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Dartington Hall – Heritage in a Rich, Dynamic, Living Landscape

The Dartington Hall estate today is a 485 hectare mix of arable and pastoral farmland, woodland, parkland and gardens, and commercial and residential property.  It lies within a great curve of the river Dart in the South Hams district of south Devon and on fertile undulating land. The estate is owned and managed by the Dartington Hall Trust.

The estate is a rich, living cultural landscape. Overlying and modifying the natural landscape are key layers of change resulting from the establishment of a significant medieval estate and its later post‐medieval agricultural development, followed by the dramatic imposition of a rural and educational Utopian experiment in the second quarter of the 20th century.  The estate’s heartland contains 33 listed buildings, 4 scheduled monuments and a registered park and garden of special historic interest.  At its centre lies Dartington Hall, a Grade I listed medieval courtyard mansion, set within a 20th century designed landscape and hugging the gently sloping hillside above the Dart.  In 1925, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst bought the then derelict Hall and its surrounding land.  It became their home, but also the base for what they dubbed their ‘English experiment’, which was described at the time by the magazine, Country Life, as being ‘the scientific reconstruction of rural life’. In fact, the experiment consisted of two distinct (though, at times, interwoven) threads: an experiment in rural economics that sought to demonstrate that a landed estate, sufficiently capitalised and developed on industrial lines, could be financially sustainable; and, an altruistic experiment in progressive liberal education for children.  Since the deaths of the Elmhirsts, the Dartington Hall Trust has owned and managed the estate, aiming to remain true to their ethos and legacy by using it as a base for experimentation, collaboration and the generation of new ideas that can help resolve some of society’s more challenging problems.  The Trust focuses its activities on the three core areas which the Elmhirsts sought to nurture: the arts, a fairer society (today labelled ‘social justice’), and concern for mankind’s ‐ and the planet’s ‐ future welfare (‘sustainability’). The estate is open to all, welcoming in excess of one million visitors each year, and it hosts creativity and initiatives that may not be possible in many more mainstream organisations.  As a result, the estate continues to evolve.  It is a fully functioning heritage asset ‐ a place of education and business where change, development and experimentation are essential to survival.

Heritage Places has been providing the Dartington Hall Trust with wide ranging heritage advice for several years. At the strategic level, we have prepared an estate overview of heritage and its management, feeding in to an emerging estate master plan and framework.  Amongst other matters, this overview explored the significance of the estate’s built and cultural heritage, concluding in respect to the former that its ensemble of built architecture from the period 1930-35 is nationally unique within its time and of outstanding historic interest.  Within that ensemble, a group of modernist buildings designed by the Swiss-American architect, William Lescaze, forms a smaller coherent collection of buildings of exceptional historic and architectural interest, being unrivalled as a collection internationally.  We have also provided heritage advice on a considerable number of individual assets and projects around the estate, developing an understanding of significance and settings, preparing heritage statements for planning purposes, assessing impacts of development proposals, undertaking detailed fabric audits to identify elements and features that contribute to significance, and helping plan change to optimise the benefits to and use of the estate’s heritage.

Client: Dartington Hall Trust