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The history of Knightshayes

Evening sunlight on the front of Knightshayes on a blue sky day
The south front at Knightshayes Court, glowing with a winter's evening light | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Knightshayes has a rich and varied history, beginning in 1868 when Sir John Heathcoat-Amory commissioned the architect William Burges to create Knightshayes Court. It was the only complete country house Burges ever designed. With its Victorian Gothic style, carved gargoyles and fantastical beasts, the house remains impressive. During the Second World War, Knightshayes became a USAAF rest home for the American Air Force, and has seen many changes since.

The Heathcoat-Amory family at Knightshayes Court

Sir John was the grandson of John Heathcoat, who created the mechanised bobbin lace-making machine and owned a lace factory in Tiverton.

Sir John Heathcoat and his family moved to Tiverton in 1816, after their lace making factory in Loughborough was destroyed. It was Sir John's grandson, John Heathcoat-Amory, who commissioned the building of the house.

Inheriting the family business

Sir John built his new home overlooking the factory, and although the foundation stone was laid in 1869, it was not until 1873 that the interior designs were complete.

Sir John’s eldest son, Sir Ian and his brother Ludovic, took over the business on their father’s death in 1914 on the eve of the First World War. Sir Ian and his wife lived at Knightshayes until his death in 1931.

Joyce Wethered, Lady Amory

The last family members to own Knightshayes were Sir John and Joyce, Lady Amory. Joyce Wethered, was a respected gardener and a world championship golfer, winning the British Amateur Championship four times, in 1922, 1924, 1925 and 1929.

She also won the English Championship from 1920–24 and was playing captain of the Curtis Cup team against the United States in 1932.

Knightshayes and the National Trust

John lived until 1972, and the house was handed to the National Trust on his death. Joyce continued to live in the east wing of the house until her death in 1997.

Designing Knightshayes Court

Passionate about medieval architecture and design, William Burges believed that ‘what looks best is best’. While working on Knightshayes he was also busy transforming Cardiff Castle for the Marquis of Bute, who shared Burges’s intensely medieval vision.

Gothic style

Knightshayes’s powerful Gothic exterior, with steep roofs and massive chimneys, has quirky details. These include fierce-looking carved gargoyles and fantastic beasts that sprung from Burges’s imagination and were carved by his favourite sculptor, Thomas Nicholls.

A stone gargoyle outside at Knightshayes
A stone gargoyle at Knightshayes | © National Trust Images/Rupert Truman

Knightshayes's Victorian Gothic revival

William Burges created a group of buildings at Knightshayes: a Victorian Gothic Revival country house, stable block and an entrance lodge as well as the walls of the Kitchen Garden.

Turrets, gables and chimneys create a varied skyline. The house, stables and lodge are all built of local red Hensleigh stone, contrasting golden Ham stone from Somerset and bright red clay tiles.

Burges's stables

The stables are second only to the house in importance, as horses were vital for transport and leisure activities. Burges’ stable block was completed in 1872.

He succeeded in making it impressive and practical, and it shares many of the house’s features. Surrounded by trees, only the front elevation was intended to be seen.

A change in direction

The flamboyant interiors Burges proposed for the house were too much for Sir John and his wife Henrietta and they were never realised. Client and architect parted company halfway through the commission when Burges was fired by the family.

John Dibblee Crace

Although the plan and some interior features are by Burges, the Heathcoat-Amorys commissioned more conventional, less extravagant Gothic interiors from the prestigious decorator John Dibblee Crace.

Still not completely happy with the result, they again began alterations a few years later. Much of Crace's work was covered up by the family, but later restored.

The South Front and lawn at Knightshayes on a sunny day
The South Front in the sunshine | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Knightshayes and the Second World War

In 1944 Knightshayes became a rest home for the American Air Force. It had enough space to have 40 officers and was allocated to the 1st Bomb Division.

The airmen were entitled to a week of leave. It wasn't possible for the men to go home, so some English country homes and hotels became repurposed to provide a break from the war.

Daily life for soldiers

At Knightshayes, men could rest and recover away from their military routine, relaxing and enjoying games, activities and tranquillity. They played golf in the garden, clay pigeon shooting on the cricket ground in the parkland and tried to leave behind the horrors of war.

Knightshayes holds images from this time, showing the men and Red Cross volunteers enjoying games and golf, snowball fights in the winter and the groups enjoying the terraces in the summer.

A plane accident at Knightshayes

The grounds also served as an airfield for two small military spotter planes attached to the army artillery unit whose staff headquarters were based here.

It became customary for those who had convalesced at Knightshayes to fly over the estate and dip their wing as a salute to those who were still staying there.

The tragedy

Just three days before the end of the war, on 1 May 1945, Lieutenant Albin Zychowski set out to fly over Knighthayes. He planned to tip the wing of his P47 Thunderbolt in an 18 strong plane formation.

Unfortunately, his plane clipped the top of a tall pine in the grounds, causing the fully armed plane to crash. It exploded near the waterworks in Chettiscombe, which borders the estate.

Despite the efforts of bystanders, Albin couldn't be saved. It was a reminder to everyone how cruel the war was.

Knightshayes's Gardens

The Formal Garden

The Formal Garden was laid out by landscape designer Edward Kemp, at the same time as the house was being built in the 19th century.

The design featured a series of terraces, formal rose beds, enclosed garden compartments, a pleasure ground walk and a ha-ha, offering unimpeded views across the parkland.

Many of these features remain today. Much of the planting came from the famous Veitch Nursey near Exeter and included many rare species.

The garden in the wood

The garden in the wood was the first part of the garden Sir John and Lady Amory developed after the Second World War in 1946. Sir Eric Savill, who created the famous Savill woodland garden in Windsor Great Park in the 1930s, helped them.

The garden in the wood blends Sir John’s passion for new and rare plants and Joyce’s love of arranging them. Together, this created views and vistas with shady paths leading to sunlit glades. It remained her favourite part of the garden for the rest of her life.

The walled kitchen garden

The kitchen garden was an essential part of Victorian country estate life, providing food, flowers and exotic fruit for the family. Designed by William Burges, it had turrets like a castle and was finished in 1876, during the peak of the Victorian obsession with productive gardens.

Considered by many to be a high art, the vegetable and fruit growing that took place within these walls would have showcased the latest growing techniques.

The kitchen garden after the First World War

The garden declined following the First World War as most young men were deployed, leaving a skeleton staff. By the Second World War, numbers had declined further, though the garden was still used to help produce supplies for the house.

Wider commercial availability of fruit and vegetables also meant the garden ceased to be cost effective, as more and more produce was brought into the estate.

The walled garden today

In the 1960s the garden was abandoned due it being too expensive to run and put to bed for over 40 years. In 1999, a project was undertaken to restore the kitchen garden to its former glory and by 2003 it was fully productive again.

The exterior of the house at Knightshayes with the garden in front

Discover more at Knightshayes

Find out when Knightshayes is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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Things to see and do inside Knightshayes house 

Discover the ground floor of house at National Trust’s Knightshayes. See the details behind architect William Burges's gothic façade and a portrait that may be by Rembrandt. From Monday 15 April the first floor of the house will also reopen for a peek into the private spaces of the Heathcoat-Amory family.

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Exploring the estate at Knightshayes 

There are acres of parkland to discover at Knightshayes. It's a great place for the whole family to explore with room to roam with plenty of hidden corners to discover.

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Visiting the garden at Knightshayes 

Step into the formal and woodland garden at Knightshayes in Tiverton, Devon, which is divided into eight separate areas plus a walled kitchen garden.

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Eating and shopping at Knightshayes 

Grab a bite to eat and drink in the Stables Café, or browse the range of goods in our shop. You'll find all the details here.

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Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.