Eden Philltpotts. Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Torbay blue plaques: Magnolia tree memorial to Eden Phillpotts

Ian Handford

The stores behind Torbay’s blue plaques by Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: Phillpotts memorial magnolia tree

Not a blue plaque this time but a stainless steel memorial plate affixed to a metal tree guard in Magnolia Road, Barton, Torquay, to honour Eden Phillpotts.

His personal blue plaque was featured in this series as No 39 but today I continue his story with his daughter Adelaide who decades ago planted a special magnolia sapling (Magnolia Campbellii) in their garden at a time when there were few of these trees in Britain.

Having planted the sapling some 50 yards from where his blue plaque can still be viewed, he told his daughter Adelaide he would not live long enough to witness it flower.

That garden today is the upper part of the Barratt Homes’ Torre Marine development situated near Barton Road off Newton Road.

The magnolia was indeed a rare Himalayan tree and Eden was right as he knew it would take around 25 years to blossom and this is not guaranteed.

Thankfully, his tree survived and in fact it does flower about every three years.

Eden spent his life as an author producing some 300 novels, plus travel books and 18 books on Dartmoor in his series entitled ‘The Dartmoor Cycle’.

This extraordinary man ventured out rarely, he was always at home which is why the still young Agatha Christie residing 200 yards away in Barton Road, would often visit him and as some believe he became her literal mentor.

Having been made a Freeman of Torquay by Torbay Council, the town hall premises carries his words high on the freeze.

Look up as you pass by and read his plate: ‘Read wisely for a good book is a faithful friend’.

Having erected a blue plaque to honour Eden at his home, his special magnolia in his garden was another challenge.

Subject to a council tree preservation order, we always knew Barratt Homes would not damage the large tree although our worry was, once they left the site it would be at the mercy of new residents and the vehicles in Torre Marine housing estate.

In wishing to mark the tree with a ‘plaque or plate’ we agreed with Barratt that they supply a metal tree guard to protect the tree long term and promised to provide a stainless steel plate explaining why the tree was special.

Meanwhile, before leaving the site the contractors were lucky to witness at least one flowering of the pink magnolia blossoms, proving that the tree was worthy of its strong ‘metal protection guard’.

Today, Eden’s house, Eltham, has long ago gone but a bit of the garden wall remains to carry our blue plaque which we unveiled with the chairman of council Beryl McPhail and her escort in 2007.

Sadly, it then took 11 more years before in January 2018 we finally put in place the steel plate by affixing it to the metal guard round the tree.

Residents had by then occasionally witnessed the tree flowering.

Our steel plaque relates: ‘Magnolia Campbellii’.

“Over 100 years ago in what was the garden of his house, Eltham, the famous writer Eden Phillpotts and his young daughter Adelaide planted this rare tree which flowers in the spring most years, giving a wonderful display of pink flowers.”

The iron tree guard was later erected to further protect the tree.

Now Torbay Civic Society have placed this small plaque to once again honour Eden Phillpotts.

Our blue plaque to him was unveiled ten years ago which can still be viewed behind you, on what was the only piece of surviving boundary wall at his Eltham property.

Thanks were given to Barratt Homes at the time on behalf of the public for their work in saving the retaining wall and making it suitable for a blue plaque to be placed in Oakhill Road.

A full colour pamphlet of the Eden Phillpotts biography can be obtained by sending two second class stamps plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, No 1 Office, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA