The old coach house at Dunsland

Despite its tragic history, Dunsland today is a beautiful and intriguing place where one can stumble across decorative building stones, a coachhouse, fish ponds and other features of a bygone era that still remain hidden by foliage. Its secret gardens and ancient parkland have become a peaceful haven for many rare plants and wildlife, such as lichens and insects. Ancient oak and chestnut trees (some believed to be over 600 years old) stand sentinel over the site where the grand house would have stood. Beautiful woodland has reclaimed the once cultivated ground, and nature groups such as the Holsworthy Beekeeping Society now use the site for their apiary.

In the year that marks 50 years since the terrible destruction of the house, we decided to commemorate Dunsland and its history with some special events. Focusing on traditional conservation skills such as hedge laying and orchard management, they celebrated the huge nature successes of Dunsland and also reminded visitors of its rich historical past.

“Dunsland would be a very different place today if not for the catastrophic fire.” Said Lead Ranger, Justin Seedhouse. “Today when you visit, the place has a quiet and eerie feel as if Dunsland is sleeping, waiting for its stories to be re-awakened.”

It would be a tragedy if the history of Dunsland was ever forgotten, but hopefully these commemorative events will remind the community of what a special place they have on their doorstop. Mr Bartnik, who used to holiday at Dunsland when he was a boy, puts poignantly:

“Dunsland going under any circumstance is truly a big loss. For people though to forget that it existed would be an even greater one, and I for one am pleased that something is being done to record its existence.”

Do you have a story about Dunsland you'd like to share? Please get in touch with us at northdevon@nationaltrust.org.uk.