It was pretty overcast as we left the Greyhound Country Inn at Fenny Bridges this morning. Not far from Exmouth we spotted the sign to A La Ronde. A La Ronde is a decahexagonal (16 sided) house built by Jane Parminter and her cousin Mary in 1796. Jane was the daughter of John Parminter a Barnstaple wine merchant from a rich merchant family. He made his money firstly by importing wine from Lisbon and then after the big earthquake in Lisbon he made his money selling concrete to Lisbon.
Jane was guardian of her younger orphaned cousin Mary. After her father John died Jane, her sister Elizabeth and Mary together with another female friend set off on a grand tour. It was all the rage for rich families but quite remarkable for four ladies to conduct one. It spoke volumes for the type of fortitude the ladies possessed.
A La Ronde was based on the basilica of San Vitale, one of the buildings they visited on their grand tour. The house originally had 20 rooms and a thatched roof. In the centre of the house was a hexagonal sitting room with a mirror ball. It’s said that by using it Mary could watch all corners of the room at the same time.
In the upper gallery of the house the ladies decorated the walls with shells they had collected of their tour, transforming it into a shell grotto.
The upper walls of the sitting room were lined with green silk to create a feeling of the sea and the National Trust have redecorated the house as it was when the ladies owned it.
The two cousin’s were concerned about the plight of women. At that time in history even if women inherited land or money their husband still had control over everything. If a woman was unmarried, divorced or widowed in most cases she became destitute. The only options were to become married as quickly as possible, or turn to prostitution.
To counter this the ladies established almshouses and a school for single ladies. They also built the Point of View Church in 1812 and rectory which are both about 500 yards further up the road. The Point of View Church has views over the Exe estuary towards Exmouth point and is included in the smallest pilgrimage places list.
In the terms of their wills the estate was inherited by unmarried female kinswomen. However in 1886 with no female heirs to inherit the property reverend Oswald Reichel took ownership. He replaced the straw roof with tiles, added the upper floor and bedrooms, upper floor windows and balcony. He also added speaking tubes, dumb waiter, bathroom and central heating.
The house was in use right up until the National Trust took over so the house is furnished as it was during the sisters time. Throughout the house collections of shells, books add to the flavour of the much travelled ladies. As we wandered through the house music drifted from a piano and we were told how the hexagonal sitting room was the original music room. Ladies would sit around the outside of the room and panels in the doorways could be pulled down to provide a seat. The design of the house and its perfect symmetry was quite fascinating. With windows around the outside during the day the ladies would follow the sun and the light as they went about their business.
As the rooms radiate out from the hexagonal central sitting room logically there has to be dead spaces. We were surprised that there seemed to be no wasted space, despite the unusual shape of the house.
These days the lower floor has been converted to a cafe and it was nice to sit on the lawn while drinking coffee and admiring the view over Exmouth.
After a visit to the Point of View Church it was time to race the weather. Storm clouds rolled in and as we drew closer to Bugle it started to rain. Luckily we arrived without getting too wet. For the next week we’re looking after a cat and three guinea pigs.
For current information on visiting A La Ronde check here