Ralph Barlow, a schoolmaster at Sherborne School, bought Stepper in 1937 for £1,500. It was the first house built on the Greenaway cliff by Lewis Brown of Wadebridge who was responsible for most of the houses built in that area, all of them subject to certain specific design criteria. Each had to be in one acre of land, with white harled walls and roofs of Delabole slate, but with individual designs. Considering the current prices of houses in the area it seems incredible that they were bought almost exclusively by schoolmasters and parsons. As a result the area became known as Beaks Bay.
The Barlow family first holidayed at Stepper that summer. Ian Barlow, Ralph’s son, reports that the family photo album shows a good deal of work going on in the garden – turf-laying and painting the outside of the house in the next couple of years. Inside there was one large L-shaped room with the dining-table in one leg of the room, with the sitting area, Ralph Barlow’s desk and the piano, all separated from the kitchen and domestic staff quarters by a hatch. As time went on the staff disappeared and the hatch was replaced by a door. Over the fireplace, hardly ever used, was a fancy overmantel hung in Delabole slate. Up a spiral wooden staircase were the large nursery, three other bedrooms and the bathroom and lavatory. The house had some fancy features – a heavy oaken front door with iron studs and a small grille, presumably and fancifully to identify visitors before one risked opening the door. In the wall of the staircase, which was half-circular, there were a couple of niches, presumably (another nice fancy) to take flaming lights.
For the duration of the war the house was let to Mrs Kathleen Griffiths whose husband was in the Indian Civil Service. He was later knighted in 1946 for services to Imperial India, becoming Sir Percival Griffiths. The Barlow family story went that contrary to the terms of the lease, Mrs Griffiths ran a small school at Stepper, but Richard Griffiths, her son, says that the “school” consisted of about six small children, one of whom was his younger brother and four were cousins briefly evacuated from Bexhill: “it certainly did not compete with Sherborne!”. Members of the Griffiths family still have property in Trebetherick.
In September 1940 Sherborne was bombed and Ralph Barlow decided that for safety’s sake his wife, who was eight months pregnant, Ian and his sister and should be evacuated to Polzeath for a couple of months. It was still possible to get petrol then, and everyone piled into an enormous taxi and came down to Polzeath where Ian’s grandparents had come after a bomb hit the house next door to theirs in Bristol. It was ironic therefore that a few days after the baby was born a large mine was washed up onto Polzeath beach and the family were told to evacuate. So a cavalcade set forth – grandparents, Ian’s mother with her new-born daughter in a pram, and her older children – and given refuge in Trewidden by the Fawdrys, old family friends (buried at St Enodoc).
In the summer holidays the Barlows still came down to various houses in Polzeath. Ralph and his colleague housemaster at Sherborne, Stanley Thompson (always known as ‘Thompers’), who owned Gulland next door to Stepper, used to bring down parties of senior boys to Harvest camps, for which a ration of precious petrol was allowed. The boys camped in tents in the field at the top of the hill between Stepper and Gulland, but because the tents were of poor quality on more than one occasion gales caused considerable destruction. Each day the boys went out on bicycles in pairs to local farms to help bring in the harvest.
On one occasion two of the boys failed to reappear in the evening, to great concern all round. It transpired that they had gone for a swim at Port Quin, and after their bathe had gone to investigate the Folly at Doyden. To their consternation a wild woman pursued them with an axe, and they took refuge in the Folly, where they spent the night. Many years later as a housemaster at Rugby Ian Barlow was entertaining the grandparents of two boys in his House to coffee after Sunday Chapel. Somehow the conversation got round to Port Quin and he told them this story. ‘Oh’, they said, ‘that was Aunt Agatha. She always was a bit batty’.
Ian has few memories of pre-war days at Stepper, but does remember watching a fishing-fleet (French, he thinks) with red stern sails going up the estuary to Padstow, and seeing the scaffolding on Springs, the house below Stepper, as it was being built. One of his great pleasures during the war was to watch the quarry on Stepper point being blasted. This happened at one o’clock each day, and with a great explosion the estuary was peppered with rocks. The resultant stone, Ian believes, was used to make the runways of the airfields on the other side of the estuary – St Mawgan (now Newquay Airport) and St Eval.
One of Ian’s great hates was being sent with his nanny and sisters to Daymer, a beach he always thought vastly inferior to Polzeath, largely because he was sent there while his parents went elsewhere. In latter days he has rather changed his mind. On one occasion before the war his mother lost her engagement ring in the sand there, but incredibly found it again a year later. In those days the beach was almost empty. During the war there was a large construction of iron poles stretched from one side to the other, and a pillbox on the low cliff by the car park to make enemy landings difficult, and the dunes alongside the golf-course were mined. There were similar constructions across Polzeath beach and Pentire Glaze beach, but it is hard to imagine that they would have caused any German invader much difficulty. Out at sea there was a constant to-ing and fro-ing of ships of all kinds, hugging the coast for greater safety.
In the summer of 1945 the war in Europe was over, and the Barlows were able once again to holiday in Stepper, and were there on VJ Day. To celebrate, they all went over to Padstow to see Laurence Olivier in ‘Henry V’ at the cinema. He recalls that it was a wonderfully ‘over the top’ performance, but appropriate to the general mood of rejoicing at the defeat of the nation’s enemies.
Not long after the war Ralph Barlow was offered all the land between Stepper and the skyline to its left down to the rear of the houses on the front for £1,500, but he hadn’t the money – not altogether surprising, perhaps because although Ian’s school fees at Clifton in 1948 were only £220 p.a. it wasn’t easy on a schoolmaster’s pay to afford even that amount.
Once the war was over the Barlows came down every summer to Stepper and had many marvellous holidays there. Their love for the place can be seen in the fact that although the journey down from Scotland, where Ralph had a new job, took three days, they always felt it was worth it.
Sad though it must have been for the Barlow family to move on from Stepper, they can rest assured it passed into the appreciative ownership of the Roberts family who became only the second family to own Stepper in 60 years.
The Roberts bought Stepper in 1995. The family were no strangers to Trebetherick with Nicola’s family having houses close by from the early 50’s. Therefore the family have spent every summer in Cornwall since then and Stepper has become their haven. The garden has witnessed many happy family gatherings from Easter egg hunts and Boule contests, to a family wedding reception after their son’s marriage in St Enodoc Church. Apart from that the garden has remained “much as Greenaway must always have been: a few trees, gorse, rabbits, foxes, and badgers”.
Stepper itself underwent a major overhaul in 2004 with the demolition of the garage and addition of a sunroom/bedroom annex. While the bell to summon the long extinct staff still sits hopefully on the wall, the main part of the house is updated with central-heating and drying room area that mean winter visits can be enjoyed in snug comfort.
As the present owners observe, “It is testimony to the foresight of the original developer’s covenants that Greenaway has stayed relatively unspoilt, and so few houses change hands away from families who enjoy it so much.”