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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Devon

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A la Ronde, Exmouth
A woman's touch in a man's world

Most people return from a holiday abroad longing for better weather at home, but how many people would go so far as to design a house specifically to make the most of our weak British sun?

Portrait of Mary Parminter
© NTPL / Derrick E Witty
Well that's exactly what happened in Exmouth at the end of the 18th Century, when a unique, 16-sided house was built by, some would say eccentric spinster cousins, Mary and Jane Parminter, on their return from Europe.

Eastern influences

A la Ronde, as it is known, bears witness to the independence and resourcefulness of two women in an age when the early feminists were only just stirring.

It combines the rustic charm of a cottage with a Byzantine influence, thought to have been inspired by the Basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna.

In 1784, following the death of Jane's father - a wealthy Devon merchant - Mary and Jane travelled throughout Europe for 10 years, together with two other women.

The 'Grand Tour' was a recognised way for wealthy young men to finish their education in the 18th Century, but it was much more unusual for women to travel alone in this way.

The dining room at A la Ronde
© NTPL Geoffrey Frosh
Returning from their tour in 1795, Jane and Mary decided to build a house to remind them of their travels and provide a home for all the souvenirs they had collected.

They chose a site in Exmouth, which by that time had become a fashionable watering place, with residents including Lady Byron and Viscountess Nelson.

Family history maintains that Jane designed the 16-sided house herself, though she may well have been helped by a relative John Lowder, later to become one of the architects of Georgian Bath.

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