History and Mystery

In this October issue we explore Rosteague, a family home with an extraordinary history, which is being restored

Overlooking neat lawns and rolling pastures that slip down to the coast and the sea beyond, the historic manor house of Rosteague is in a tranquil and secluded corner of Cornwall, at Portscatho, on the Roseland Peninsula.

Rosteague is flanked by one mile of its own coastline, which includes a series of small beaches strewn with shells. From the first glimpse of the house, with its distinctive Elizabethan façade, it is clear that this is a family home with a rich history - a history which the current owners, Mr and Mrs Howard Milton, continue to unearth. "We are attempting to locate two smugglers' tunnels," Mrs Milton divulges, obviously fascinated by her home and its mysteries. "One leads from the beach to the house, and the other from the house to the woods. We know that the former owners used the tunnel regularly to go to the beach." She also points out a recently discovered hidden staircase, which adds to the allure of this remarkable property.

The story of Rosteague can be traced as far back as 1363, when the first-recorded resident was named as Ralph de Restak. The Petyts followed, marking their occupancy of the estate by building a small chapel to the west of the house in 1401. During its early history, Rosteague was one of the principal houses in the parish, being one of the few marked on a map dated 1597. The house was held in high regard amongst the aristocracy during Elizabeth's reign - at this time it was the seat of Reginald Mohun, who was one of Sir Walter Raleigh's captains. In 1600, his brother, Sir William Mohun, is thought to have described Rosteague as a 'very fashionable place to stay'.

Having acquired Rosteague in 1619, the Kempe family used their significant wealth to create the French gardens in 1670. Designed as a quartered box parterre, in the Versailles style, the extraordinary gardens are one of Rosteague's most remarkable features today. This magnificent statement of prosperity echoes the grandeur and classical style of 17th-century taste; its parterres of box hedging encircling ornate classical statues. Protected from the prevailing sea winds by a high slate-roofed wall constructed of granite rubble and cob, the gardens have received some beautiful enhancements over the years. An atmospheric, thatched summerhouse was built in a corner of the gardens in the 19th century. The floor is patterned with black-and-white pebbles, while cockle and mussel shells adorn the walls, and a barn owl nests in its thatched eaves. The summerhouse has been granted a civil ceremonies licence so that couples can marry in this peaceful and distinctive spot. An ornamental pond was also added to the French gardens in the 20th century.

Rosteague was passed down within the Kempe family for 200 years, one of the notable former Kempe owners being Nicholas Kempe, who was Sheriff of Cornwall in 1761. The Harris family became the next owners of the property, and John Harris is credited with establishing a small deer park behind the Lodge in 1768, and the ancient dovecot in the nearby woods.

In 1830, the third and western wing of the house was added, thus giving the house its present shape. Sadly, the house fell into disrepair under the ownership of Mary Hartley and her son, William, who inherited Rosteague in 1830; Hartley was subsequently declared insane. The Vangruten family, who inherited the estate in 1894, embarked on a restoration programme, and also built a separate farmhouse to the west side of the property, before the estate was occupied by the Land Army during the Second World War.

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In 1946, the McKennas moved to Rosteague. A family of talented musicians who were passionate about performance, they proceeded to convert the old Cider House, which opened onto the French garden, into a Music Room. Boasting remarkable acoustics and exposed beams, this performance space became renowned as a venue for concerts and recitals in the local area. Today, the space doubles as an art studio for Mr Milton and a reception room suitable for dining and entertainment when the Miltons are hosting weddings.

Mr and Mrs Milton and their two daughters moved from Morval House, near Looe, to Rosteague in 2003. The property demanded extensive repairs and restorative work, which has been done with painstaking attention to detail, and in keeping with the period character of the house. In 2004, the entire front of the house and the chimneys were repointed, while one chimney and an extensive part of the slate roof was replaced. Each sash window was carefully taken out, the panes were removed and each was then stripped, treated and meticulously repainted. This laborious process was necessary for the period windows to withstand the exposed position of the house.

The interiors also demanded a great deal of restorative work. One particular sitting room, a light space with distinctive white-panelled walls, was in dire need of repair, and its intricately plastered ceiling needed restoring. The Miltons recently commissioned a craftsman to build a series of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the library, made to blend in with the historic character of the room. And the maintenance work continues. "I don't think it will ever be finished as such," comments Mrs Milton. "Maintenance and restoration is a constant concern with a property of this age."

Adorned with ornate chandeliers and aged fireplaces, each room has its charm. The collection of antiques, collectables and historic paintings, many depicting horses, hounds and country vistas, which have been collected by the Miltons over the years, further enhances the house's character.

One of the most striking rooms is the long hall, which is entered through a stone archway and opens onto the lawned frontage. The walls are covered with 17th-century Flemish leather; the silvered leather has a beautifully intricate pattern incorporating images of various fruits and flowers painted in gold. The Miltons actually brought it with them from their previous home. As a rare period piece it too has recently undergone a restorative treatment; it was restitched, cleaned - intriguingly enough - with cotton buds and saliva, and laid out on batons to aid its preservation. The window shutters were closed on sunny days to prevent light damage.

The Seaward rooms are Rosteague's most romantic accommodation. The light and airy bedroom has three windows with views across the lawns to the sea, an antique dressing table, full-length dressing mirror and four-poster bed. The bed is upholstered with Italian silk depicting wildlife and flowers. The Miltons decided to adapt the adjoining bedroom into a large bathroom, complete with a mantelpiece, vintage wallpaper and a free-standing French copper bateau bath, positioned to soak up sea views. Next door is a recently decorated sitting room.

When the Miltons arrived at Rosteague, the French gardens in particular were in need of extensive work. The bay tree, which stands in the centre of the gardens and serves as a gateway between the two sets of parterres, demanded a huge amount of trimming and shaping, as did the box hedges. Mrs Milton has now carefully designed each of the four parterres to represent the seasons, and planted bulbs accordingly: fresh yellows for spring, pinks for summer, reds and bronzes for autumn and whites for winter. The gardens are now a beautifully kept feature of Rosteague, befitting its history and elegance.

Rosteague, Portscatho, near Truro, 01872 580346, www.rosteague.co.uk

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