History of Simonsbath House
James Boevey was born in London in 1622, he later trained there as a banker and solicitor before moving to Exmoor in 1652 due to ill health. He purchased Exmoor Forest and it is assumed from the date 1654 carved into an oak beam above the old kitchen fireplace, that he commenced building Simonsbath House as soon as he took possession of the land. Boevey remained Warden of the Forest for 43 years, the longest period for any person, until his death in 1696. However, having introduced high charges for grazing rights, Boevey was not a popular man. This act caused outcry amongst the local farmers, many of whom banded together to protest outside his house; to this day the original front door still bears the axe marks of the farmers’ attacks.
Boevey’s third wife Margaret became the Warden of the Forest on her husband’s death, but after only eight years sold the remainder of the forest lease and house to Robert Siderfin of Luxborough. As Siderfin was only interested in the grazing rights he let Simonsbath House to several tenants, most notably in 1702 to John Dennicombe who allowed the house to fall into disrepair. Despite Siderfin paying for some repairs to be done and giving Dennicombe a second chance, he still allowed the house to deteriorate and eventually locked himself and his family inside the house to escape arrest. Eventually Dennicombe was arrested and the Sheriff of Somerset evicted the family in 1719 but not before they had used some of the doors, windows, panelling and floors for firewood.
When Siderfin died in debt in 1720 his wife lost the house to Robert Darch, a nephew of Siderfin, as principal creditor. On his death the forest and house passed to his wife Hannah, although during this period the house remained the home of various deputy foresters.
The Wardens between 1767 and 1814 were three members of the Acland family whose contribution to moorland life saw the revival of stag hunting and the protection of the Exmoor deer herds from poachers who had almost exterminated them. In 1789, Simonsbath House was licensed as an inn and became the focus of many local stories about smuggling, which in light of the proximity of Porlock and Lynmouth, together with its remote location are likely to be true.
Simonsbath House was the only dwelling in the Forest until 1815 and in 1819 the Royal Forest ceased to exist. The main allotments were auctioned, and the highest bid received was from John Knight of Worcestershire for £50,000 for 10,000 acres. He soon purchased other adjoining allotments and became the sole owner of what had been the Royal Forest. At once he started improving the roads and tracks through the forest and enclosed the property with a 30-mile wall, the remains of which can still be seen today. In 1827 he took up residence in Simonsbath House and began to build a “Handsome Residence” behind the old House. When finished the original Simonsbath House was to be demolished however a lack of funds made this dream impossible and only one wing of the proposed residence remains today; this makes up part of the Outdoor Centre. John Knight introduced the sheep of Exmoor as they are today as well as developing plans for great mining projects for iron ore, a canal system and railways tracks.
While John Knight’s death didn’t occur until 1850, his son Frederick took over development in 1840 due to Knight’s ill health. In 1856 Frederick built a school and the little church of St. Luke, in addition, he planted all the trees opposite Simonsbath House – the last of these trees was blown down in the gales of 1971. On his death in 1879 the Fortescue family, who already owned Castle Hill and land around South Molton, purchased the property although they continued to live in South Molton and only used the house for holidays and as a hunting lodge. The Fortescues brought some fine panelling into the House including a splendid example of their hereditary coat of arms about the lounge fireplace. In 1929 they also added one of the first squash courts in England which is now used for the Centre’s dormitory accommodation.
Over the course of the 20th Century Simonsbath House has been used for different purposes, from home to hotel. Between 1940 and 1945 the House was let to Miss Aspinall as a Girls’ School and latterly to a Mr Maldon as a Boys’ School. It was then occupied by Miss Jeaves who renamed the House “Diana Lodge Hotel” in 1946; she was resident at the property for four years before it was let to Major Coleman Cooke, the author, between 1950 and 1968. Mr. John Morley purchased the freehold in 1969 and the name reverted to Simonsbath House. It has been run as a Country House Hotel since that time and in 2004 additional work was undertaken to the derelict sections of the House to create Simonsbath Outdoor Centre.
There have been many changes to the property during the past 350 years, but fortunately the character of the old building remains to this day.