Pentillie Castle, Saltash, owner Ted Coryton brings colour to Cornish estate
INHERITING a beautiful country cottage sounds like a dream.
But what if the fantasy came on a larger, scarier scale?
Imagine being gifted a stately home with ten bedrooms and 2,000 acres that needed a £1.5million upgrade to become viable – and facing a debt to the tax man running to many more millions of pounds.
Welcome to the real world of Ted Spencer. For him, inheriting Pentillie Castle wasn't just a life-changing experience, it was a name-changing one.
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Before he and his family took on the 17th-century pile near Saltash they had to agree to change their name to Coryton. That would ensure the continuation of the line that once owned much of the Tamar Valley.
No wonder he thought about selling up, settling the debts and walking away with a small fortune and no worries when Pentillie came his way in 2007 following the death of his childless cousin's widow.
"I was quite happy doing what I was doing," he says of his job as a helicopter pilot.
"I didn't want to change my life."
Parents are supposed to be the ones that lecture their children about responsibilities, duties and generally doing the right thing. With Ted and his two daughters and a son it was the other way round.
"The children thought it would be inappropriate to sell up after Pentillie had been in the family for 300 years.
"They knew I would probably go off and spend the money getting quietly drunk in the Caribbean," he adds with a broad grin.
Ted, you see, hasn't always done the right thing. His early life was punctuated by doing things that dismayed his father: failing at Eton, running off to Australia, and "struggling to the rank of lieutenant" in the Army (by contrast his father was colonel in the 9th/12th Lancers).
He'd agreed to take on Pentillie when his cousin, Jeffery, was still alive. The undertaking to change his name to Coryton was another thing that did not meet with his father's approval as continuing the Corytons meant the end of the Spencers.
"I was his only son," Ted explains. "He was not enthusiastic."
A psychologist might speculate that Ted went ahead to spite rather than simply despite.
Who knows. In contrast, he presents as an affable character who would get on with anybody; your mate down the pub rather than "lord" of the manor.
What we do know is that today he is Ted Coryton, Pentillie is definitely still in the family and positively gleams in the spring sunshine after having £1.5milion lavished on it.
Any thoughts of a nightmare have been banished. The scene is idyllic.
Ted appears is if he did not waste too much of that huge sum on sprucing up himself, at least not today. He is dressed for hard work in unfussy fleeces, jeans and mud-stained shoes.
In fact the toil began quite quickly.
When Kit, wife of his late cousin Jeffery, died, Ted was living at Tinnel, a farm rented from the Pentillie estate. The arrangement for the property to pass to Ted had been put in place years before.
Jeffery, a realistic, forwarding thinking type, set about trying to ensure the future when he inherited historic house in 1966. He scaled the building back to a more manageable size, knocking down the early 19th-century addition and taking Pentillie back close to the late 17th century original. The 18 bedrooms (and only one bathroom) were reduced to ten. He also approached Ted with the inheritance proposition.
In addition there was a business deal between the cousins in which Ted helped run the estate. That deal ended on Jeffery's death in 1980 when Kit declined to continue the business agreement.
She sounds like a singular woman. Difficult? Reclusive?
Ted won't be drawn. "She didn't have many friends," he says.
"I never came down the drive again until 2007."
Then a family conference was called to decide what to do.
"We wanted the children to be involved because it was a family matter," says Ted.
So Ted, his wife Sarah and daughters Roonie and Sammie and son Oliver gathered on Christmas Eve. "We agreed we would stay in the room until a decision was made," Ted says.
Despite those very early misgivings, agreement was reached quickly and unanimously.
They would keep Pentillie and try to make the old place pay its way as a venue for weddings and a top-notch bed and breakfast guest house – despite death duties of about £5million and the bill to bring the building up to scratch.
Their race against the clock to get Pentillie ready for the first wedding guests was documented in the Channel 4 programme Country House Rescue.
The forthright host, Ruth Watson, clashed loudly and ceaselessly with the family on everything from the overall plan to details such as the interior styling and choice of outside paint.
The latter was a particular bone of contention. "I didn't want something boring and bland. I wanted something warm and cheerful."
The yellow with a hint of red gives Pentillie a cheery Mediterranean air. The effect works: great British landscape painter JMW Turner once compared the Tamar Valley favourably with Italy, after all.
Ruth and Sammie particularly did not see eye to eye. Sammie had given up a job in TV – her career as a home economist in Australia included work for Channel 9 – to oversee the plans.
Ted came across as the calming, if less organised, figure amid the storm.
It made for great TV. Was it just that: fiction dressed up as a real-life drama for the cameras?
"I can assure you it was genuine," says Ted with another winning smile.
"We still had scaffolding up with a party due in a couple of hours. It came down with minutes to spare."
The refurbishment was rather more than a spruce-up and some new bathrooms. The roof-to-floor repairs and upgrade involved new floors and the upper story being jacked up.
Pentillie's Grade II* listing meant the work had to be in keeping and approved by English Heritage.
The conservation body's description of the house runs to over 1,100 words. It notes in particular Pentillie's "fine features of the early and late 18th century".
If Ted sounds relaxed about the uproar and the rows laid bare in Country House Rescue, the passage of time is partly to do with. Plus the refurbishment was never a matter of life and death while a previous career was exactly that. He served in the Royal Hampshires for eight years.
Ted grew up in Yelverton and went to Eton where the next step should have been to Oxford of Cambridge or into the Armed Forces.
But no. "I left with 3 O Levels. I got three per cent in my French.
"I am not intelligent. I loathed school.
"It was probably the wrong school for me. I don't like the constraints of the establishment.
"My father did not take it (the school results) particularly enthusiastically. He gave me 150 quid and said, 'That's it. You have got to get on with your life'.
"I spent £98 of that on a P&O passage to Australia."
Ted spent 18 months Down Under mainly on farms following the seasons as an itinerant worker.
Given his dislike of the establishment, why did he join the army on his return to the UK?
"The Royal Hampshires were wonderful," he says. "The commanders encouraged individuality. It didn't matter what you were like, provided that you could do the job."
While in uniform, Ted realised he would like to fly above the ordinary business of soldiering.
"I was serving in Borneo," he recalls. "I was smelly and sweaty and hungry.
"Then in came the helicopter and the pilot wasn't smelly and sweaty or hungry and he didn't seem much more intelligent than me.
"I thought, 'I could do that'." He did, spending the rest of his Army career as a helicopter pilot.
"When I left in 1973 I stuck with it and decided I would do anything but crop spraying."
Over the next four decades he worked for construction and oil exploration companies and the United Nations across many countries, from Siberian Russian to Africa.
He dismisses any suggestion that there was glamour attached to his career. "If you were lucky your accommodation was a tent, or if you were really lucky it would be a shipping container."
In the meantime he married Sarah, who he had known since he was a boy. Not that they were childhood sweethearts.
"I used to play with her brother Charlie when I was eight or ten. She was what all younger sisters are: a complete pain in the neck!" They were married in 1974.
When his head wasn't in the clouds flying helicopters, Ted had his hands in the soil on the Pentillie estate.
He did a farm management course at Seale Hayne agricultural college in 1980. He says he owes a lot one estate veteran. "I was wonderfully supported by Ivor Palmer who has lived and worked on the estate since he was 17. He's 86 now and still works three afternoons a week; a first rate man, first rate."
When Pentillie passed to the family in 2007, he was working on a project in Mauritania, west Africa.
"It was a five-hour flight from Paris and a two-day drive to the site near the Mali border. So it wasn't commutable," he says, straight-faced.
Instead he had to focus on Pentillie. The pull of history was stronger than any thoughts of a different future living off the proceeds of a sale.
He used to visit Pentillie as a teenager – his grandmother was born there – and was aware of the estate's rich and scandalous past.
The house was built at the very end of the 17th century by Sir James Tillie. He was land agent to Sir John Coryton who died an agonising death at 42.
That led to suspicions that Tillie – who'd had an affair with Sir John's wife and married her after the landowner's demise – had poisoned his boss.
"He bought the title and stole the coat of arms," says Ted. "There was an investigation but nothing was proved (about the murder) but the coat of arms was taken from him. It was dragged through the streets of London attached to horses' tails and broken apart.
"Sir James was lucky the same thing didn't happen to him. He was a bit naughty really."
The Coryton name came eventually through marriage further down the line after Sir James died childless and the house was first passed to a cousin, in an echo of the current ownership.
The colourful/criminal builder of Pentillie had a high opinion of himself to the extent he believed he was immortal.
He left instructions that after his death he was to be seated on a throne in his finery in a mausoleum overlooking the Tamar, and servants were to bring him wine each day.
Appalled by the state of the remains, his servants eventually buried him and put a statute in his place.
"Resurrection" – of sorts – eventually came. Remains of a body were found earlier this year, exactly three centuries after Sir James' death, while restoration work was done on the mausoleum.
"We are quite sure it is him," says Ted. "There is no point in going to the expense of DNA testing."
Money still matters. "We have yet to make a profit," says Ted, reflecting on life since Pentillie came his family's way.
They have tried to swell income through additional events such as last year's Festival of Speed, garden openings, pop-up restaurants, shooting and outdoor theatre. A second reunion of Pentillie "babies" will happen on April 20; the house was a maternity hospital during World War Two.
The Corytons have won a string of awards for their bed-and-breakfast business, and the house enjoyed some marvellous publicity and a boost to trade when a German crew filming a Rosamunde Pilcher novel were so impressed by the surroundings they named the movie after Pentillie.
Other overseas attention is due later this year when the house features in a B&B reality series that is due to air in four countries in Europe.
"I'm a media 'whore'," laughs Ted, referring to Pentillie's energetic marketing efforts.
What is less publicised, though, is that the grand house and gardens have hosted fun events for wounded Royal Marines from Hasler Company.
There is a family connection: son Oliver is a major in the Royal Marines, serving with Bickleigh-based 42 Commando.
The estate's isolation off the tourist track is a help and a hindrance to business. "Anybody could make money in West Cornwall, although some of the people choose here for a wedding because they want the quiet," says Ted. "They don't want to be noticed – they fly in and out by helicopter."
However he no longer flies. At 66 he cannot get a commercial licence, although he helps train pilots. "Crazy, isn't it?" he asks. "In other countries, the rule is, if you are fit you can have a licence."
That means he can give full attention to the future of Pentillie, which still has the worry of tax hanging over it.
"Will it be £5million, £6million? You tell me. The district valuer still hasn't worked out the figure, and all the time we wait, interest is being added.
"The estate faced 85 per cent death duties in 1919, 65 per cent in 1966 when Jeffery inherited and 40 per cent now. Splendid social engineering. That's just the way it is. You have to go with it."
There is "a danger" that the Corytons' Pentillie project might fail when the tax bill finally arrives, but not a great one, he says, because they have planned well with a certain figure in mind.
But he adds: "If I had known it was going to be so challenging I probably would have taken the money and run in 2007," he says.
But I don't think he would have. Pentillie has a pull, a certain magic, that even outsiders feel.
For owners, whatever their name – Tillie, Spencer, Coryton – the effect is even greater.