Muddy meets the Countess of Devon
Where does a Californian countess with 3500 acres to roll round in go on her days off? Countess of Devon, AJ Courtenay, tells Muddy about some of her favourite places.
Meet AJ Courtenay, Countess of Devon, the pocket-rocket Californian powerhouse and wife to Charlie, the 19th Earl of Devon. She may be one-half of Devon’s best-looking power couple but her other moniker is AJ (Allison-Joy) Langer, the Hollywood actress famous for starring as a teen with Claire Danes in the 90’s cult hit My So-Called Life, as well as Seinfeld and Baywatch. AJ has lived with fibromyalgia since she was in her late teens, and is a yoga-loving, paddle-boarding surfer-mom to Jos and Jack, bursting with creative ideas to bring the castle to the community, with boho arts, music and loving family values at its core.
She and Charlie hit the news back in 2016, when one of their first coups as the new incumbents of Powderham Castle in Kenton (near Exeter) was to bring Radio One’s Big Weekend and an estimated 50,000 visitors, to the sleepy Devon village.
Now she’s got her hands full overseeing 12 businesses that make up the social enterprise that is Powderham Castle, including a premium wedding and concert venue, visitor attraction and tenant farms. Other projects close to AJ’s heart include Powderham Live! a showcase for home-grown young musical talent in Devon, which every November sees ‘teenage musicians storming the castle’.
Even when you’re this busy and live in the grounds of a stunning 13th century castle with a deer park and 3500 acres on your doorstep, sometimes you like going to other places. Over to you AJ…
The Harbour Festival, Bristol
We turned up in Bristol to see friends one weekend and didn’t even realise the Harbour Festival was on, but we ended up having such a great family day. It’s so mellow with lots of happy, shiny people – loads of diversity. I enjoy The Bristol Old Vic too. Bristol has a fabulous culture, loads of good restaurants and it’s great down by the water. I love the circus programmes they have there. In LA, everyone has silks on rigs in their back yard – it’s something we would love to bring to Powderham soon. It’s great for core strength and so much fun.
The Exe Estuary
Coming from near the sea in California, I love to throw myself in the water, just to get out there on my paddle-board, learning the tides and the channels. I’ll paddle-board on the canal or over to Topsham, Lympstone or Exmouth, take the kids fishing and our border terrier Ruby is happy to come along on the board – she used to surf with us in California. I like to have time on the water by myself too: I love the solitude. Having spent years as an actress you travel alone, and I lived alone for 10 years. Now being around so much noise and responsibility, you just need to be able to get out and throw yourself round in the water sometimes!
The Belvedere Tower, Powderham Castle
The Belvedere is all about romance, built by the 2nd Viscount William Courtenay. He had 13 daughters and one son and needed a ballroom for the sisters to meet potential suitors. It must have been a magical place, with a sprung rosewood floor for music and dancing, the most magnificent parties. Love reigned here and its heyday is now returning! It’s got amazing views of the estuary and over the other side to Topsham.
When I first came here 17 years ago with Charlie, it was falling into ruin but his late father Hugh secured a grant and now with help from Natural England we’ve been able to fix the structure, the roof and windows and we’ve just hosted our first wedding here which was a huge success. For me, the castle is a living history, a home not a museum that you walk through. A place for slumber parties and social events – charities and schools using it for music and educational programmes, really connecting people with the place.
Fore Street, aka the Indie Quarter, Exeter
There’s something about Fore Street I love – the energy of the street, the businesses that are coming and going. I love the cafe at The Glorious Art House – with its art and vibrancy, and the Methodist Church with its street dance. I go to Fore Street with my daughter Jos and we always have fun and find something there.
Friends told me about this place so I went here for my birthday and it blew me away. I haven’t been able to surf like this since I was in the States. I took the only board I have here with me from California and thought well I’ll give it a go – maybe I’m too old, we’ll see! I spent 45 minutes just getting hammered and then finally I caught the wave and had the most amazing time. It reminds me of the point break I used to surf on every day, at the bottom of the hill where I lived in Topanga. I can’t wait for the one that’s being built in Bristol.
The American Garden
Devon is so beautiful; coming from California to this much lush greenery is always amazing. There is a ring of old chestnut trees here, a real favourite space of mine. The American Garden was planted more than 200 years ago by the 3rd Viscount of Devon at a time when the Americas was newly discovered and everyone wanted specimen plants from those shores. Over time it had become completely neglected and overgrown until Charlie’s parents stepped in to restore it, hacking it back and conscientiously replanting. But it had never been open to the public, so it’s our gift to share it. We also get proposal enquiries at Powderham and this has been the most popular location – we’ve had three already this year! It was where we filmed Mary Berry’s magical woodland party when she brought Country House Secrets here last year with the Gothic pavilion.
Spitalfields Market, London
Spitalfields reminds me of Melrose in LA (one of the most instagrammed places on the planet). All that artistic energy. Sitting in the cafes, the diversity in the people and food, the great thrift shopping – the kids love it. Jos got her first Doc Martens there. It’s got such great street style and somewhere I always love to go when I’m in London.