East Devon Branch report: Sep 2017 to Jan 2018

In September and as a prelude to our winter series of talks, many branch members enjoyed our ‘Meet the President’ Members’ Luncheon at the Belmont Hotel in Sidmouth when our invited guest was the President David Fursdon. After a most convivial meal, the President gave a lively and interesting talk which he entitled ‘How the roles that I have had have helped preserve the Fursdon Estate’. He spoke about his personal life, his family history, his career, Fursdon House and the challenges of running an agricultural estate in rural Devon. Members were much entertained with tales of some of his more eccentric ancestors and his own experience of inheriting a country estate. He also gave some insight into his present duties as Lord Lieutenant for the county of Devon. Once again this event proved to be an ideal opportunity for members to become better acquainted with the current President in an informal setting.

The Branch’s contribution to The Devon Newfoundland Story, the programme of events celebrating the link between Devon and Newfoundland, was our October talk by Dr Jenny Moon ‘Just gone fishing in Newfoundland; an overview of the cod trade between Devon and Newfoundland, 1500 onwards’. Our speaker reminded her audience of the link between the people of the West country and Newfoundland through the fishing industry from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Fishermen from East Devon, especially Lympstone and Topsham, often sailed away for the whole summer and ultimately some settled there notwithstanding the extremely severe winters. Members were also interested to learn about the methods used to process the fish, namely salting and drying, and Dr Moon concluded her talk with some recipes for dried cod.

Colin Vosper, our November meeting speaker, chose as the title for his talk ‘Maritime Shortcuts – Canal routes across the South West peninsula and worldwide’. He began by focussing on the past and three attempts to dig canal routes across the peninsula for the Bude, the Rolle and the Grand Western canals. Civil engineers including Thomas Telford, James Rennie and the lesser known James Green tackled two problems, hills and the lack of water. Ingenious solutions including tub boats (amphibious craft with wheels) and giant buckets were invented to deal with the local terrain. The presentation then moved to the present day and the Suez and Panama canals. An exciting four minute time lapse journey through the Panama Canal was followed by a conclusion contemplating the possible construction of a canal through Nicaragua, linking the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean.

Cottages, Peak Hill, Sidmouth, Devon

Cottages, Peak Hill, Sidmouth
Photo: Margaret Wilby

For our final talk of 2017, we were privileged to have Professor Daniel Maudlin speak to the Branch on ‘The idea of the English Cottage in English Architecture, 1760 – 1860’. Sidmouth, with its many examples of cottages orné, proved to be a particularly appropriate place for this talk. Professor Maudlin explained that the idea sprang originally from the classical notion of retreat from the town to the country and was adopted by wealthy landowners as well as writers and artists. We saw many examples dating from the late 18th century of housing for agricultural workers and estate gate lodges as well as the more recognisable retreats and seaside villas, all designed to look like cottages. Our speaker concluded his quite excellent and much appreciated talk by explaining that the enthusiasm for cottages with the upper echelons of society did not survive beyond the middle of the 19th century but that the concept of the cottage as an ideal rural retreat still persists.

The subject of our first talk of 2018 ‘From Richmond House to Sidholme’ followed on appropriately from our previous meeting; the origins of the present Sidholme Hotel being two cottages orné built in Elysian Fields in Sidmouth in the early 19th century. Dr Nigel Hyman had a large and enthusiastic audience to hear his excellently illustrated talk about the original villas and how they were subsequently reconstructed into the present building with its remarkable music room. Additional interest was added with biographical information about some of the property’s owners, in particular the 6th Earl of Buckingham and Frederick Lindemann, Winston Churchill’s personal technocrat. In conclusion, we learned of the acquisition in 1931 of Sidholme by the Methodist Guild, which still owns the hotel.

Our programme of monthly talks continues until March and a summer visit has been organised to Castle Hill house and gardens.

Philip Wilby

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