Why Knightshayes is special

South terraces at Knightshayes in front of the house in June

The creation of Knightshayes as we know it today, began in 1868 when Sir John Heathcoat Amory commissioned imaginative genius William Burges to design Knightshayes Court. Sir John’s family had grown wealthy manufacturing lace net in Tiverton, and he built his new home overlooking the factory.

Burges created a remarkable group of buildings: one of the finest Victorian Gothic Revival country houses, stable block and entrance lodge.

But the extraordinarily inventive, flamboyant interiors he proposed for the house were altogether too much for Sir John and his wife Henrietta. They were never realised: client and architect parted company.

Leading Victorian designer Edward Kemp created the fine park and laid out a garden. Sir John’s grandson, another Sir John and his wife Joyce (a champion golfer) together created one of England’s great post-war gardens, with one of the largest and most significant plant collections in the National Trust’s care.


Creating Knightshayes

Why the Heathcoat Amorys chose Burges, brilliant but eccentric, is a mystery. Passionate about medieval architecture and design, he believed that ‘what looks best is best’. While working on Knightshayes he was lavishly transforming Cardiff Castle for the super-rich Marquis of Bute, who shared Burges’s intensely medieval vision.

Knightshayes Court is the only complete country house Burges designed. Its powerful, chunky Gothic exterior with steep roofs and massive chimneys has quirky details include fierce-looking carved gargoyles. Although the plan and some interior features are by Burges, the Heathcoat Amorys commissioned more conventional, less extravagant Gothic interiors from prestigious decorator John Dibblee Crace. But they were still not happy, and began alterations a few years after completion.

 

Making a new garden

The garden in the wood at Knightshayes
A picture of the grass path leading through the flowers and peat terraces of the garden in the wood at Knightshayes
The garden in the wood at Knightshayes

Sir John and Lady Heathcoat Amory began developing the garden after the Second World War. Their Garden in the Wood blends John’s passion for new and rare plants and Joyce’s love of arranging them, creating views and vistas with shady paths leading to sunlit glades. They and Head Gardener Michael Hickson each attained the Royal Horticultural Society’s highest award, the Victorian Medal of Honour. Plants named after Knightshayes include dog’s tooth violet ‘Knightshayes Pink’

 

A restoration story

In 1972 Sir John died, leaving Knightshayes to the National Trust. The Trust accepted it for its exceptional garden. Victorian Gothic was not popular, but Knightshayes Court was quickly recognised as a Burges masterpiece. 

The Heathcoat Amorys had drastically altered rooms to suit their tastes, ‘dismantling the most eccentric and ornate features’, as Joyce later described. Since 1973 spectacular Victorian Gothic interiors with superb craftsmanship in carving, joinery and stencilling have been rediscovered, restored and re-created. Refurnishing includes important pieces designed by Burges and other Victorian architects. John and Joyce’s collections of Old Master paintings and Italian maiolica pottery are on display.

Knightshayes is packed with curiosities and quirks
The library at Knightshayes
Knightshayes is packed with curiosities and quirks

Knightshayes’ spectacular turreted Kitchen Garden was probably designed by Burges and laid out by Kemp. In 1999-2003 it was restored to growing produce for the Café and for sale, in the original spirit of high horticultural standards and innovation. Now the main garden is undergoing revival to continue the Heathcoat Amorys’ experimental vision for Knightshayes.

Autumn colour at Knightshayes
A family and their spaniel walking in the open parkland at Knightshayes in Autumn
Autumn colour at Knightshayes