The Watersmeet Hotel
by Sue Hill, Barricane Books
Find this lovely, gracious hotel at the far end of Woolacombe’s Esplanade, facing due south, with its grounds running down to Combesgate Beach. It occupies an unrivalled location, open to the south to Baggy Point and Hartland Point beyond, with some views westwards to Lundy on the horizon and glorious sunsets.
Strictly speaking the hotel is in Mortehoe, for it is on that side of the stream that flows down through the Combesgate Valley from Twitchen, emptying out onto the beach below. On the ‘Woolacombe’ side of the stream and adjoining Combesgate Green, is a small public garden area known as ‘Cowler’s Garden’ – including many large ‘gunnera’ – a plant resembling giant rhubarb. Charles Cowler, proprietor of Cowler’s Garage, was Head of the Home Guard during the Second World War; he was also the choirmaster of Woolacombe’s St. Sabinus’ Church for more than forty years.
From the western side of the hotel’s front lawn, a path and private steps lead down to Combesgate Beach. Old maps name the area between it and Grunta Beach as ‘Grunta Pool’. At one time there was a gate across the road at this ‘Watersmeet corner’, dividing the two villages. Also, the clifftop road was deemed to be unsafe and in 1925 a new road was built further away.
The story of the Watersmeet Hotel started shortly before the First World War with a very astute lady, Adelaide Chugg, nee Huxtable, who had married a gentleman farmer, John Chugg, from West Down. With the farm business failing, Mrs Chugg, having seen that wonderful south-facing spot at the bottom of Mortehoe hill, sold the farm and had the hotel built. Her grand-children remembered that they were tasked to carry hundreds of stones up from the beach to make a drive, and rocks for the garden.
The years between the First and Second World Wars were highly successful for the hotel, and members of Adelaide’s family visited for all the holidays – Easter, Summer and Christmas. Dockings, the chauffeur, would meet the train and drive them to the hotel in the family’s car. At Easter the children were sent up into the hills to fill baskets with primroses, which were put in large bowls on the big oak chests along the hotel’s hallway.
A small hotel brochure from the time included this verse:
Rest and comfort, peace and pleasure
Ozone borne on every wave,
All that heart and mind can wish for,
All that appetite can crave;
Wild and rugged rocky passes.
Hills that tire yet ever please;
Scenery beyond description –
Sands of gold, and silv’ry seas –
If you seek this combination,
Feel resigned through rain or shine?
Trust yourself to north-east sheltered
Rock- and sea-girt “WATERSMEET.”
Before WWII the kitchen had been renovated, and a huge Aga stove installed. A new wing was built on the east-facing side – this being the ballroom and additional bedrooms above. Then everything changed when WWII broke out, and when the Americans arrived in 1943, Mrs. Chugg quickly arranged for a girls’ independent school, Bartrum Gables from Broadstairs in Kent, to occupy the hotel. Members of her family moved a few yards away to two houses they also owned. They were all to see thousands of English and American troops take over nearly all the hotels and practice the invasion of France on the beaches and sea-craft. It was an amazing sight.
The Chugg family sold the hotel in 1948 and since then it has been extended to include, for instance, the Pavilion Restaurant and an indoor swimming pool. It is now a luxury 4* hotel.
However, the story of Adelaide Chugg carries on to this day with her great-grand-daughters and other members of her family continuing to visit Mortehoe and Woolacombe.
The stories of evacuees continue to fascinate me and I have accounts from pupils at other schools, all of which are part of the overall jigsaw of life in Woolacombe and Mortehoe in the years of the Second World War. Please email me at email@example.com if you would like to read more.
Some memories follow from one ex-Bartrum Gables pupil, written in 1993:
“I remember the summer when some of us stopped at school here for safety during the summer holiday. For eight weeks rules were kept to a minimum and we had a lovely time searching the rockpools, which in those days, were teeming with little shrimps which we fed to the many-coloured sea anenomes. I also learnt to surf with a wooden belly-board.
One week, my parents came to stay for a few days. I was so excited that I climbed out of a downstairs window to greet them and was caught by our Headmistress, Miss Crittall (we called her Critts). She was a very large lady and seemed enormous to me. I was scared of her. Her sister, Miss Olive, was a slimmer, gentler version who seemed to wear olive-green a lot. She taught us Divinity – a sort of R.E.
One of our teachers left to get married and to go and live on Lundy which we thought very romantic and adventurous. I remember the beauty of a storm out at sea, watching the sheet lightening from our dormitory window. Lots of rabbits used to play on the grass and I enjoyed watching them too. I remember, too, spray from the waves forming balls and blowing all over the road and into our faces when the weather was windy and wild.
Our War effort was collecting a special seaweed at low tide and putting it into sacks, as it was used for penicillin to grow on.
Our matron was a kind lady called Mrs. Clarke who used to kiss us goodnight and maybe made up a little for our parents who lived so far away.
Now, so many years later, it is good to see Woolacombe and Mortehoe so unspoilt and to have a happy holiday in “my old school”.
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