Friday, 29 June 2012

'A La Ronde': a unique building, giving a fascinating insight into the early nineteenth century. The Open University Graduates Association investigate . . .

A La Ronde
the dream house of cousins Jane and Mary Parminter in 1796
with more recent improvements!

For some time now, Devon OU graduates Ann Reed and John Eaton-Terry have been organising stimulating activities for local AOUG members (Association of Open University Graduates). Ann has hosted poetry and drama workshops at her home outside the village of Feniton, while John has welcomed members to his house in Lympstone, as the venue for some very interesting talks about any and every aspect of life of the early nineteenth century - given by the members of course.

On Friday 29th June, despite reports of some of the most violent storms of the 'summer', a dozen determined graduates decided to brave the elements and supplement their talk at John's house with a trip to see a fascinating early nineteenth century house just outside Lympstone - a visit organised by Ann Reed.

'A La Ronde' is a very surprising house indeed . . .

outside - an araucaria

- with extraordinary fruits

The gardens are beautiful - although nowhere near their original splendour, apparently. A well-groomed croquet lawn with stunning views of the Exe estuary is overlooked by the house - and a very handsome monkey puzzle tree.

The design of the house can be seen easily from outside. The original occupants - unmarried cousins Jane and Mary Parminter - had it built to a design by their teenage cousin, John Lowder, in 1796. They had the brilliant idea of a hexadecagonal house - with those of its sixteen sides which face more or less south allowing the sun to pour through the windows into a series of rooms. The Parminter cousins could move from room to room (and from one activity to the next) as the sun shone through different windows. When the final room (the dining room) lost the sun's light, they could retire to the central room - the octagon.

Unfortunately, there was very little sun on the day the AOUG members visited - so, as the temperatures were unseasonably low, and it looked like rain - the stewards of A La Ronde invited 'Group B' to start having a look around - without waiting for the official tour.

inside - Jen entertains on the
beautiful walnut boudoir grand
(Gebrüder Knake, Münster)
among the Parminters' collection
other extraordinary objects
- an emu's egg from Australia

The first room they entered was the drawing room. As everyone explored the room, and inspected the many fascinating curios collected by the Parminters, Jennifer played for them on the magnificent walnut wood Knake brothers grand piano. This piano is quite probably not an original feature, but the 1789 box piano could well have been. However, visitors were not invited to play that!

A very delicate
nineteenth century
Inuit dolls
from Canada
Mary's invitation
- to the coronation
of William IV

The cousins lived together in A La Ronde for fifteen years. In 1811 they completed their work on the chapel, school and almshouses 'for poor spinsters' on the land attached to A La Ronde. Then, tragically, Jane died - leaving Mary to continue their charitable work, and to look after A La Ronde. When Jane died, George III was still King, but Mary lived to see three further monarchs accede to the throne - and was even invited to the coronation of William IV.

the male interloper
Reverend Oswald Reichel
who took over from 1886-1923
and ordered major changes
When she died Mary left a will which stipulated that only 'unmarried kinswomen' should inherit the house and land. Somehow, despite her wishes, the house passed to a male relative in 1886. The Reverend Oswald Reichel was, thankfully, sufficiently sensitive to preserve the house and the wealth of incredible objects inside - which had been made or collected by Mary and Jane. However, he could not resist making improvements and bringing the house 'up to date'.

Lowder's original design was a single-storey thatched 'wig-wam'. Reichel, during his thirty seven year tenure, had an upper floor built - with some of the ground floor used for staircases. He had the thatch replaced by a tiled roof, with dormer windows, and a central lantern above the octagon. Fortunately he did not destroy the unique collection of shells and feathers, brought together by Jane and Mary and used to decorate the inside of the roof's apex.

Ann Reed and Kate McVie
admire the view from
one of Reichel's bedrooms
Before Reichel
there was no running water

Reichel also introduced the ultimate in late Victorian luxury - an indoor bathroom - on the first floor! That meant a water tower to create enough pressure, which made another innovation possible - a flushing lavatory!
with the latest inventions

He brought things up to date

The house is no longer a model for sustainable living. It is not so easy to follow the sun from room to room on the ground floor, and the layout upstairs does not follow the same scheme. The answer, of course was artificial light. First gas, and later electricity, were used to light the rooms instead of sunlight - a policy we are still slow to break free from today!

including gas lighting

and a 'dumb waiter'

Despite the changes ordered by the Reverend Reichel, it is still possible to look past his final Edwardian vision - to see how Mary and Jane lived in the house, as originally designed by Lowder in the eighteenth century

Ann inspects the original dinner service

What a pity that the weather was not conducive to a little al fresco dining after seeing the house. The views are outstanding, even on an overcast day, but it was just too cold.

Ice creams on the lawn?
- not this time!
Instead, the AOUG alumni enjoyed a hot meal in the former servants' quarters in the basement of A La Ronde, or decamped to John's house for lunch in the conservatory. After lunch came the real 'business' of the day. John gave an illustrated talk about the 'fag-end' of Napoleon's reign and the various restorations and revolutions that followed in France. All of which happened during the time that Jane and Mary were at A La Ronde!

Louis Stanislav Xavier de France
acceded to the French throne 1795
restored to the monarchy 1814
as Louis XVIII
Napoleon Bonaparte
defended the First French Republic
installed himself First Consul 1799
proclaimed Emperor by Senate 1804

Sonia Woolley is
Dorothy Wordsworth
in 'All for William'
Wed 15th Feb 2012
an interesting period of history . . . '

On Wednesday 15th February this year, actress Sonia Woolley came to St Mary Arches Church in Exeter, to recreate the story of another unmarried woman of the early nineteenth century who created a unique home for herself (and her brother) - Dorothy Wordsworth.

Sonia's theatrical gem, raised money for the restoration of St Mary Arches' sister church, St Stephens, in  Exeter High Street. Partly as a result of that St Stephens Church will be reopened to the public on 19th July.

To see full details of Sonia's visit, and the St Stephens Project, follow this link to 'All for William'.

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