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'Stunning' Elizabethan house at Lewdown ruined by fire

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 16, 2012

Top, experts are surveying the damage to the fire-ravaged Sydenham House, following Wednesday's blaze, right. Far right, the house before the fire

Top, experts are surveying the damage to the fire-ravaged Sydenham House, following Wednesday's blaze, right. Far right, the house before the fire

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A lovingly-restored Grade I-listed Elizabethan stately home has been completely devastated by a raging fire which has turned a family home of more than 20 years into a blackened and soggy shell.

Sydenham House, a three-storey building dating back to the 16th century, had been painstakingly returned to its former glory by eminent surgeon Graeme Hart and his doctor wife Hilary.

The couple had created a stunning interior with ornate wood carvings, intricate plaster work, sweeping staircases and fireplaces stamped with the maker's mark.

But the blaze on Wednesday – so severe that the estate's entire lake was emptied by fire fighters battling to control the flames – has also ruined the centrepiece of an estate renowned for some of the best pheasant shooting in the Westcountry.

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Mr Hart has described the fire as "tragic'' and says his home will have to be rebuilt.

He said: "It couldn't have been more severe – the flames were coming through the roof.

"I was out during the day. I was phoned by my secretary to say there were flames coming out of the window. Immediately I returned to find the situation."

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service was called to the estate, at Lewdown near Okehampton, at about 4pm on Wednesday.

At its height, 15 fire crews from Devon and Cornwall were involved, with some fire fighters still on site yesterday dampening down.

There were no reports of anyone being in the building or injured but the heavily wooden inside made for a perilous operation – the roof and much of the first floor were destroyed.

Adam Fox Edwards, owner of the Arundel Arms at Lifton, also noted for its country sports, is a close friend of the couple and was at the house for dinner just last weekend.

He said: "They have spent a lot of time and money restoring the house and bringing it back to its former glory – it was absolutely stunning and a joy to be in.

"The fire service had to withdraw people at one stage for fear of collapse and they drowned the entire contents of the lake so you can imagine the damage.

"A sluice gate had to be reopened to let in more water – literally millions of gallons have been pumped inside.

"And to think last Sunday we were worried about spilling some wine on the nice white carpet."

Following a successful career, which saw Mr Hart achieve success creating artificial hip and knee joints, the couple, who are in their 60s, bought the property in 1992, raising their children there.

Inspired by an old sepia photo hanging in the guns' room depicting the shooting party of November 27, 1906, Mr Hart held a centenary shoot almost 100 years to the day and even staged a recreation of the picture.

Since then, with the help of experienced gamekeeper Robert Alexander the Sydenham shoot has been brought back to life.

Mr Fox Edwards said there was great sadness in the area and said he hoped the owners would not be too heartbroken to tackle a fresh restoration.

"It is one of the best shoots in the Westcountry," he said.

"There will be insurance and a rebuilding program, but a lot will have been lost.

"They are a charming couple – all of us in the locality are devastated and immensely sympathetic." The fire, which is thought to have started in a bedroom, is not being treated as suspicious.

Imposing house is an architectural gem on an estate steeped in history

It was mentioned in the Domesday Book and has survived in one form or another throughout the centuries.

Sydenham House, an estate with a rich history and tucked away in a tranquil and little-known part of West Devon, has served as a garrison to the King in the Civil War.

It has been a sporting lodge – a so-called “shooting box” – for the Cornish nobility and during the Second World War it even managed a stint as

a rural outpost for a St Trinian’s-style school.

But now the architectural gem, including the attic where the pupils were once billeted far from the bombs dropping on London, has been gutted by a massive fire.

The home was built for politician Sir Thomas Wise between 1600 and 1612, incorporating parts of an earlier house.

His grandson, Edward Wise, came to live at Sydenham in 1654 and in 1694 the estate passed by marriage to the Tremayne family and remained in their hands until the 1930s.

But the latest renovation, which has been brutally undone by the blaze, is just one of a series of refits. Colin MacDonald, an archives assistant at the Devon Heritage Centre, said it developed into one of the most “imposing” houses in the county, boasting an impressive entrance, two drawing rooms and east and west wings fanning out the rear.

“It is mentioned in Domesday – which is 1086 – but is a mixture of everything,” he told the WMN.

“It was the family seat of the Wise family in the 14th century then in 1675 was owned by the Tremaynes.

“In 1809 it was used as a shooting box by the Cornish branch of the family then survived without much change into the 20th century.”

The sporting history can be traced from the old game records, which show that good shooting was had there from the early 1900s up until 1920, when formal shooting ended.

However all that changed when Graeme and Hilary Hart bought the 1,200 acre estate in 1992, and were determined to restore it to its former sporting glory.

Conservation experts from English Heritage and West Devon Borough Council were at the scene yesterday assessing the scale of the damage.

An English Heritage spokesman said: “We are very sad to hear about the serious fire and will be working closely with the fire service, the local council and the building’s owner, to prevent any further loss to the fabric of the building. Our historic building inspector hopes to visit the site to offer English Heritage support and advice.

“In the longer term, our specialist surveyors and engineers will be assessing the condition of the structure and possible options for repair.”

A spokesman for West Devon Borough Council, said it would offer advice and assistance with the rebuilding process.

Paul Slaven, spokesman for Devon and Somerset Fire and rescue Service, said an investigation into the cause of the fire had revealed it was an accident, and had started in a first floor bedroom.

He added: “The building was declared safe yesterday.”

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