Babbacombe Cliff: Sun, Séances and Queer History by the Sea

With thanks to John Tucker at Torbay Libraries, from whence come the achival images below

Babbacombe Cliff Brochure Cover
A brochure advertising the former hotel, dug up by librarian John Tucker at Torbay Libraries (Woodman, date unknown).

 

For all my adult life, a half-rememberd building has haunted my memory. An old hotel, nestled in wooded cliffs above the sea. A hotel as they used to be, with tobacco smoke drifting from the snug in the entrance hall and the smell of tomato juice in the deep red Victorian carpets. A wooden cabinet behind the desk with its rows of keys, then a narrow staircase leading up to a corridor, and the Oscar Wilde Suite.

 

"This is where it all happened," announced owner Ian Theaker in an interview with the Telgraph in 2000, "leading the way along the long narrow corridor to Wilde's bedroom, the most stunning room in the house, with the best sea views and a barrel-vaulted turquoise ceiling of pressed-paper tiles by William Morris."

"The Rossetti and Burne-Jones paintings have gone", he said, "but there's definitely a trace of Oscar in the air" (Wilkes, 2000).

 

Wonderland circa 1930s
Wonderland todayInterior of "Wonderland" circa 1930s (Woodman, date unknown), and below, the same room today - still called the Oscar Wilde flat, as it was when I stayed there.

It's hard to convey to another adult the mythical status of this building within the deeper layers of my childhood memory. The suite was rented on a timeshare by my grandparents each summer for the week of my parents' wedding anniversary. I went there every year starting at the dawn of my memory, and as far as I was concerned, the Oscar Wilde Suite belonged to us. I used to climb up onto the huge marble windowsills of the oriel windows and look down to the sea.

It was in the snug by the fireplace in this room one summer that we received the news of my grandfather's death. We left the Babbacombe Cliff immediately and forever; the timeshare wasn't renewed, and when we returned from living abroad at the turn of the century, I heard that the hotel had closed and been converted to flats. Deeply saddened, my memory of the place was folded away archaeologically and has appeared regularly in my dreams ever since. A couple of weeks ago I had my 28th birthday, and the time felt right to use the occasion to undertake the inevitable pilgrimage.

 

 

Babbacombe Cliff from below
View of the former Oscar Wilde Suite from outside, with "Crow's Nest" on the left.
1928 advert for the hotel
The first Babbacombe Cliff Hotel advert (Torbay Hotels Association, 1928).

 

There it is, looming from the woods just as it was, the unmistakeable "Crow's Nest" where I once slept still jutting out incongruously under the great chimney - "built specifically for people to look out and pretend they were at sea, gazing out from the masts of some ancient ship" (Moyle, 2011).

 

1970s Babbacombe Cliff monogram
My sister and I in the early 1990s, on the terrace at Babbacombe dressed in our parents' clothes.
1970s Babbacombe Cliff monogram
Babbacombe Cliff Hotel monogram (Torbay Hotels Association, 1977).

With a locked gate now blocking entrance to the building, I knew I somehow had to get inside. If not physically, then via that quasi-magical time portal, the library. By incredible good luck, when I went down to Torquay library the next day I caught John Tucker, the local studies librarian, just about to go for his lunchbreak. One of the most helpful librarians I've ever met -- or is it that all librarians become dazzling, wizardly fellow-travellers when you're in the grip of archive-lust? Anyway, we quickly uncovered the earliest advert for the former Babbacombe Cliff Hotel in the local guidebook from 1928. Each year an ad: the typography by turns elegant or outlandish as the 20th century progressed. By the 70s it had even aquired a somewhat unconvincing heraldic monogram (Torbay Hotels Association, 1928; 1977).

Babbacombe Cliff Advert 1977
Details of an advert for the hotel (Torbay Hotels Association, 1977).

Having revisited my own memories, and thus stitched them into place in my adult mind, I felt sated. But this childhood myth had to be replaced by a grown-up one: I had to follow the history of the place back further. Something in the Arts & Crafts fabric of the place invites mystery and wonder.

The building's claim to fame, as proclaimed since 2006 by a blue plaque outside, is of course that Oscar Wilde stayed there in the 1890s when Babbacombe Cliff was still a private manor house. It was here that he penned 'A Woman of No Importance', and having enticed his lover Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) to join him, conducted the affair for which he was later to be convicted (Handford, 2003). Here on these wooded cliffs is a little piece of queer history.

 

A sketch by WE Nesfield
A sketch by WE Nesfield from his 'Elements of Medieval Architecture', a treasury of his architectural influences.

More than anything though, the very fabric of the building lends itself to magic and intrigue. The building seems to have been designed by John Ruskin, and additional work was commissioned by then-owner Lord Mount Temple in 1878 from WE Nesfield, proponent of the retro Queen Anne revival style. Babbacombe Cliff's soaring chimneys will look familiar to anyone who has seen the lodge that Nesfield designed at Kew Gardens, or indeed any of the houses designed by his sometime partner Richard Norman Shaw. (Glen Andred, one of Shaw's houses, clearly contains all Babbacombe Cliff's essential ingredients.)

Glen Andred by Richard Norman Shaw
Glen Andred, designed by Richard Norman Shaw.

 

Nesfield was a consummate draughtsman, and his exquisite original drawings for Babbacombe Cliff still survive (see Nesfield, 1878). Several writers have hinted at "the delights and splendours of the temple of Pre-Raphaelite Art" which the building once was:

 

William Morris tiles
William Morris tiles. But which of his designs were used at Babbacombe?.

"Those who have not the stomach for fussy decor would regard it as a little overdone, for above the door of each bedroom was the name of a flower, which depicted the style of the wallpaper inside--William Morris paper, of course. Hence the daffodil room, marigold room etc. The drawing-room walls were festooned with masterpieces by Rossetti and Burne-Jones and were referred to as Wonderland" (Bentley, 1983:88).

Wilde's lover Bosie brought his Oxford tutor Campbell Dodgson to stay. (And yes, Dodgson was related to Lewis Carroll - fellow traveller through labyrinths and magic portals.) “I gasped, amazed,” Dodgson wrote. “This is a lovely house, full of surprises and curious rooms, with suggestions of Rossetti at every turn.” (ibid) A window believed to be hand-painted by Burne-Jones still survives, sadly now relegated to an 'original feature' in estate agents' copy for the current flats. While precious few images of the original decorative scheme seem to survive, we can get glimpses into the converted rooms as they look today when they come up for sale. Original windows and fireplaces alone hint at the wonderland that once was.

Babbacombe contemporary interior
A recent estate agents' photo of one of the rooms. The stone fireplace alone hints at the formerly lush decor.
Babbacombe contemporary exterior
Babbacombe Cliff gets the estate agents photoshop treatment in a recent property ad.

 

 

There is more, still, to the strangely dense history of this obscure building. Georgina Mount Temple, wife and later widow of the owner Lord Mount Temple, who took up permanent residence at Babbacombe when he died, is a noteworthy figure in her own right. She was a relative of Wilde's wife Constance: hence the regular visits, and much has been written on the friendship between the two women (see Moyle, 2011 & Bentley, 1983). An art collector and religious nonconformist, she studied the writings of Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, and attended seances during which she recieved communications from the spirit world. Georgina's friend John Ruskin seems regularly to have joined these seances. Georgina and her late husband were early members of several philanthropic causes including the Anti-Vivisection Society and the temperance movement. A commemorative statue of her on the headland nearby is still regularly festooned with flowers.

 

After my birthday visit, many questions still remain. Which paintings made up the famed Pre-Raphaelite collection once housed here? Which exactly of Morris' wallpapers and tiles were used? Were photographs taken before the hotel was stripped and converted to flats in 2000, and what remains of these fragments? It seems my pilgrimmage to Babbacombe was both a closure, and the beginning of a new aesthetic quest.

To be continued...

 

 

 

 

Do you have memories or material relating to Babbacombe Cliff? Get in touch!

 

Update, July 2017: Thanks to Justin Brogan, who lived in the hotel as a child in the 1970s, for getting in touch and sharing the following brochure images which he estimates date from the 1960s:
Babbacombe Cliff Brochure 1960s
Babbacombe Cliff Brochures 1960s pt 2
 
 

References & Further Reading

Anti Vivisection Crusade
One of Georgina Mount Temple's causes, the Anti-vivisection Crusade.
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