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The History Behind Simonsbath House
James Boevey - the first owner of Exmoor, was of Dutch parentage, born in London on 7th May 1622. Schooled in London, he trained as a Banker and Solicitor. His work took him all over Europe but ill health forced him to give up his career at the age of thirty-two, and he retired to the country. Boevey purchased Exmoor Forest in 1652 and it can be assumed from the date 1654 carved into an oak beam above the old Kitchen fireplace, that he commenced building this 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, Boevey was not a popular man, having introduced high charges for grazing rights, causing outcry amongst the local farmers. Towards the end of his life he returned to Cheam in Surrey, where he was buried, leaving his mark on Exmoor in the shape of Simonsbath House, which until 1815, was the only dwelling house in the Forest. Margaret, his third wife, 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 a ruinous state of repair. Despite Siderfin paying for some repairs to be done, and giving Dennicombe a second chance, he still would not co-operate and eventually locked himself and his family inside the house to escape arrest, burning doors, windows, panelling and floors for firewood. Although most of the original wood was destroyed the original front door remains although it still bears the axe marks of Dennicome's attacks. Eventually Dennicombe was arrested and the Sheriff of Somerset evicted the family in 1719.
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 was willed to his wife Hannah, although during this period the house became 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.
In June 1818, the Crown decided to sell the forest, and by May 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. He set about at once improving the roads and tracks through the forest and enclosed the property with a wall 30 miles long, 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. Lack of funds made this dream impossible. The shell stood for many years and was eventually demolished in the 1900"s. John Knight introduced the sheep of Exmoor as they are today. He planned great mining projects for iron ore, and to build many canals and railways tracks. Although John Knight died in 1850, in 1840 due to ill health he had handed the development over to his son, Frederick, who lived in the house with his family.
In 1856 Frederick built a school and the little church of St. Luke (where he later buried both his wife and son) and planted all the trees opposite Simonsbath House - the last of these trees blowing down in the gales of 1971. On his death in 1879 the property was purchased by the Fortescue family who already owned Castle Hill and land around South Molton. They lived at South Molton and the House was only used for holidays and as a hunting lodge. The Fortescues brought some fine panelling into the House. Above the lounge fireplace is a splendid example of the hereditary coat of arms.
They also added one of the first Squash Courts in England in 1929. 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. The name of the House was changed to Diana Lodge Hotel in 1946 by Miss Jeaves who occupied the property for four years. It was let between 1950 and 1968 to Major Coleman Cooke, the author. The freehold was purchased in 1969 by Mr. John Morley and the name reverted to Simonsbath House. It has been run as a hotel ever since. There have been many changes to the property during the past 325 years, but fortunately the character of the old building remains to this day.