History of Bovey Castle
While the surrounding estates have had a manor house since at least Saxon times, Bovey Castle is much more recent. In the late 1800's the inheritor of the W.H. Smith Empire, Sir William Henry Smith, was looking for a way to diversify his family’s wealth. The collapse of agricultural commodities (particularly cotton in Britain) meant that land was at an all-time low in 1890. William seized his opportunity and bought huge stretches of land from the earl of Devon. Situated amongst the wild hills of Dartmoor, the estate also satisfied another urge; the desire to establish himself as a country gent.
The move was a shrewd one; by the mid 1890's the financial markets were in deep depression as they were exposed to the over-expansion of the railways. The W.H. Smith franchise had been built on the growth of the railways during Britain's second industrial revolution so it is testament to the financial foresight of Sir William that they continued to grow their wealth even as depression set in. The family were awarded the title of Viscount Hambleden by the King for their enterprise and it is Sir William’s son Frederick who picks up the story of Bovey Castle from here.
2nd Viscount Hambleden Sir Frederick Smith, started construction on the 'North Bovey Manor House' as he called it in 1906, with the style of build an overt statement of the family’s wealth. An enthusiast of historic and civic buildings, Frederick had helped to preserve the qualities of nearby Moretonhampstead village. The Manor House satisfied both Frederick and his Father's earlier desires to live as country gentlemen, though with such proximity to the Moretonhampstead rail line, the great infrastructure on which the W.H. Smith Empire was built meant there was always a quick route back to the cities and wider civilisation.
The monetary savviness that had served the family so well deserted them when the Frederick Smith died in 1928. They had failed to plan for the significant death duties in Britain at the time and desperately needing to settle a £1 million tax bill, the manor house was sold for a mere £15,000. No doubt distraught at the loss of the family home, the Smith family moved on and the manor house moved forward into a new phase of its journey.
It was perhaps fitting that the new owners should be the builders of the line on which Bovey sat. The Great Western Railway Company transformed the home into a hotel, dazzling guests with its new 18 hole golf course, built as a southern rival to Gleneagles. The Manor House became an attraction in its own right during the later years of the Golden Age of the steam engine, attracting railway aficionados who could use the hotel as a way to explore Dartmoor.
The years after World War II bought about the great social experiment of Nationalisation. The Manor House continued to be used as a hotel on the industrial heritage route but times were changing. In the booming 1950's, urban growth meant there was less and less need for the rural Moretonhampstead line. As the last passenger trains ran in February 1959 those living along the line were thrown back into rural isolation literally overnight. The apparent relative decline would prove a saviour to the historic ambience of the villages surrounding the manor house such as Moretonhampstead village, preserved as a conservation area.
The hotel as it stands today can be credited to entrepreneur Peter de Savary. Throughout the 2000’s, he spared no expense or effort in transforming it into the magnificent country spa retreat; with its new name Bovey Castle. As well as adding the spa facilities, the golf course has received a new lease of life and the house has been reborn with interiors that would have bedazzled the 2nd Viscount Hambleden himself.
Of Bovey Castle, Peter has said that "Something built as a private house always works better as a place to stay. Houses hold dreams." Peter, like Sir William and Sir Frederick before him, were men who prefer to build their castles from stone rather than build castles in the air.