A la Ronde is a house unlike any other: a Regency building with a whimsical sixteen-sided design and wildly original interior, shaped by the travels, creativity and female solidarity of its owners.
In 1784, Jane Parminter and her cousin Mary set off across the Channel. ‘At the time it was the norm for wealthy young men to go on a Grand Tour of Europe, as part of their education, but highly unusual for women to travel alone in the same way,’ explains senior house steward Chloe Reynolds. But Jane and Mary were lucky. Coming from a family of successful merchants, as unmarried women, they could spend their fortune as they chose.
There’s frustratingly little documentary record of precisely where the the ladies went, what they did, or whom they met, but of one thing we can be sure. A decade later, laden with souvenirs and teeming with plans, Jane and Mary decided to settle near Exmouth. Here, they built a home that must have turned heads in the fashionable seaside resort nearby. With rooms arranged around a central Octagon, and shaped like slices of cake, A la Ronde is a sight to behold. Read on to take a look inside…
A Regency japanned chair sits in the Music Room. Known as Nelson’s chair, it is reputed to have been a gift from Lady Nelson (who lived in Exmouth), and is thought to have originally come from one of Nelson’s ships.
The Entrance Hall leads through to the central Octagon. The oak settle is Scottish and belonged to the Reverend Reichel – who inherited A la Ronde against Jane and Mary’s wishes. Underneath it is all that remains of the enormous central heating system that he installed. The painting above is c1800 and depicts a Lyme Mastiff – a now-extinct breed of dog, reared at Lyme Park in Cheshire. The flower vase in the foreground is made of tin and was decorated by Jane and Mary.
The silhouettes above the fireplace in the Drawing Room date from 1783 and are by Francois Torond, a Huguenot refugee who specialised in ink drawings of this type. The group includes Jane Parminter holding a watering can.
The library is dominated by the large break-front bookcase that Jane and Mary used as their cabinet of curiosities. The model in the foreground was made by a relative and shows A la Ronde before the Reverend Reichel’s alterations.
The shelves of the sisters’ cabinet of curiosities are crammed with shells, postcards and assorted souvenirs including Egyptian shabti and a box shaped like a hot cross bun.
The alcove in the Dining Room was designed for the tambour-topped sideboard. The Piranesi prints were souvenirs. The dainty Wedgwood ‘Queen’s Ware’ on the table is thought to have belonged to Jane and Mary.
The Octagon is the hub of the house, from which all of the principal rooms radiate. The recently restored walls are decorated with an unusual chevron design that was probably devised by Jane and Mary. The curious octagonal chairs are also thought to have been made for the room to their designs.
THE SHELL GALLERY
The narrow stairs leading to the spectacular Shell Gallery provide a foretaste of the treat in store. Heavily decorated with gothic arches and treasures from the sea, the gallery is estimated to contain 25,000 shells, as well as minerals, feathers, twigs and bits of bone, which were pressed into lime putty to adorn niches, walls and window frames.
The house and grounds open on 4th February 2017 10:30am-5:30pm (last entry to the house is 4pm). A la Ronde, Summer Lane, Exmouth, Devon, EX8 5BD. 01395 265514; nationaltrust.co.uk/a-la-ronde
Images: Andreas Von Einsiedel