An enchanting hamlet in Devon's rural heartland

Tetcott House mansion in 2008

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.

The Arscotts of Tetcott
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. [Hoskins1, p493]

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]

Plaque above door of Tetcott House

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].

Old Tetcott House

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.

Church of the Holy Cross
Tetcott Church of the Holy Cross
The Church of the Holy Cross with its fine pinnacled tower
The Wilderness
Here the church is seen in the distance across the area known, perhaps ironically, as The Wilderness
Tetcott cemetery
The cemetery to the rear looks out on a fine vista of open fields and parkland

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.

Squire John Arscott
John Arscott of Tetcott

John, the last of the Arscotts of Tetcott, was renowned for his eccentricity and has been described as "well-nigh the last of the jovial open-housed squires of the West of England" [Hawker3, p80]. 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.

John's likeness is a copy of a print from the 1784 portrait 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 England's 2005 hunting ban which outlawed the pursuit of foxes with hounds:

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]
The upper Tamar valley
The upper Tamar viewed from Tamerton Bridge

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 origin of this plaque is given in the informative Devon County Council resource on the Tetcott Jester Walk. [return]
The building of the hunting lodge and its subsequent burning down are mentioned by Luke [4] who refers to it as a 'Gothic cottage', as quoted in the Appendix to Hawker[3, p259]. [return]
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 niceties. [return]
Devon by W.G. Hoskins, Collins 1954; new ed., Phillimore, 2003. [return]
Devonshire Characters and Strange Events V.1 by Sabine Baring-Gould, Plymouth, 1908.
Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall by R S Hawker, Ed. C E Byles, John Lane, 1903.
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.