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Simonsbath Programme

The Simonsbath Programme is a community-partnership programme to develop a sustainable plan for Simonsbath’s heritage assets. It comprises a range of activities and projects taking place in and around Simonsbath which will make better use of heritage assets - principally those owned by Exmoor National Park Authority. By doing this we will move towards achieving the following vision:

“Simonsbath will be renowned as having a unique history; an ideal place to discover the story of The Royal Forest and Exmoor - a landscape with a ‘hidden’ side: lost gardens, an unfinished mansion, subtle clues to its busy farming and industrial past; with a deeper history stretching back nearly 8,000 years. People will find an excellent visitor experience, and a well-presented range of things to see and do.

Simonsbath’s heritage will be well looked after, shared, used and appreciated. Projects will also generate broader benefits for the community, such as business opportunities, access improvements, ‘get involved’ projects, social history projects, other events and activities.”

Context

Exmoor National Park Authority owns some 3,500 hectares of moorland surrounding Simonsbath. This land makes up the majority of the former Royal Forest of Exmoor. It was acquired through the 1970s and 1980s to protect it from agricultural improvement and to ensure open access for the public.

In the early 1990s the National Park Authority purchased Simonsbath sawmill from the Fortescue Estate and obtained Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) funding to conserve the building and return it to a functioning sawmill. It is now used by a keen group of volunteers who mill timber there and provide valuable educational access to the buildings on a regular basis.

Since 2001 survey work has revealed the importance of the lost gardens in Ashcombe which were laid out by the Knight family in the 1820s and re-used by the Fortescue family in the early 20th century. Wider work on Exmoor’s moorlands was stimulated by the Moorlands At a Crossroads report (Exmoor Society 2004), principally through the Exmoor Moorland Landscape Partnership Scheme (2011-13, 2014- 2015) and the historic environment part of the Exmoor Mires Project (2010-15). These initiatives have generated large amounts of information about the history of the moorlands which have changed our understanding of the landscape of Exmoor Forest and emphasised the importance of Simonsbath both as a historic settlement and as the focus – the heart - of the reclamation efforts in the 19th century.

In 2013 Exmoor National Park acquired the former school buildings in Simonsbath (White Rock Cottage). This acquisition has provided the opportunity to review all of the historic assets in Simonsbath owned by Exmoor National Park, as well as those in private ownership, and explore ways of using them more effectively in a cohesive way, through a partnership approach, to both tell the story of Exmoor Forest (its history, reclamation and the designed landscape at its heart), as well as to provide broader economic and social benefits to the community.


Programme Structure

1. Deliver access improvements on key heritage assets mainly owned by Exmoor National Park:

2. Conserve White Rock Cottage and former School buildings as appropriate and find alternative use

3. Highways issues - address key problems of traffic speed through settlement

4. Simonsbath Sawmill – future use and operation

5. Wider Projects

Progress

Since acquiring the former Simonsbath School, a great deal of work has been done on the site, to learn more about the buildings and what they mean to people and to stablise them:
* We held a consultation event in November 2013 and a drop in event in April 2014.
* We set up a Steering Group with representatives of the local and wider community, local interests and relevant local authorities.
* We have talked with (and continue to talk with) local people and ex school pupils.
* We have carried out archaeological and historical surveys and research, all of which can be found by accessing the Exmoor National Park Historic Environment Record http://www.exmoorher.co.uk/
* We have also protected the buildings from further decay, after a long period of neglect, by covering them with sheeting. This has allowed them to dry out naturally and during this time we have also begun to deplaster some of the wall surfaces to allow the fabric to dry out.

Meanwhile we have also been working to better understand the nature of the unfinished gardens in nearby Ashcombe. So far we have:
* Completed an archaeological survey
* Cleared laurel and scrub from the original garden paths
* Hosted visits from Hestercombe Gardens

During 2015 we asked the local community and visitors to Simonsbath what they would like to see happen to the former school buildings. As a result of that work we have arrived at a series of options for the buildings that we believe will conserve them as part of Simonsbath’s unique heritage, whilst providing benefit to the community in the form of improved facilities and better information for visitors.

What is being proposed is that:

  • the former Simonsbath schoolroom is used as a parish room
  • White Rock Cottage becomes an unmanned museum to tell the story of the Royal Forest of Exmoor, John Knight, Simonsbath village and Simonsbath school
  • the public toilets in Ashcombe carpark remain in use but that the currently underused part of that building is used as a workshop or pop-up shop for local crafts and produce

These options received overwhelming support from local people at a consultation in December 2015.

Latest News

During 2016 we commissioned consultants who carried out a feasibility study on these proposals, produced a business plan and explored funding avenues – this work was received in spring 2017. As a result of this we are now talking to potential funders about the proposal.

Also during 2016 we discovered the largest collection of Knight family papers in a private house in Kidderminster. They contain masses of information about the Knight family’s activities on Exmoor from 1819 to the 1870s. These have now been given to the South West Heritage Trust in Taunton.

We are always keen to speak to people who would like to know more about the project or who have old photographs and memories of Simonsbath school, and we would be very pleased to hear from you if you can help: please contact Rob Wilson-North.

Contacts

Rob Wilson-North, Conservation Manager, Exmoor National Park.
Tel: 01398 322280 Email: rwilson-north@exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk

Matt Harley, Land & Property Manager, Exmoor National Park.
Tel: 01398 322274. Email: mharley@exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk

Alternatively you could speak with a locally elected representative on the Simonsbath Programme Steering Group: Jayne Chanter, Exmoor Parish Council. Trudy Hawkins, Exmoor Parish Council. benSteven Pugsley, West Somerset District Council. Frances Nicholson, Somerset County Council.