Belmont: from show-home to holiday home
Sophia Moseley on an iconic Lyme Regis building’s troubled history and its bright future
Published in November ’14
John Fowles, who lived in Belmont House from 1968 until 2005, wrote: ‘It is a beautiful June evening, I shall walk down the hill to the bottom of my steep plot, past the cream-white furbelows, bee-loud and brave against an azure sea, of the acacias…’ in Wormholes. However the garden he so treasured was drastically excavated and his rambling Victorian home has shrunk back to one of its earlier manifestations.
The Landmark Trust bought Belmont House in 2007, by which time it had already started its slow descent into deterioration and during the following five years, its dilapidated state was further aggravated, while the new owner decided what to do with it. When planning permission was finally granted, the Landmark Trust set about restoring its Georgian grandeur. However, by removing the alterations and additions from the past 250 years, including the large Victorian extension, is there a danger of detracting from the story this seaside villa has to tell not just about itself but also the historic town of Lyme Regis?
After a period of decline, the late 18th century saw a return of prosperity for Lyme Regis. It was also a time of improved health, albeit mostly for the wealthier members of society with an emergence of ‘sea bathing’. So with this combination, an increased number of impressive houses were being built in desirable locations.
In 1774, Simon Bunter, a successful lawyer who had built ‘the best house in Axminster’ (The Buildings of England) wanted ‘to take the sea air’ so he built a seaside property on the hill overlooking Lyme Regis harbour, calling it Bunter’s Castle.
Very little is known about the original building, except it was likely to have been a tower construction, and it was just 10 years later that Eleanor Coade was given Bunter’s Castle by her uncle.
Eleanor Coade (1733-1821) was a very successful businesswoman who owned Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory in Lambeth, producing artificial stone that was used by 18th-century architect Robert Adam; it can be found on many historic buildings including Buckingham Palace and the Brighton Pavilion.
One of her most popular schemes was to decorate the plain front of brick buildings with classically designed porches and statues; keystones above windows and doors were one of her greatest successes and Eleanor set about redesigning Bunter’s Castle, extending it and making it into something of a Coadestone show-house.
She also changed the name to ‘Belmont House’ a name that had become popular and synonymous with grandeur and beauty and also described the house’s location ‘beautiful hill’.
The front of Belmont House is ornately decorated with a swagged frieze – from one side to the other – embellished horizontal banding and a cornice parapet with six Adam-style urns on top. The windows and door have ornamental stone blocks and the keystones portray Neptune, Amphitrite and various sea creatures, in keeping with its nautical rationale.
But the extravagance is not limited to the exterior of the house; inside you find elaborate Coadestone fireplace surrounds and some remaining door décor.
There is very little information detailing her life; there are no portraits, pictures or photographs. There is a theory she was not a particularly attractive woman and thus shunned any imagery and it is said the face on the door knocker is the closest we will get to see what she looked like.
Following her death, the house was rented by various people then, in 1883, bought by Dorset doctor Richard Bangay, who had a large family along with a number of staff. He was a member of the Dorset Natural History & Archaeology Society, a keen amateur geologist, botanist and astronomer. He extended the house, adding two wings, a conservatory and a polygonal observatory tower complete with winding gear to rotate the roof.
For the first half of the 20th century it had various tenants and some of the Victorian extensions were poorly and insensitively renovated until John and Elizabeth Fowles bought Belmont House for £18,000 in 1968.
In John Fowles, The Journals Vol. 2 he said ‘…the feel of the house, almost gratitude…it has a kind of female feel…a bit of an old whore, with its splendid façade and all the mess that lies behind…’. Like the previous owner, John was an enthusiastic botanist, entomologist, naturalist and local historian and found his greatest pleasure in the sometimes unusual fauna and flora that flourished in the sheltered south-facing three acre garden. But he also needed solitude to concentrate and found Belmont a wonderful refuge to the hustle and bustle of life outside.
John also had a unique combination of thinking in French (he read French at Oxford) but with a British dry sense of humour; he would collect the small toy dinosaurs from cereal packets and place them around the windows in the tower, leading people to believe that was where he worked! John’s writing room was actually in the main house on the first floor with windows overlooking the gardens and of course the Cobb. It was here that he wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman along with many others including Shipwreck, Mantissa and The Maggot.
Both John and Sarah’s greatest worry was that Belmont would be converted into flats or a care home; it was John’s wish that it should retain its literary bond and whilst he contacted many organisations including America’s Stamford School and the Arvon Foundation, it was obvious the house needed a substantial amount of investment which was putting a lot of people off.
When John died in 2005, Sarah continued their effort to protect Belmont and finally approached the Landmark Trust who bought it in 2007.
It was the variety of extensions, combined with the haphazard alterations, that presented the Landmark Trust with a difficult choice. With a limited budget and worsening state of the property, a decision was made that was unpopular with many – including John’s widow, Sarah, whose dismay is well documented – it was the Eleanor Coade phase on which the Landmark Trust wanted to focus. An unsung national hero, not only did she manage to overcome the stigma of being a single woman and successful entrepreneur; she also played a crucial role in Britain’s architectural heritage.
The Trust devised an ambitious restoration programme to return the house to its Georgian maritime villa appearance, and to help pay for its keep, turning it into a holiday retreat for up to eight people. – however, John’s writing room will be a centrepiece of the project
They plan to complete the project in time for a grand opening in 2015 to mark the Trust’s 50th anniversary; missing this date is apparently not an option!
Using forensic style investigations alongside extensive research, the Trust team uncovered the outer walls of Bunter’s Castle, but interesting as this is, it is unlikely any of it will be seen once the refurbishment is complete. With the help of original plans, they mapped out the old building so they could unpick what has been done and, by looking at lintels and lifting floorboards, can work out where walls have been removed and doors would have originally been. They have even found doors that were simply papered over!
Fireplaces that have been moved are sometimes easy to identify especially if the stonework surround has been reinstated or if the ‘look’ of them just isn’t right. There is also the reliable Georgian love of symmetry and whilst seaside villas didn’t obey all the rules and often explored new architectural territory, there are some standard designs to look out for such as cupboards and alcoves either side of a fireplace.
It also became apparent that the staircase had been moved; there is an original cupboard that did not fit and by using a number of techniques including paint analysis, they established just the upper part had been altered. The kitchen is still in its original place but sadly the original flagstones are missing.
The aim of the Trust is to restore the heart of the building, recreating the Coadestone flagship house, albeit with the Victorian observatory tower, whilst upholding the legacy of John Fowles to encourage and inspire a love of literature.
The stable block will be transformed into an exhibition area where the story of the house will be told through photographs, plans and a number of artefacts. When the Trust set up their appeal in 2007 they were looking to raise £2.1million and ran a ‘Guardians of Belmont’ scheme encouraging people to donate £6,000 entitling them to various benefits. As with many appeals there was a shortfall of around £302,500, but, thanks to a generous legacy from the late Mrs Shelagh Preston, the next chapter of Belmont’s fascinating if checkered history is ready to unfold. ◗