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The River Barle at Simonsbath, Exmoor - - 1754208.jpg
The River Barle at Simonsbath
Grid reference: SS775395
Location: 51°8’30"N, 3°45’9"W
Population: 156
Post town: Minehead
Postcode: TA24
Local Government
Council: Somerset West
and Taunton
Bridgwater & W. Somerset

Simonsbath is a small village high on Exmoor in Somerset, in a sparsely populated part of the moor: over the whole 'Parish of Exmoor' across 32 square miles there were just 203 folk, in 78 households, recorded in 2001, and 156 souls at 2011 Census.

The River Exe rises from a valley to the north, and the River Barle runs through the village, crossed here by a triple-arched mediæval bridge (that was extensively repaired after floods in 1952).[1]

The village is on the route of the Two Moors Way and close to that of the Macmillan Way West.

The River Barle upstream of Simonsbath


The -bath element in this place-name is not recorded before 1791,[2] but appears to be simply the Old English bæþ signifying 'water' or 'pool'. The identity of Simon is less sure. R. J. King pointed out that the name is frequently met with in the wetserrn shires, "especially in connection with old boundary lines".[3] Thomas Westcote, in his View of Devonshire in 1630, preserved a local tradition that "Simon" was a great hunter and Robin Hood-like figure who had his stronghold at Symonsburrow, at the highest point of the Blackdown Hills, a barrow that long pre-dates the mediæval legend associated with it.

Parish church

Simonsbath Parish Church

The parish church in Simnonsbath is St Luke's Church, built in 1856 as the village expanded from a sparse hamlet into a village.

The church, whose architect is unknown, is built in the Early English style, in the local lias stone, grooved as ashlar to left of porch, slate hung west end, with slate roofs. In plan it has a three-bay nave, bell-cote, south porch, chancel, north-east vestry. The bell-cote rises from central west end buttress.[4]

It is today Grade I listed.[5]


The history of Simonsbath is inimately tied up with that of the estate and its manor house; Simonsbath House.

The house and inclosure

Simonsbath House

Simonsbath House was built in 1654 by the merchant, lawyer and philosopher James Boevey (1622–1696), the warden of the Royal forest of Exmoor, and for 150 years his was the only house in the forest, which consists largely of moorland. The house, a Grade II listed building, is now the Simonsbath House Hotel[6] and outdoor activity centre.[7]

On 4 July 1815, an Act of Parliament was passed to enable the Inclosure of Exmoor. After the Forest had been split into allotments and these had been conveyed to the persons who formerly possessed rights over the Forest, twelve twenty-seconds of the whole remained the property of the King (equating to 10,262¼ acres, such was the precision of measurement), formally allotted to the Crown as private property, as other shares wet to the traditional graziers and owner of the tithes (amongst whom Sir Thomas Dyke Acland (1787–1871), of Holnicote received one eighth of the total. In 1818 the Crown's share, which included Simonsbath, was sold at auction by HM Commissioners of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues:[8]

"Particulars of a freehold farm belonging to His Majesty and of the allotments (tithe free) made to His Majesty on the Inclosure of Exmoor Forest in the counties of Somerset and Devon to be sold by public tender on 23d day of July 1818, viz. the farm called Simon's Bath Farm situated within the said forest (which farm is enclosed & separated from the unenclosed land) containing by estimation 108 a(cres) 2 r(ods) 0 p(erches) & these several allotments of waste land situated in the center of the said forest contiguous & adjoining to each other and to the farm above mentioned & numbered on the map 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 and containing in the whole 10,262 ac(res) 1 r(od) 6 p(erches). In one lot".

John Knight

View from Simonsbath House downstream along the River Barle

The lot was bought by John Knight of Lea Castle, Wolverley, Worcestershire for £50,122, who then set about buying up the allotments made to the former graziers and owner of the tithes, bringing his holding to about 20,000 acres. Knight then set himself to converting the Royal Forest, covering the land of Exmoor into a huge industrial mining complex with canals and railways together with an agricultural estate. He had previously bought and reclaimed uncultivated land in Worcestershire and used similar techniques including burning rough grass, applying lime to change the acidity, and ploughing to increase the productivity of the land. He also introduced the Cheviot sheep to the area which are now common throughout Exmoor.[9]

Knight and his son Col. Sir Frederick Winn Knight (1812–1897), KCB, MP, who assumed management in 1841,[10] built most of the large farms in the central section of the moor and laid down 22 miles of metalled access roads to Simonsbath. He built a 29-mile stone wall around his estate, parts of which still survive.[11] However, progress was slow, and Richard Nicholls Worth stated in 1879 in his "Tourist's Guide to North Devon and the Exmoor district":[12]

The mansion was never finished; cultivation has not spread far from the farmstead centres; the walls bother the sportsman more than the deer; and the bogs are as deep, the inner recesses of the moors as wild and solitary, and the coarse grass, and the bracken, and the heathers supreme in their occupancy mile after mile, as if no effort had ever been made to redeem its mingled wildness and sterility.

19th-century expansion

Emmetts Grange

The small hamlet of Simonsbath developed in the 19th century, when more houses were built along with St Luke's Church (1856), providing a centre for the population. The church is today a Grade II listed building.[5]

At around the same time as the construction of the church, a mine was developed alongside the River Barle. The mine was originally called Wheal Maria, then changed to Wheal Eliza. It was a copper mine from 1845–54 and then an iron mine until 1857, although the first mining activity on the site may be from 1552.[13] A restored Victorian water-powered sawmill in the village, which was damaged in the floods of 1992, has now been purchased by the National Park and returned to working order, making the footpath signs, gates, stiles, and bridges for various sites in the National Park.[14][15]

Stag wind-vane atop Simonsbath House

In 1879, Sir Frederick Knight lost his only son and heir, and sold the reversion of the Simonsbath estate comprising about 20,000 acres of Exmoor, to Viscount Ebrington, the future 4th Earl Fortescue (1854–1932), whose family's principal seat was Castle Hill, Filleigh, ten miles south-west of Simonsbath in Devon. It is thought he was mainly motivated in his purchase by his great fondness for stag-hunting; he served as Master, and later Chairman, of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds. He established, with other landowners, the Badgworthy Land Company, to which were conveyed some freehold land around Badgworthy Water and also the hunting rights in perpetuity over much of the land on Exmoor and of that surrounding it; designed to ensure that future owners of piecemeal plots, unfavourably disposed to hunting, would not be able to restrict access to the historic wide expanses of hunting land used by the Devon & Somerset Staghounds and local foxhound packs. When Castle Hill burned down in 1934, the 5th Earl Fortescue resided with his wife and two young daughters at Simonsbath House, previously only used by the family as a hunting box, then named 'Diana Lodge' after the Roman goddess of the hunt. They moved back to Filleigh in 1936 when Castle Hill was rebuilt.

Sold by Fortescues

In 1927 the eastern part of the estate, comprising 1,745 acres, was sold to the industrialist Sir Robert Waley Cohen (d.1952), who had leased Honeymead since 1924, including the farmsteads of Honeymead, Pickedstones and Winstitchen. The remainder of the estate continued to be held by the Fortescues until after the death of the 5th Earl in 1958, when the latter's eldest daughter and co-heiress, Lady Margaret Fortescue (b. 1923), sold much of the Simonsbath estate, together with much of the two Fortescue estates centred on Challacombe and West Buckland, to pay large death duties.[16][17] She did, however, retain what she termed "the heart of the Exmoor estate" and started to farm this land in-hand using her own employees, not renewing tenancies on farms when they expired. She established five large flocks of sheep and two large cattle herds, the latter based at Cornham and Simonsbath Barton. Simonsbath sawmill was closed down as it was unprofitable. In 1989 Lady Margaret handed over the family estates to her daughter the Countess of Arran, who, later on, sold the remainder of the Simonsbath estate, namely the Barton and Cornham, to John Ewart, a keen follower of the Staghounds, whilst Exmoor National Park purchased much of the moorland. Some of the houses, however, were retained where occupied by retired Fortescue employees.


River Barle at Simonsbath

Simonsbath stands at 1,250 feet above sea level, in the valley of the River Barle. On the Chains is a three-acre reservoir known as Pinkery Pond which John Knight and his son formed in the 19th century by damming the River Barle. It was originally intended to be seven acre: the purpose is unknown but close to the pond are the remains of a small canal.[18]

On the moor north of the village is Exe Head, which is the source of the River Exe. It lies on peaty soils over rocks dating from the mid Devonian (to which this area gave its name) to early Carboniferous periods.[19] Quartz and iron mineralisation can be detected in outcrops and subsoil. The Devonian Kentisbury Slates are exposed in the small quarry by white water.

Simonsbath Sawmill

The Simonsbath Sawmill stands a hundred yards in front of Simonsbath House, close to the River Barle, from which a leat extends to drive the machinery. It was built by John Knight, between 1818 and 1841, and was refurbished by Viscount Ebrington in 1898. In 1996 it was bought by Exmoor National Park Authority and was restored in 2002–03 with Heritage Lottery Funding, with the intention of using it to make gates and footpath signposts. However, in 2010 production was ceased, and it is now in the care of a volunteer group. It is a very rare survival of an estate sawmill that still retains its 19th-century machinery.[20]

The Exmoor Forest Inn

The Exmoor Forest Inn, Simonsbath

The Exmoor Forest Inn was originally known as the Refreshment House, then from 1885 The William Rufus Inn and then The Exmoor Forest Hotel in 1901. For a while it was split in half with the nearest part to the road being the Temperance Hotel, until re-united in 1909. It was teetotal until 1933 when the parish of Exmoor was granted its excise licence. In 2005 the term ‘Inn’ was reinstated to the name, when the building was renovated.

When known as the William Rufus Inn, it was said to be the haunt of the noted Exmoor Highwayman Tom Faggus, who married 'Girt Jan Ridds' sister whose exploits are recounted in 'Lorna Doone'. Once it was said, Faggus's enemies laid a trap to catch him in the Inn, but Faggus whistled for his strawberry mare Winnie who jumped through the window and kicked all her masters enemies away from him. Faggus jumped on the mare's back and escaped.[21]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Simonsbath)


  1. National Heritage List 1345374: Simonsbath Bridge
  2. Battersby, C. J.: in 'The Modern Language Review' 11.2 (April 1916: 222-230) p. 229f
  3. Richard Nicholls Worth, 'Tourist's Guide to North Devon and the Exmoor district' 1879:94.
  4. St Luke's Church and churchyard, Simonsbath- Exmoor National Park Historic Environment Record
  5. 5.0 5.1 National Heritage List 265425: Church of St Luke
  6. National Heritage List 1058031: Simonsbath House Hotel
  7. "Simonsbath House Outdoor Activity Centre". Simonsbath House Outdoor Activity Centre. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  8. Somerset Archives
  9. Holt, Alan L. (1984). West Somerset: Romantic Routes and Mysterious Byways. Skilton. pp. 32–33. ISBN 978-0284986917. 
  10. C. S. Orwin, The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest; an extensive review by E. P. Stebbing was published in The Economic Journal 41, No. 161 (March 1931: pp 119-125).
  11. "Simonsbath". Whatsonexmoor. Retrieved 2007-11-27. 
  12. Worth, p.94
  13. "Wheal Eliza mine, NE of Simonsbath, Exmoor". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Retrieved 2007-11-27. 
  14. "Guided Tours of Simonsbath Sawmill". Exmoor National Park. Archived from the original on 8 March 2008. Retrieved 2007-11-27. 
  15. "Exmoor National Park: Simonsbath sawmill" (PDF). A Landscape Legacy: National Parks and the historic environment: English Heritage. Retrieved 2007-11-28. 
  16. Lauder, Rosemary, Devon Families, Tiverton, 2002, p.80
  17. Reminiscences of Lady Margaret Fortescue recorded in 2001
  18. Warren, Derrick (2005). Curious Somerset. Stroud: Sutton Publishing. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-0-7509-4057-3. 
  19. "Exmoor and the Quantocks". Natural England. Retrieved 2007-11-28. 
  20. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1 May 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-09. 
  21. "The True Story of the Doones?". Devon History Selection. Retrieved 13 December 2010. 
  • Burton, Roger A.: 'Simonsbath: The Inside Story of an Exmoor Village' (1996) ISBN 0-9514419-2-2