I returned to the holiday cottage in Devon where I lived as a child to feel close to my late father

As a child, my family often went on holiday to far-flung places, thanks to my father’s job as a cabin crew member for British Airways. We were lucky enough to stay in luxury hotels near Sydney Harbour, explore the skyscraper mecca of Hong Kong and play on the beach in Barbados. But it was a small upside-down house in Tuckenhay, Devon, where we stayed as a family – my mother, father, older brother Nicholas and I – in the early 1980s that has long been etched in my memory. And since the loss of my beloved father in November 2022, its significance has only grown.

Dad didn’t see logistics as a challenge. Our trips were last-minute dashes through the airport to the plane, after he had managed to secure empty seats for us through his staff travel allocation. As a result, four small holiday cottages – two on the top of a hill and two below – next to a disused paper mill in the deepest, darkest Devonian landscape didn’t stop him from making a holiday of it. Mum thinks he saw Tuckenhay Mill advertised in the British Airways staff magazine, or was told about it by a colleague. Either way, with no real knowledge of what was in store, he took their word for it and we drove away from our home in Croydon.

The village of Tuckenhay has great emotional significance for writer Kate Leahy

The village of Tuckenhay has great emotional significance for writer Kate Leahy – alamy

Our first visit was during spring break in 1983. I was five and a half and my brother was almost eight – but I still remember the excitement of the car pulling up the steep driveway and stopping in front of the little house. Nicholas and I got out and ran over. I had never been in a house where the bedrooms were downstairs and the novelty was, for me, a palpable level of excitement.

Nicholas and I shared a room. One window looked out over the stone car park and the other over the mill to the hills. We had to go upstairs for breakfast – which baffled my five-year-old mind – and up a steep flight of stairs to the lounge and small kitchen next door. A small hamper was left for guests, with basics such as milk, bread and marmalade, but Mum and Dad made sure we had a weekly shop with all the comforts of home.

Kate Leahy, nearly two-year-old twin boys, Ted and George, and partner Jonjo at 4 Castle Cottage in TuckenhayKate Leahy, nearly two-year-old twin boys, Ted and George, and partner Jonjo at 4 Castle Cottage in Tuckenhay

Kate Leahy, nearly two-year-old twin boys, Ted and George, and partner Jonjo outside the ‘upside-down cottage’ at Tuckenhay

We spent the holiday exploring the pretty neighbouring villages and green countryside. We went to nearby Totnes, a 10 minute drive away, to wander around the bustling market and visit the narrow streets of Buckfast. At the cottage we played Pooh Sticks on the Postman Pat style bridge, throwing sticks into the stream below and running to the other side to watch them float by. There was a rope swing and lovely little walks along the creek. It was idyllic. We returned the following two years.

During the last 18 months of Dad’s life, he succumbed to dementia and moved into a care home near our family home in Somerset. It was hard to watch him, once full of life, turn into a shadow of his former self, and it was painfully hard when he passed, knowing that my time with him was over.

I began to feel a growing need to be somewhere where I could catch a glimpse of the “old” dad – the one who shared his love of travel, was always busy with something, and the one I had such a hard time remembering. Now with my own family – partner Jonjo and twin boys, Ted and George – I knew it was time to return to the “upside down” cottage.

Tuckenhay Mill, DevonTuckenhay Mill, Devon

Tuckenhay Mill now has 22 properties, sleeping between two and eleven people

As we wound our way along the winding country lanes towards Tuckenhay, it all felt familiar and familiar – and when we turned left at the little bridge by the Waterman’s Arms pub, a mile from the mill, it completely overwhelmed me. We pulled into the driveway, just as I remembered, and there, with its little blue door, was 4 Castle Cottage. Knowing that my father had once stayed in exactly the same place, it was as if I had stepped back in time, just for a moment, 40 years. I put the key in the door and there it was: the place I had found so enchanting, exactly the same, but for a soft modern zhuzh.

I discovered that the cottages are still owned by the same couple, Peter and Kay Wheeler, as they were all those years ago – and that since then they’ve been lovingly restoring the entire site to create 22 properties (sleeping between two and eleven people), modernising all the original buildings and adding a large outdoor pool and hot tub, two indoor pools, a tennis court, a football pitch, a children’s play area, a badminton hall and a gym. This sounds grand, but strangely enough the new additions somehow feel as if they’ve always been there. The whole place still feels homely and you’ll still see Peter, now a bustling octogenarian, wandering around the site making sure everyone is having a good time.

And so we did. The cottage was as homely as ever, with cots, high chairs and a wooden stair gate, handmade by one of the mill staff, and a lovely welcome pack with all the essentials, including milk, tea and biscuits. We took the boys to the bridge and threw sticks in the running water, had the pool all to ourselves for an hour and even managed to have some “just the two of us” time in the badminton hall while the twins kept busy with a playhouse in the corner.

It was joyful. We walked along the mill slate to look at the view and find the tree where the rope swing once hung, and through the grounds to the creak to see the water running over the rocks. So much time had passed, but there were times when it felt like there was no time at all.

Tuckenhay, DevonTuckenhay, Devon

“We walked along the bank of the mill to enjoy the view,” Leahy writes

I was nervous, though, that we would return and I might not feel my father’s presence—or that the difficult memories of the past few years would have dulled the joy of the elders. But I needn’t have worried. They lifted each other up. I felt warm knowing that I had shared this space with my father and encouraged that I was creating new memories. Now we plan to start our own tradition, returning year after year with our little gang—and feeling that my father is with us in some way, too.

Kate Leahy was a guest at Tuckenhay Mill (01803 732624), where a week’s stay in 4 Castle Cottage costs from £429 (for four people).

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