A La Ronde is an 18th-century 16-sided house located near Lympstone, Exmouth, Devon, England, and in the ownership of the National Trust. The house was built for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter. It is a Grade 1 listed building, as are the adjacent Point-In-View chapel, school and almshouses, together with a manse, which were also built by the cousins. The gardens are Grade Two listed in the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.
*** – History – ***
The Parminter family, which could be traced back in North Devon as far back as 1600, had acquired considerable wealth as merchants. Jane was the daughter of Barnstaple wine merchant John Parminter who had a business in Lisbon, where she was born in 1750. Jane grew up in London and became guardian to her orphan cousin Mary. On her father's death in 1784, she decided to embark on the Grand Tour accompanied by her invalid sister Elizabeth, her younger orphaned cousin, and a female friend from London.
The two cousins became greatly attached to each other and in 1795 decided to set up home together in Devon. They negotiated the purchase of 15 acres (6.1 hectares) of land near Exmouth. Once their house had been built they lived secluded and somewhat eccentric lives for many years until 1811 when Miss Jane died.
The house was completed in about 1796, and its design is supposedly based on the Basilica of San Vitale. It consisted of 20 rooms, the ground floor ones radiating out from a 10.7 metres (35 feet) high hallway, named "The Octagon", and originally connected by sliding doors. The lower ground floor housed a wine cellar, strong room and kitchen and an upper octagonal gallery housed an intricate hand-crafted frieze.
Between the main rooms were triangular-shaped closets with diamond shaped windows. Much of the internal decoration was produced by the two cousins, whose handicraft skills were excellent. The house also contained many of the objets d'art, especially shells, which the cousins brought back from their European Tour.
The terms of Mary's will specified that the property could be inherited only by "unmarried kinswomen". This condition held firm until in 1886 the house was transferred to the Reverend Oswald Reichel, a brother of one of the former occupants. Reichel, the sole male owner in over two hundred years, was responsible for substantial structural changes. These included 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.
Since taking ownership, conservation measures by The National Trust have included removal of all but one of the very large central heating radiators installed by Reichel, restoration of the wall coverings from a deep red to the original pale green and rigging of the delicate Shell Gallery on the uppermost storey of the house with a CCTV system to allow observation without risk of damage. The original kitchen and strong room on the lower ground floor now function as a modern kitchen and tea-room.
*** – Grand Tour – ***
Jane had decided that three Parminter ladies would make a journey around Europe, visiting the tourist sites of the day. Description of the first six weeks only of the Parminter tour is available from a transcription of part of a journal maintained by Jane, the original of which was lost in 1942 during the bombing of Exeter.
The Parminter Grand Tour began on 23 June 1784 when Jane Parminter, her sister, Elizabeth, her cousin Mary and a friend, thought to be a Miss Colville, embarked at Dover. During their first week the ladies explored Abbeville and Chantilly. The following week the group set off for Paris where Jane commented on “a very dirty inn indeed, the staircase shaking, the maids bold and impertinent, the treatment sparing and the charge extravagant”.
They enjoyed trips to Versailles, where they spotted Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and to the park at St Cloud. After a week of sightseeing at a hectic pace (including the Tuileries Gardens, Les Invalides and the Gobelins Tapestry factory) they moved on from Paris, passing through the bandit-infested Fontainebleau forest and to Dijon where, over ten days, they visited churches, a school, a hospital, the Botanic Gardens and sighted the King of Prussia and it is with Jane’s visits in that city that the transcription ends.
The Parminter route beyond Dijon can only be conjecture although there are some clues among the contents of A la Ronde, from the papers of Oswald Reichel and from family oral tradition. The A la Ronde Guide Book repeats a family story that the ladies then “continued south, inspecting Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and possibly Spain and Portugal”. According to Oswald Reichel, writing in 1911, the journal recorded that the ladies visited the town of Pavia which is just south of Milan and that in May 1785 they were in Marseille.
The fourth lady (Miss Colville?) is said to have left the tour in its early stages, confirmed by a report that in the summer of 1786, two years after leaving London, the three Parminter ladies had climbed Mont Buet in the Alps. This was recorded in two publications of the time and represented a massive achievement. Mont Buet reaches a height of 3096 metres and was first climbed in 1776 by two brothers (De Luc of Geneva); the three Parminter ladies are now recognised as the first women to reach any alpine summit over 3000 metres. Mont Buet has been long regarded as a training route for Mont Blanc and is known locally as Mont Blanc des Dames (Ladies’ Mont Blanc) or more affectionately as “Parminter Peak”
The fragile Italian gouaches and prints bought in Switzerland that are displayed in the Cabinet of Curiosities in the A la Ronde Library provide further information and the two shell pictures in the A la Ronde Drawing Room pinpoint a further visit as Mary’s handwriting on the back of one of these identifies the subject as Isola la Bella. This is an island on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy on which there is a palace on which construction started in 1632.
The palace reached its highest level of social success between 1751 and 1837 with guests including Edward Gibbon and, in later years, Napoleon and Queen Caroline of Brunswick. Visitors were shown the massive grotto underneath the palace that was (and still is) decorated with shells. One wonders whether that visit provided just some of the impetus for the Parminter’s future Shell Gallery.
A la Ronde contains a print of an important site for grand tourists – the ancient bridge at Narni in Umbria and also a print, in a well in the top of a Drum Table that is decorated with souvenirs of Rome that indicates a visit to the much-visited tomb of a Madam Langhans near Berne in Switzerland.
Oswald Reichel writes with certainty that the design of A la Ronde was inspired by the church of San Vitale in Ravenna which is famed for its magnificent 6th century mosaics. It is recorded that in the late 18th Century the roads to Ravenna were so bad that the only way to travel there was by boat (felucca) from Venice so yet another calling point of the ladies is likely, particularly as there is a gouache at A la Ronde of a Venetian gondola. Venice was a much favoured stopping point for its art and unique position and then for a possible foray to the north and into the Holy Roman Empire.
Rome with its Classical sites aroused much enthusiasm among Grand Tourists even though Jane and Mary’s visit to Rome took place before many of the sites had been excavated. A Lady Webster wrote in 1792 “I walked among the ruins, recalled the Latin poets, studied the architecture and thought of my situation in life”. One tourist wrote of the “fine portrayal of the ruins by Piranesi”, another recorded how the same artist “immortalised the past”. The many Piranesi prints of Classical Rome that can be seen at A la Ronde suggest that Jane and Mary were similarly enthused.
In the late 18th Century tourists pressed on from Rome to Naples – in 1788 a traveller wrote “There is a good road to travel”. The major sight there was Vesuvius where tourists climbed up to peer into the volcano before inspecting the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
As well as a gouache from Naples there is a work table at A la Ronde that contains fan-leaves with a picture in fine colour of the erupting Vesuvius; ladies fans were sold to tourists returning to the base of the mountain so the question is raised as to whether the ladies ascended this mountain as well as Buet in the Alps or was the fan-paper not purchased at the time but later as a souvenir – which the date of 1795 on the fan might indicate. The ladies’ acquisitions, however, do not enable a logical route to be imagined.
By tradition, the Tour of Jane and Mary lasted ten years from its commencement in 1784 but it has now been established that Elizabeth returned to London and made her Will in October 1788 and that Jane was certainly in London on the 7 June 1791 (seven years after departure) when administration of the will was granted personally to her. Elizabeth is known to have not been in good health, as during the Tour a letter to Jane from a French businessman dated 13th July 1785 makes particular enquiry as to her sister’s health.
Records of the date of the death or burial of Elizabeth appear not to have survived; early family documents state that she died at Malmsbury in Wiltshire and there is evidence that a distant Parminter cousin lived there and attended a Moravian church in the town.
Oral tradition has it that Elizabeth “came back early and died” and that the Grand Tour finished in Spain/Portugal – this could have meant that Jane and Mary set out again for the Iberian Peninsula. This may well have been so, as Jane’s brother-in-law, George Frend, had a business in Portugal to where there were frequent sailings of his leased vessels.
Sailing directly to Portugal would have been sensible when transit through France became increasingly difficult with the onset of problems and dangers caused by the French Revolution. By 1793 events surrounding England’s declaration of war on France had led to the imposition of a complete ban on travel in France by English passport holders.
For a far more detailed and informative family tree and history of the fascinating Parminter family please click here.
*** – Design – ***
Family tradition maintains that the house was designed by Miss Jane herself. It is more likely, however, that the plans were drawn up by "a Mr. Lowder" mentioned by a 19th-century writer. Mary's aunt by marriage, also Mary, had a sister Anne Glass, who married a Commander John Lowder, a banker. In 1778 Lowder became a property developer and built Lansdowne Place West in Bath.
Commander Lowder, however, had a son, also named John (1781–1829) who practised as a gentleman architect in Bath. Although only 17 years of age when A La Ronde was built, it is entirely feasible that the younger Lowder designed the house. In 1816 he went on to design the unusual Bath and District National School (demolished 1896), a 32-sided building with wedge-shaped classrooms. A La Ronde may reasonably be interpreted as an early prototype for the much larger later project.
*** – Point-In-View Chapel – ***
Although regular attendants at the Glenorchy Chapel in Exmouth, as the two ladies got older they found the journey to worship increasingly difficult. They therefore decided to commission a chapel on their own estate. Although Miss Jane died in 1811, and was buried beneath the chapel, the work continued and the buildings were completed later that year.
Inside the chapel are the words "Some point in view – We all pursue". Surrounding the chapel was a small school for six girls and almshouses for four maiden ladies of at least 50 years of age. There was also accommodation for a minister.
The two ladies took a keen interest in the conversion of Jews to Christianity. The deeds for the almshouses expressly stated that any Jewess who had embraced Christianity would have preference over all others as a candidate for a place.
The story of the oaks planted on the estate being protected by a will drawn up by the Parminter cousins stating that the oaks shall remain standing until Israel returns and is restored to the land of promise is, sadly, apocryphal but undoubtedly reflects the idea, common at the time, that the timber from the trees would be used to build the ships for the return to the promised land. When Miss Mary died in 1849, she too was buried beneath the chapel.
Regular services are still held at the chapel and a Chaplain still lives in the Manse. Baptisms and weddings also remain part of the pattern of life at Point-in-View. There are also weekly classes based on old traditional art and craft techniques. These classes contribute to 'Parminter Art' a living art museum situated in the Chapel.
The school closed in 1901. The Chapel and the Manse are listed Grade I and the 3-acre meadow in which they stand is listed Grade II in the National Register of Parks and Gardens. The chapel is open most days and welcomes visitors. At one time, the Trustees met annually and received one guinea for their attendance, as laid down by the Parminters. These days, the site is managed by the Trustees of the Mary Parminter Charity who meet a great deal more often and receive no payment!
*** – Visiting – ***
Important notice - A la Ronde is now closed for the season from September 7th, 2020. The National Trust look forward to welcoming you back in 2021. While A la Ronde is closed, you can still experience panoramic views, delve into one of the rooms and be placed amongst walls of shells on a 360 degree virtual tour.
Witness panoramic views across the estuary whilst the sun sets, place yourself in the heart of their spectacular shell gallery or have a look around the drawing room on one of their 360 degree virtual tours. You can explore with your mouse, the control buttons on your keyboard or the control icons on-screen.
Using a mouse: Click and drag the cursor on-screen in the direction you want to look. If your mouse has a roller button, use it to zoom in/out.
Using on-screen icons: Click and hold the screen icons to navigate. The + (plus) and - (minus) buttons allow you to zoom in/out.
Using keyboard arrow keys: Press the arrow keys to navigate. The + (plus) and - (minus) keys allow you to zoom in/out.
Using keyboard tab keys: Tab through the on-screen buttons and hold down the space bar to navigate. Shift + tab will tab back to the previous on-screen button.
*** – Facilities – ***
Location : A la Ronde, Summer Lane, Exmouth, Devon, EX8 5BD
Transport: Lympstone village 1 mile; Exmouth (National Rail) 2 miles OR bus. Bus Routes : Exeter to Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton, stops within ½ mile.
Opening Times : Closed until 2021.
Tickets : Adults £5.00; Child £2.50
Tel: 01395 265514