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Beauty and inspiration at Pencarrow

If a Cornish country home steeped with history and fascinating stories is something you’d like to explore, a visit to Pencarrow House & Gardens, just outside Bodmin, is one for your summer bucket list.

Members of the Molesworth-St Aubyn family with the Friends of Pencarrow and some of the team.

Approaching from a mile-long woodland drive surrounded by beautiful flowers, shrubs and trees, the first glimpse of the limestone of Pencarrow House is something to behold. A towering Georgian house with beautiful gardens and acres of farmland, Pencarrow is home to the Molesworth-St Aubyn family, who have been here since the times of Elizabeth I. James and Gillian Molesworth-St Aubyn are now the proud ‘custodians’ of Pencarrow, and Bodmin Life was shown around the house by Gillian, who does house tours for visitors. Originally from New York, Gillian married James, the second son of the late Sir Arscott and Lady Iona Molesworth-St Aubyn, in 2002. She kept separate from its operations until recently, focusing on her children and career in journalism. But it proved impossible to resist the fascinating family business, and Gillian found herself digging into books and photographs to learn the stories of those before them.


The Molesworths first came to Pencarrow in 1595, when John Molesworth became the auditor of the Duchy of Cornwall. He married Catherine Hender from Boscastle, who, quips Gillian, had the ‘three L’s: land, lineage and livestock’. In 1760, construction of the existing Georgian building began under Sir John, 4th Bt, and was finished 11 years later by his son, also called John.

Pencarrow House in 2024
The house and its occupants in the 19th century

In the late 1800s, the Molesworths became Molesworth-St Aubyn, when Sir John St Aubyn’s baronetcy (and estate of Clowance in West Cornwall) passed to the sons of his sister Catherine and her husband Rev John Molesworth, a vicar of St Breock in Wadebridge. The St Aubyns also owned St Michael’s Mount, and the iconic castle in Marazion Bay appears in the backgrounds of their portraits.

The Italian garden in the 19th century

The Pencarrow tour starts near the breathtaking Italian garden, built by the forward-thinking Sir William Molesworth, a radical politician and social reformer. He extensively remodelled Pencarrow and its grounds, and also funded the first railway in Cornwall (now the Camel Trail). He married the widow Andalusia West, a London society hostess who had been a professional singer. His family disapproved; they thought she was a social climber who ‘drove Sir William to an early grave’ with her relentless socialising. But he loved her deeply and built her a beautiful music room for her to entertain their guests, which included the Rothschilds and Sir Arthur Sullivan, of the comedy operettist duo Gilbert & Sullivan. She continued to use the house 50 years after Sir William’s death.


A bedroom which would have belonged to the eldest daughter of the house

There are many other quirky stories and artefacts to be found in the magnificent old corridors and rooms of Pencarrow: a telltale creaky corridor leading to the eldest daughter’s bedroom to deter nocturnal adventures; a lock of hair belonging to Lady Sybil Molesworth-St Aubyn in ‘Her Ladyship’s Bedroom’; an exquisite porcelain collection and a secret door in the library; a fine array of paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which Gillian calls the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Pencarrow’s art collection.


Today, the house takes its colourful past into an exciting future. Gillian said: “In our view, the family are custodians and we dedicate a lot of effort to its survival - it’s a big responsibility.”


The Molesworth-St Aubyns are strongly linked to their local community; through the years they have been involved in the Young Farmers Club, the Scouts - which were established here - the Bodmin Hospital League of Friends and the Elizabeth Finn Trust, which works with vulnerable people. Gillian is patron of the Wadebridge Choral Society, and has served on school and youth group committees.


“We have a wonderful volunteer arm here, the Friends of Pencarrow, who fundraise to help support this wonderful place and keep it accessible,” Gillian said. “There are constant demands on Pencarrow’s resources, many of them quite unglamorous. The Friends help the estate not only to maintain status quo but also to grow and improve, and we are very grateful to them.”

Some of the team from the cafe

After the First World War, society changed a lot from the incredibly formal ways of life pre-conflict. For stately homes like Pencarrow, a new era had begun. Much of the male workforce had been lost on the Western Front, while new opportunities were opening up for women. Societal norms continued to change after the Second World War.

“The labour force was depleted after the wars, and the death duties the Victorians had enacted had started to bite,” Gillian explained. “Also, the focus was on rebuilding Britain after a devastating time, so priorities had changed. Not many families held on to these big expensive places. Many went to the National Trust, and others had to find new roles as schools or retirement homes, or divided up as accommodation. If you go to see them, you get the feeling that they’ve lost their soul, it’s rather sad.”


Pencarrow House, spring 2024

Sir Arscott Molesworth-St Aubyn, Bt and his wife Iona took over the house in 1974, and were met with a jungle of overgrowth and a house in need of some TLC. They did much of the work themselves, which the family continues today.

“It’s a big enterprise, and we’re very grateful to our Pencarrow community who keep the ship afloat: our gardeners and maintenance team, our tour guides, and of course the Friends of Pencarrow, who fundraise but also help with educational and outreach work. Without them, it would be depleted indeed.”


For Gillian, who has been mesmirised by just how many stories have emerged from Pencarrow since she first arrived from America 22 years ago, there’s little doubt that this remarkable house and community’s legacy will continue for years to come. She added: “What’s remarkable about Pencarrow is there is so much unbroken history - a story in every drawer and cupboard, and I’m lucky enough to

experience it.

“We were really aware after Covid that we wanted to continue to make the house accessible to people because it’s such a wonderful community resource – people love walking their dogs in the grounds and bringing visitors round the house. There is a genius of the past in this house and gardens – it’s a centre of excellence. People find inspiration and comfort here.”


Pencarrow House is open from Easter through to October, and their gardens open from 1st March each year. For more information, visit www.pencarrow.co.uk

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