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 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.
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:
Such behaviour may account for the ambivalent tone of John Arscott's epitaph in the Church of the Holy Cross:
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 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.