Tetcott is a small, isolated settlement in the far west of Devon some 5 miles to the south
of Holsworthy. Situated in rolling parkland, it is unspoiled to this day by the ravages of
modern development. At its hub is a splendid manor house with stables, a farm, a church and a
few outbuildings clustered around them.
There are magical overtones in the very words Arscott of Tetcott. They epitomise all the
ancient Devonshire squires and their homes: the wind-flung rooks on December afternoons,
branch-strewn parks emerging from curtains of fine rain, rambling, echoing stone-flagged
houses set all alone at the end of muddy lanes, darkened by beeches and sycamores.
The Arscotts of Tetcott were the junior branch of the Arscott family of Holsworthy whose
origins go back to at least 1300. John Arscott purchased the Tetcott estate from the Earl of
Huntingdon and took up residence there about 1550. The first manor house on the current site
was started in John's time and was completed by his son Arthur in 1603.
This is recorded on the plaque above the doorway, but appearances can deceive: this plaque
comes from the corn mill used for the Tetcott estate at the time. [note 1]
Some time during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) a higher, more imposing brick
mansion (named Old Tetcott House in the picture) was built nearby on the east side of the
original manor. The architect chosen had built the Great House of Stowe at Kilkhampton in
North Cornwall for John Grenville, the first Earl of Bath. The use of brick was unusual
at such a remote location in the county.
The Hearth Tax Returns for 1647 record 15 hearths for Old Tetcott House, putting it on a
par with the largest houses in the county [Lauder5, p40
On the passing of John Arscott who died childless in 1788, the estate was inherited by his
distant relation, Sir William Molesworth. With their main family seat being at Pencarrow in
Cornwall, the Molesworths considered the grandiose mansion superfluous, and it was
dismantled by Sir William's grandson (also named William) in 1831. A sizable hunting lodge
in the fashionable Gothic style was erected in its place. The destruction of Old Tetcott
House was resented by some locals and the lodge was destroyed by fire in suspicious
circumstances a few years later. [note 2]
The Molesworth-St. Aubyns, as they are now known, returned to Tetcott in 1925 when the
original manor house resumed its role as the family seat, as it had been in the early days
of the Arscotts.
The attractively situated church dates from the 13th century, although the tower wasn't
completed until early in the 16th century. Inside are memorials to the John Arscott who died
in 1675 and to his wife Gertrude. There is also an ornate Arscott pew, befitting the
prominence of the family. The cemetery to the rear looks out on a fine vista of open fields
The scene below shows the church in the distance across the area known, perhaps
ironically, as The Wilderness.
John, the last of the Arscotts of Tetcott, is renowned for his eccentricity and has been
described as "well-nigh the last of the jovial open-housed squires of the West of
. His passion for the chase was legendary, yet he displayed remarkable
kindness to small creatures, most notably his pet toad "Old Dawty" who would emerge from
under the steps of the mansion each morning and leap on to his master's hand to be fed.
Some local folk referred to Old Dawty as Arscott's familiar
In a throwback to the days before the English Civil War when a court jester was part of
every royal entourage, his household included a dwarf jester, Black John, who entertained
guests after dinner in the most bizarre fashion such as by swallowing live mice which
were tethered to a string so they could be retrieved unharmed.
- A print from the 1784 portrait of John Arscott by James Northcote which now hangs in the Pencarrow drawing room
As lord of the manor, John could scarcely avoid attending church services, nevertheless he
treated the House of God and all its trappings with irreverence and was easily distracted.
To relieve the boredom of the proceedings he took to feeding the church spiders with flies:
For when one had spun its fatal toils in a corner of a pew in the church, our Knight used
to bring a bottle full of flies into the sacred building itself, that he might while away
the tediousness of Divine Service by feeding his church pet.
If a clergyman was reading the bible badly, when he finished with "Here endeth the second
lesson", our Knight would call out "Thee'st better never begun it"... He would throw apples
at the priest in the middle of Divine Service. [note 3]
Such behaviour may account for the ambivalent tone of John Arscott's epitaph in the Church
of the Holy Cross:
Sacred to the memory of John Arscott late of Tetcott in the Parish, Esq., who died the 14th
day of January 1788. What his character was need not be recorded. The deep impression his
benevolence and humanity has left in the minds of his friends and dependents will be
transmitted by tradition to late posterity.
It is said that John's long time mistress Thomasine Spry was a former maid-servant of his
father. She survived her partner and word has it that John made an honest woman of
her by exchanging marriage vows on his deathbed.
Local superstition says that John Arscott still appears on his beloved horse Black-Bird,
galloping through the Tetcott parkland and beyond at night, accompanied by a phantom pack of
hounds in never-ending defiance of the hunting ban:
When the full moon is shining as clear as the day,
John Arscott still hunteth the country, they say;
You may see him on Black-Bird, and hear in full cry,
The pack from Pencarrow to Dazzard go by.
When the tempest is howling, his horn you may hear,
And the baying of his hounds in their headlong career;
For Arscott of Tetcott loves hunting so well,
That he breaks for the pastime from Heaven or Hell. [Baring-Gould2, p57]
When visiting Tetcott for the first time, if you choose to approach from the north side it
is easy to miss the final left turn to your intended destination: the expected TETCOTT
signpost is unaccountably missing at this junction. Continuing past the Tetcott turn for
half a mile, passing a large CORNWALL - KERNOW sign at the border, you come to Tamerton
Bridge outside the Cornish village of North Tamerton. From here the waters of the River
Tamar make their way south to the sea, marking the border between the two counties,
eventually passing under the mighty twin spans of Brunel's Royal Albert railway bridge
linking Plymouth to Saltash.
The building of the hunting lodge and its subsequent burning down are mentioned by Luke
who refers to it
as a 'Gothic cottage', as quoted in the Appendix to Hawker[3, p259]
These two quotations come from a much longer entry made by Rev. Paul W Molesworth in the
church register on his appointment as rector of Tetcott. The references to John Arscott,
Esq. as "our Knight" are inaccurate. This might be intentionally facetious, or simply be a
mistranslation of the original Latin, as given by Baring-Gould[2, p49-50]
. Since the Molesworths were baronets, the lowest
hereditary title in the land, they would be well acquainted with such hierarchical
Devon by W.G. Hoskins, Collins 1954; new ed., Phillimore, 2003. [return]
J. Arscott of Tetcote, Esq., and his Jester, Black John by W H Luke, Plymouth, 1880.
Vanished Houses of North Devon by Rosemary Lauder, 1981; new ed., North Devon Books, 2005.
| | last modified on
22 Mar 2015