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The Knowle 4362


The Knowle was once one of the most famous houses in Sidmouth but later rebuilding and alterations for a hotel have not left any recognisable early features. Something of the fine grounds remain as a public park, although diminished to some extent to the north by the council car parks and the rather nondescript offices of East Devon District Council.

The west side of the Knowle has been more formally laid out with terraces and flowerbeds below Knowle House which currently hosts the East Devon District Council. This side still retains some fine trees and shrubbery. On the east side the park slopes down to a more unspoiled parkland, and borders one of the main roads (B3176) into Sidmouth, creating a most attractive approach to the town.

When Mr T.L. Fish owned the property in around 1844, the grounds were described as containing "very superior and rare plants ...." with not only orange and lemon on the verandah, but myrtle, fuchsia and various palms - all brought from far corners of the globe. Now 170 years later, the trees in the park and gardens of Knowle have mostly reached maturity, there are fine examples of sweet chestnut, cedar of Lebanon, lime and of course a variety of oaks. Others, such as sweet chestnut and Monterey pine and Judas tree, are showing signs of age, and plans to replant are taking shape. There are several trees in excellent health worthy of good maintenance, such as mulberry, Persian ironwood and magnificent tulip tree. In 1956 the trees all gained protection under an Area Tree Protection Order. A great variety of picturesque garden buildings, fountains, summerhouses and grottos were present in its earlier history, but today there remains within the park the ruins of only one, the gothic summerhouse. Some ruins are present in private gardens, created when various plots were sold off for housing many years ago.

A tree survey was carried out in 2012 by East Devon District Council, as well as a survey of the roosting bats in the park, which noted pipistrelles and lesser horseshoe bats. These surveys were done in connection with a proposed redevelopment of part of the land for building.

In 2010 Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce proposed the first ever civic Arboretum, an idea taken up by the Sidmouth Town Council who declared all the land under their jurisdiction (both public and private) to be an arboretum - so the Sidmouth Arboretum was formed. The Knowle trees represent an important and historic core of the Sidmouth Arboretum. In November 2013 Arboretum volunteers planted a small leafed lime (donated by Sidmouth Garden Centre) at the Knowle to celebrate the birth of Prince George.

The above detailed description was contributed by Heritage Volunteers from Sidmouth DFAS, 02/03/2014

Visitor Access & Directions

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Some areas are now open as a public park.

Civil Parish

  • Sidmouth


The once-renowned cottage orne was built in 1810 under the personal supervision of Lord le Despencer and subsequently rented to the Marquis of Bute. It was owned by the collector and connoisseur T.L. Fish from 1821 to 1861 who added picturesque improvements.

Detailed History

The history of the site falls into five distinct stages, each representing a significant development in its style and use, and it may now be on the brink of a sixth stage.

The original house and garden, known as Marine Cottage, was built as a holiday home by Sir Thomas Stapleton, Lord le Despencer, between 1805 and 1810 in the style of an elaborate thatched cottage orne set as a quadrangle with some forty rooms. The earliest known dated print of 1816 gives the house name as ‘Knole'. Although there is no evidence of his direct participation in the design or building, Sir John Soane was responsible for overseeing the work as testified by entries in his Book of Accounts between 1809 and 1811. Sir Thomas rarely visited and in 1812 the property was advertised for sale in The Times as a "Freehold and Marine Cottage Villa, with offices, Pleasure Grounds and Meadow Land". The property was "seated on a fine commanding eminence about a quarter of a mile of Sidmouth, embracing extensive prospects of the beautifully diversified country, and boundless views of the ocean, planned for the accommodation of a family of the first distinction". There followed a period when the home passed through at least two owners but was bought in 1821 by Mr Thomas Leversidge Fish - beginning the next stage of development - and Knowle's golden age.

Thomas Fish was then a 36 year old bachelor and very rich. He set about furnishing the house and grounds with an extraordinary collection of objets d'art, exotic trees and plants, birds and animals including kangaroos, gazelles, alpacas, buffalos, parakeets, peacocks and pelicans. A contemporary guide book to Knowle Cottage describes the rare plants, including Fan Palms, Yuccas, Japanese Camphor Tree, Zamia Horrida, various myrtles and many other specimens. A domed aviary provided ‘sumptuous place of confinement' for a collection of small rare foreign birds. During Mr Fish's stays at the house he opened the grounds and house to the public on Mondays - days which became known as Fish's Mondays. Hundreds of visitors came from all over the country on these days and were admitted free of charge in batches of thirty at fifteen minute intervals and often several hundred would visit in a day. Thomas died in 1861, and Knowle was once again on the market.

The prospectus for the sale cited "All that valuable and beautiful estate known as Knowle Cottage and grounds" comprising some eighteen acres and "commands extensive marine and land views; its lawn, park and gardens are tastefully ornamented with conservatories, summerhouses, fountains, grottoes and pyramids of shells". Owned for some six years by Mr Marson who died in 1867, the next great owner was Richard Napoleon Thornton, described by the Exeter Flying Post as "A philanthropist by nature, a benefactor to the last and the universal friend of rich and poor". He spent two years adding to the house and gardens, erecting vineries and pineries, houses for tropical plants and rosaries and grottoes were laid out. It is possible that a Cranston conservatory was built at this time (a sketch of which exists in the Devon Heritage centre Townsend P&D02556), but it has long since disappeared under the houses built on Knowle Drive. The gardens and grounds were frequently opened to the public and the first anniversary of the Cottage Garden Society in 1869 attracted nearly two thousand people. When Richard died in 1876 the estate devolved to his son, Rev R T Thornton who was a reluctant heir and put the property up for auction, but it was only in 1880 after dividing into 11 lots that a successful sale was made.

Two lots were bought by Major Hicks and the remainder by the "Sidmouth Knowle Hotel and Baths Company (Limited)" to adapt the mansion to the purposes of a residential hotel and to develop the outlying areas "in such a way as they may deem profitable" - that is, to build large houses on this very attractive high ground, as indeed some were! To prepare space for these developments, one of the largest sales of plants and shrubs ever held in the neighbourhood took place over four days in March 1882 - putting the Head Gardner, Mr Geo. Eveleigh, out of work. The residual hotel grounds were to be "about 7 acres, contain a large walled kitchen garden, pleasure ground with flower gardens, roseries, rockery, grottoes with fountains, lawn tennis with archery grounds, several conservatories and vineries, camellia house and winter garden."

The hotel prospered and was extended so that in October 1896 the Pall Mall Gazette could advertise:- "Knowle Hotel, Sidmouth, S.Devon - Quite unsurpassed as a winter resort. Delightful grounds of 29 acres. Sunshine record highest in the South coast......" Two world wars saw various uses for the hotel - in 1942 it became a Royal Air Force Aircrew Officers Training School. Most of the local hotels were requisitioned for the duration but Knowle was one of the last to be derequisitioned in 1947 - and reopened as a 60 room hotel on 1st May. But the 1960s saw the hotel industry struggling - Knowle was put up for sale and bought by the Sidmouth Urban District Council for use as their offices and the surplus parts adapted for flats and bedsits whilst preserving the parkland as public open space so that no development could take place.

For some thirty years up to 2005 the natural amphitheatre of the Knowle grounds was the main performance site for the Sidmouth Folk Festival - one of Europe's largest International folk festivals. An Arena concert stage was erected each year just for the event, and there was space for up to 5000 people on seats or the sloping grassy banks to watch performers from across the world. The event, with all its associated activities throughout the town attracted folk enthusiasts from all over the world and was probably the biggest "in town", as opposed to farmland or show ground venues, in the country. In 2005 the company running the festival pulled out from any future involvement, partly due to the stopping of funding support from East Devon District Council, but local volunteers, traders and sports clubs took over the event and made it more weather proof by moving the main arena to a large marquee on the Ham by the sea front. Thus the open air arena at the Knowle ceased to be used.

Sidmouth Urban District Council was itself dissolved in 1974 as part of local government reorganisation and the newly formed East Devon District Council needed a headquarters. This led to major reorganisation of the site with the demolition of several old buildings whilst leaving the original hotel building intact and the construction of new office blocks and car parks. But the parkland was left virtually unscathed for public enjoyment.The most recent development (August 2012) came when elements within EDDC resolved to relocate elsewhere, using the sale of the whole site for development to fund the operation. Their Outline Planning Application to achieve this was refused in March 2013 after strong public protest. However, in July 2013 the decision to relocate was confirmed by the council's Cabinet, but when, to where and how funded are issues not yet resolved. Thus the future of Knowle as we know it is uncertain.

The above detailed history was contributed by Heritage Volunteers from Sidmouth DFAS, 02/03/2014

The following detailed history was contributed by Devon Gardens Trust:

The Knowle was once one of the most famous houses in Sidmouth but later rebuilding and alterations for a hotel have not left any recognisable early features. Something of the fine grounds remain as a public park, although diminished to some extent to the north by the council car parks and the rather nondescript offices of East Devon District Council.

There are some magnificent trees, in particular specimens of cedar, Wellingtonia and Monterey pine. Some garden structures (the Gothic arch, the footings of the grotto and the flint Gothic summer house) survive in the gardens of the 20th century houses in Knowle Drive.

The once-renowned cottage orne was built in 1810 under the personal supervision of Lord le Despencer, and subsequently rented to the Marquis of Bute. It was owned by the collector and connoisseur T.L. Fish from 1821 to 1861. He added picturesque improvements. He also brought exotic trees and plants, animals and birds to the gardens, and on fine Mondays he would open his Marine Villa to the public. Massive rebuilding and conversion in 1882 into a hotel diminished its architectural qualities, leaving little of its early features.

White (1850) noted that it was ‘the delightful marine villa of T.L.Fish Esq. This elegant and tasteful residence is a thatched quadrangular building, of one story, containing about 30 rooms and surrounded by about 11 acres of ground, divided into lawns, gardens, and conservatories, containing rare and choice specimens of botany, as well as many fine specimens of foreign birds and animals.'

Stockdale described it as 'one of the most enchanting places of this kind imaginable, is not only delightfully situated but contains an unparalleled variety of the most rare and costly articles of taste. Although the building is style a cottage orne, both the exterior and the interior have been completed with much taste, the former having a verandah three hundred and fifteen feet in length, with supporters covered with roses, myrtles and flowering shrubs so judiciously arrange as not to intercept the view of the sea..... much taste has also been displayed in the arrangement of the surrounding plantations....The House and Grounds are open to the inspection of Visitors'.

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