A la Ronde: The 16-Sided House That’s Never Short of Sunlight

Oct 22, 2020 0 comments

Near the village of Lympstone, in Devon, England, stands a unique 18th century property—a one of a kind 16-sided house built by two fiercely independent spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, after they returned from a decade-long tour of Europe.

Jane Parminter was the daughter of a wealthy Devon wine merchant. After her father’s death in 1784, Jane set off on a grand tour of Europe, as was the custom among upper-class Britons in those times, accompanied by her invalid sister Elizabeth, an orphaned cousin, Mary, and another female friend. Over several years these intrepid women explored France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and possibly Spain and Portugal, before returning to England in 1795, upon which they decided to build a house to remind them of their travels and provide a home for all the souvenirs they had collected.

Photo: xlibber/Wikimedia Commons

The two cousins negotiated the purchase of 15 acres of land near the newly fashionable resort of Exmouth, and built a charming 16-sided cottage whose design was said to be inspired by the octagonal basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna. Family history maintains that Jane herself designed the house, but it probably was the work of Bath architect John Lowder.

The house, known as A la Ronde, consist of 20 rooms distributed in three floors. The ground floor originally housed the staff quarters, the wine cellar, a strong room and the kitchen, while the first floor was for the ladies. At the center of the house is an octagonal hallway with eight doors leading into as many rooms arranged radially. The rooms are connected with each other so it’s possible to make a complete circuit of these rooms without entering the octagon itself. This was important, because Jane and Mary liked to move about from one room to another following the warmth of the sun. They would start with breakfast on the east-facing room and then move around to finish with tea in an oval room on the west in the evening.

The upper level bedroom of A la Ronde. Photo: Neil Alexander McKee/Flickr

Everything inside the house was designed to conform to the building's unusual shape and awkward angles. The cupboards and bookshelves have sliding covers, doors slide back into the walls to save space, and flaps come down between each of the doors in the octagon to provide extra seating.

The Parminters were responsible for much of the interior decorations, which is spectacular, to say the least—the feather frieze in the drawing room, the shell-encrusted gallery and staircase, along with mosaic work, papercuts and other crafted items.

Jane Parminter died in 1811 and was buried in the tiny chapel on land adjoining A la Ronde. Mary continued to live at A la Ronde until her death in 1849. Her will specifically stated that the property must be inherited only by “unmarried kinswomen”. Consequently, ownership of the house was transferred to her unmarried cousins, Jane and Sophia Hurlock, and then to another cousin, Stella Reichel, in 1879. In 1886, Reichel made legal changes to the will allowing her brother, the Rev Oswald Reichel—the sole male owner in over two hundred years—to inherit the property. Oswald took the liberty of making many significant alteration to the house and gardens, such as the construction of a water tower and laundry room, the installation of a bathroom and central heating, the construction of upstairs bedrooms with dormer windows, the fitting of first-floor windows, a heavy pulley dumb-waiter and speaking tubes, the replacement of the original thatch with roof tiles and the addition of an external catwalk.

The entrance to A la Ronde is on the first floor due to the sloping ground on which the house stands. Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

After Oswald Reichel’s death, the house once again moved into female hands, this time a niece named Margaret Tudor, who opened the house to the public in 1935. The house was acquired by the National Trust in 1991, and since taking ownership the Trust reverted most of Oswald’s alterations to return the house to its original state.

A la Ronde is an incredible property because it bears witness to the independence and resourcefulness of two women in an age dominated by males.

Photo: Alison Day/Flickr

The dinning table at A la Ronde. Photo: Lee Morgan/Flickr

A cabinet of curiosities. Photo: Neil Alexander McKee/Flickr

A wedged-shaped library. Photo: RAYANDBEE/Flickr

Looking up from the central atrium. Photo: Ian Carroll/Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Andy Hawkins/Flickr

Photo: Raenef/Flickr

# A woman's touch in a man's world, BBC
# A la Ronde and the Point-in-View, Historic England
# Wikipedia
# The history of A la Ronde, National Trust


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