Owner: Dawn French
Country House/Marine Villa
Grade II listed
Coursed slate with granite dressings. Low-pitched hipped slate roofs with deep bracketed eaves. Slate stacks with moulded granite caps and louvred yellow clay pots. Original mid C19 house is of painted brick, partly slate-hung and with low-pitched slate roof with deep eaves and verges to gable ends. (Historic England)
This entry has been updated with new information since original publication.
The small boat rocks gently as it tours the landmarks along the River Fowey. Here are buildings of all shapes and sizes. Each property is immersed with history and romance. As the boat heads towards the mouth of the river it cuts it engine and is left to float against the incoming tide. The skipper tells us that the Victorian house nestling above Readymoney Cove is called Port Neptune, built by the Rashleigh family, who lived for most of their time at nearby Menabilly.
This is about as much as we learn about the house. It looks splendid, an accumulation of different buildings moulded into one impressive residence that appears to rest on granite buttresses rising from the sea. It is set against a backdrop mature trees that sharpen the features of the house.
Before we know it the engines have restarted and we are sailing towards the opposite bank and other treasures yet to be discovered. But as we move away from Point Neptune it calls after you wanting to share some of its secrets.
The house is undoubtedly seen at its best from the River Fowey. Here you can appreciate the elegance of its design but a short coastal walk to Readymoney Cove reveals more of the house.
Very little has been written about Port Neptune which is surprising considering its dominant position overlooking the open sea. Here the occupants will have been able to watch the boats come and go and witness the growth of Fowey’s maritime history.
It was built on the site of an old Napoleonic gun battery that guarded the harbour. The remains are the rising buttresses that remain today.
Point Neptune was built in the mid nineteenth century for William Rashleigh of Menabilly. He came from a long line of Rashleighs who originated from Barnstaple across the county border in Devon.
Philip Rashleigh settled in Fowey in the 16th century as a trader. His son’s marriage to Alice Lanyon resulted in the acquisition of Cornish properties and soon became prolific merchants and ship owners.
In time they would own property at nearby Menabilly as well as a new townhouse in Fowey (still survived as The Ship Inn).
According to research they benefited from the dissolution of the monasteries by scrupulously buying land and re-selling at a profit. By marrying into wealthy Cornish families the Rashleighs became huge landowners with significant influence across the county. Many became MPs and it was Menabilly, on the Gribben Peninsula, that provided the stable family home.
William Rashleigh (1817-1871) was the eldest son of Mr William Rashleigh of Menabilly, by Caroline, the daughter of Sir Henry Hinxman, of Ivy Church, Wiltshire. He was educated for the army and, on reaching 21, travelled throughout Europe, Turkey, the Holy Land, and Egypt, extending his travels to Nubia, along the Nile, at a time when such excursions were few. On his return he was elected as an M.P. for East Cornwall between 1841 and 1847.
In 1843 he married Catherine Stuart, the eldest daughter of Robert Walter Stuart, the 11th Lord Blantyre of Erskine and Blantyre.. He would become a volunteer with Admiral Plumridge aboard HMS Leopard in the Baltic expedition and, in 1854, found action in that ship during the capture of Bomarsund in the Crimean War. He would serve as a Justice of the Peace, a Deputy Lieutenant for Cornwall and would oblige with the Royal Cornwall Rangers Rifle Militia.
When Rashleigh inherited Menabilly in 1855 he was a man of substantial means. However, he was a man of the sea and eventually turned his back on Menabilly, preferring to live by the shoreline. The grand house was left under the stewardship of his brother Jonathan while he looked to build a new home by the sea.
His chosen location was the old fortification at the high above the entrance to Readymoney Cove. The cove had once been used as a watering place for shipping in the 18th century.
In 1792 pilchard cellars were built (52 feet long and 24 feet wide with walls over 2 feet thick). These were erected on the site of a former gun emplacement. The beach was later used for shipbuilding and ship breaking and, in 1833, the schooner, Catherine, was launched from the beach by the shipbuilder George Nickels.
We can only speculate as to what state and condition the old gun battery was in. An old cottage, of painted brick with a low pitched slate roof, existed to the north-east of the site, and this was retained in Rashleigh’s plan for a new marine villa.
Work began in the early 1860s and completed by 1862. What emerged was a large L-shaped range to the south west, an entrance front to the west, an extension to the south and a new wing to the south east. The original cottage became part of the servants’ wing.
A single-storey hall was built with a drawing room projecting at the southern sea-facing front. There were extensions to Point Neptune, after Rashleigh’s death, in the late nineteenth century and further alterations during the twentieth century. However, what remains is largely Rashleigh’s stone Italianate marine villa, seemingly sitting at different levels, with slate roofs, sash windows and granite dressings, all with an elegant grace that cannot be bettered.
On the 10th October 1862, Rashleigh presented six men from Tywardreath Church with £1 for a peal of bells that marked his arrival at Point Neptune.¹
A few weeks later there were major celebrations at the opening of an ornamental carriageway from the Fowey and Tywardreath turnpike road, through his grounds at Lewhire, to the gates of Point Neptune. It was reputed to have cost Rashleigh £500 to build.
It provided an extension of the Fowey Esplanade and Rashleigh allowed townsfolk to use it for recreational purposes. He named the carriageway St Catherine’s Parade after his wife and partly in response to the old castle near the entrance of Fowey harbour.²
At the entrance to the house were large granite piers where the words ‘Point Neptune’ can still be seen inscribed either side of the large cast iron gates which had originally hung at the four-turnings entrance at Menabilly.³ The stables and carriage house were built below at the head of Readymoney Cove.
As is so often the case Rashleigh had little time to enjoy his marine villa. He died on 31 October 1871, aged 54, at St Leonard’s Hill in Windsor. His London address was recorded as 17 Hill Street, off Berkeley Square.
Today he lies in a white silk lined coffin at the Rashleigh Mausoleum above Readymoney Cove. He lies alongside his wife, Catherine, who died a year later at Woodhill, Hatfield, in Hertfordshire. The Rashleigh Mausoleum had been built in 1866, cut into the face of the cliff, on the crowning summit known as St Catherine’s Hill. The actual site had been a former gun battery and the mausoleum was excavated into the ground complete with an arched vault made of white fire-bricks.
In 1874 The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser paid tribute to Rashleigh:-
“That the late Mr Rashleigh liked the open sea as much as his neighbours we have proof in the rocky proximity of his dwelling to that element, his admiration being further shown by the appropriate choice of its name, borrowed from the title of the trident god himself; a devotion that, like the true loyalty to a liege lord, went beyond life, and lodged him, when he departed, in a rock-hewn grave, to be near and overlook, as it were, in death the azure realm he had made the close friend of his life.”
Point Neptune passed to the Rashleigh’s only child, Edith Frances (1849-1905).
A wealthy woman, she would marry Sackville George Stopford-Sackville, the MP for Northamptonshire North, in 1875. His work at Northamptonshire County Council and as a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant for that county meant he split his time between the ancestral home at Drayton House and London. The 1881 census shows her husband in Northamptonshire while Edith is ensconced at Port Neptune with 8 servants. On her death in 1905 the house would revert to her husband and remain unoccupied.
According to writer Hilary Macaskill, ‘a guidebook of 1892 describes Point Neptune as the “beautiful and pleasantly situated marine residence of William Rashleigh esq”, commending its fine view of the harbour, the carriage road leading to it that wound its way alongside the high slate wall, and the footpath at its side. “the use of which Mr Rashleigh and his lady have generously and opportunely presented to the respectable inhabitants of Fowey of all classes”.
The next owner of Point Neptune was the Reverend William Eastleigh Henry Cotes (1857-1935).
Educated at Cambridge he spent a lifetime in the church serving in Worcester, Kent and London. He rose from modest beginnings and would soon have a house in Portland Place, London, with his wife, Maria Anne, and their son, John Charles Cecil Cotes (1890-1925).
In 1911 Cotes employed 7 servants to attend the household. Two of these, the cook and kitchen assistant, were brought up to London from Cornwall. A man of wealth he would use Port Neptune for many years as a summer retreat.
His son, John, would eventually move to Readymoney Cove with his wife, Dorothy, and live below Point Neptune in the Beach Cottage. He had served with the Royal Naval Air Service but would die of heart failure following a bout of influenza. His father would outlive him by ten years.
In 1921 Cotes put the Point Neptune estate up for auction. It was described as a granite residence of 14 rooms, seven cottages, gardens, timbered grounds, and covering an area of 12 acres. There were no bids for the estate but the marine villa attracted offers from £3,000 to £4,300. At this figure the property was withdrawn but there were interested parties keen to enter private negotiations.⁴
The next owner of Point Neptune was John Grenville Fortescue (1896-1969), the son of John Bevill Fortescue of Boconnoc, Lostwithiel and Dropmore, at Burnham in Buckinghamshire.
John Grenville Fortescue had been educated at Eton, fought in the First World War, where he was wounded, and gained the rank of Lieutenant in the Reserve of Officers, Coldstream Guards. In 1917 he had married Daphne Marjory Bourke.
The Fortescue’s lived at Point Neptune with their three children until 1931 and would later live at Penarwyn in nearby Par. (It might be suggested that John Grenville Fortescue fell out of favour with his father. His brother George Grenville Fortescue inherited Boconnoc when John Bevill Fortescue died in 1939. There appears to have been little provision for John Grenville and he only inherited Boconnoc after his brother’s death in 1967. Two years later Boconnoc would pass to his son John Desmond Grenville Fortescue.)
The land surrounding Point Neptune had also passed into new ownership. By 1929 the woods had been bought by Mr and Mrs Stenton Covington, popular conservationists, and handed to the National Trust. The old pilchard cellars, later used as a lime kiln, were purchased by Mr Jesse Julian who handed them over to the people of Fowey. These were converted into a shelter with toilets in 1935 and a lawn seating area was built above to celebrate the silver jubilee of King George V.
After Point Neptune was put up for auction in 1931 it fell into the hands of Mrs Hester Parnall (1868-1939), a Cornish lady with a remarkable history.
She had been born Hester Hicks, the daughter of Walter Hicks, founder of the St Austell Brewery. She appeared content to live the life of an Edwardian lady and married Thomas Rogers Parnall in 1904.
He was the son of Edward Parnall, who founded one of Cornwall’s leading drapery business. Parnall has been described as a man of leisure although he did serve as a director of the St Austell Gas Company. He was first married to Mary Catherine Parkyn who died in 1897.
When Hester became his second wife he was 64-years-old and she a relatively young woman of 36. They would live at Belfield, the family home, in St Austell. Parnall died in 1915.
Walter Hicks recognised a quality in his daughter and exploited this following a family tragedy in 1911. Her brother, Walter Hicks Jr, had been running the St Austell Brewery but was killed in a motorcycle accident at Helston. Hicks turned to Hester and made her a director while teaching her the skills to become Chairman in 1916. Under her management the brewery acquired 79 pubs and hotels and replaced horse-drawn wagons with steam-powered ones. The brewery thrived and she is regarded as one of the first British women to take the helm of a large company.
A worker at the St Austell Brewery described her as “ruling the company with the grace of a duchess combined with the aplomb of a successful businessman.”⁵
Stories are part of Hester’s legacy. It is said that the first worker to spot her chauffeur-driven Daimler arriving at the brewery each morning would tap on the water pipes. This would echo throughout the brewery and warn workers to get to work. She was also known to place her two Pekingese dogs either side of her as she sat in her office. These were carefully placed on pieces of blotting paper laid out by the office boy.⁶
Hester Parnall invested a considerable amount of money at Point Neptune. Between 1936 and 1939 she modernised and redecorated the house and lowered the lounge windows to provide better views of the sea. She was no doubt preparing the house for her retirement.
Hester handed over control of the St Austell Brewery to Egbert Barnes in 1939, only three weeks before her sudden death.
Point Neptune was immediately offered for sale with the contents offered for auction in 700 lots. With war looming it was not inconceivable that buyers were unwilling to invest in property. The house didn’t sell and by August 1939 it was offered for let.
During World War Two it is likely that Point Neptune remained largely unoccupied. At the end of the war it was once again offered for sale. By now the former stables and carriage house had been converted into Point Neptune Cottage but known locally as Readymoney Cottage. It had been author Daphne Du Maurier’s home between 1942 and 1943 before turning her attentions to the Rashleigh’s Menabilly.
In 1949 St Catherine’s Parade was leased to Fowey Borough Council for 50 years and gifted to the Borough of St Austell and Fowey in 1970.
For many years Point Neptune was the home to Mr and Mrs Hughen Welch. He had been a chartered accountant in South Africa and Rhodesia for 60 years before retiring to Cornwall in 1983. After this time the marine villa was converted into luxury holiday flats with the Welch family living on the ground floor. It was awarded Grade II listing in 2001. He describes Point Neptune as “a wonderful place to live” but chose to sell it in 2006.
It was marketed at £2.8 million and bought by comedian Dawn French and her then-husband Lenny Henry.
It is derisive that, at the time of the sale, Point Neptune was described as being ‘”‘next door to the house where Daphne Du Maurier once lived”. Time has somehow crafted Readymoney Cottage into being more famous than the estate house to which it once belonged.
The house has been tastefully renovated and, despite an amicable split with Lenny Henry in 2010, it continues to be an attractive family home for French and her second husband, Mark Bignell.
It is here that French has written her memoir, Dear Fatty (2009), as well as her novels, A Tiny Bit Marvellous (2011), Oh Dear Silvia (2013) and According to Yes (2015). With a roguish twist of fate Point Neptune has now become the home of a writer maintaining the literary romance that Cornwall is celebrated for.
St Catherine’s Parade survives as a public pathway but shows little evidence of its past glory. It is now a public footpath of compact earth, gravel and tarmac, bordered by advancing hedgerow and growth. Banks and walls remain but survive in poor condition. A footpath once ran down the side of the carriageway but this has all but disappeared with the advance of nature. At the seaward end old holm oaks still survive but there is little evidence that this was once the grand approach to Port Neptune.
¹West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser (17 Oct 1862)
²West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser (31 Oct 1862)
³Western Morning News (21 May 1932)
⁴West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser (28 Jul 1921)
⁵Western Morning News (31 Mar 2014)
⁶Cornish Guardian (25 May 2011)
St Catherine’s Cove, Fowey, Cornwall, PL23 1JH