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History of Heddon Valley

Hunter's Inn on a misty morning at Heddon Valley, Devon
Hunter's Inn on a misty morning at Heddon Valley | © National Trust Images/Mark Johnson

Find out more about the history of The Hunters Inn and Woody Bay in the Heddon Valley. Discover tales of fraud and fire and how the estate became increasingly popular with Victorian tourists and a man’s vision to develop the estate.

The Hunters Inn history

A historic country inn

Lying at the heart of the Heddon Valley, the popular Hunters Inn has been serving visitors since 1823. The inn started life as a thatched cottage as part of the estate of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton. The Berry family tenants supplied pints of ale to local shooting parties from Combe Martin. By the 1860s, trade was good enough that they enlarged the building and added rooms for the increasing number of tourists that were visiting the area.

A fire takes hold

Tragedy struck later in 1895, when the inn caught fire and burnt to the ground. According to local legend, only a barrel of beer was saved from the fire. Sir Nicholas Throckmorton sold the inn to Colonel Benjamin Greene Lake, a London solicitor and entrepreneur. Lake set about rebuilding The Hunters Inn in an Arts and Crafts half-timbered style. This design of architecture was very fashionable and became known locally as ‘Little Switzerland’ for its landscape so reminiscent of the Swiss Alps.

Financial difficulties

The new inn was completed in 1906, and continued to attract an increasing number of day trippers. Immediately on buying the estate, Lake mortgaged it for £25,000 to settle existing debts. Further financial difficulties plagued his development plans and he was forced into bankruptcy with debts of over £170,000. This figure is equivalent to six million today. In 1901, he was sentenced to 12 years ‘penal servitude’ for using his client’s savings fraudulently.

In May 2018, the National Trust acquired The Hunters Inn. It is now run by Bespoke Hotels in a way that supports conservation of the Heddon Valley.

View looking down at the coastline and beach at Woody Bay, North Devon
View of the coastline and beach at Woody Bay, North Devon | © National Trust Images/David Noton

Expanding Woody Bay

A holiday resort

Lake was an ambitious man with a vision inspired by his era. Lake built at least eight properties in the area including two hotels in nearby Woody Bay to use as an exclusive holiday resort. From 1893–96 he built roads from Hunter’s Inn to Woody Bay and a further coach road was built running between the bay and Hunter’s Inn.

Paddle steamer pier

Commercial paddle steamers were a common sight along the coast and it had become fashionable to ‘take the air’ at coastal resorts. Lake decided to build a pier at Woody Bay beach for paddle steamers to stop, making access to his estate easier. The pier was eventually completed and officially opened on 15 April 1897. Bad planning meant that poor weather and low tides prevented the first ships from docking. The pier was later found to be too short to cater for landings at low tide.

Railway plans

Lake agreed to allow the directors of the Lynton to Barnstaple railway to locate a station at Martinhoe Cross on his land free of charge. In exchange he would be allowed to site a junction at the now renamed Woody Bay Station for his branch line to access the bay. He also had plans for a cliff railway down to the bay based on the design of the Lynton to Lynmouth railway that runs up the cliffs between the two towns. Woody Bay station was finished and opened on 11 May 1898.

Golf course and bathing pool

Colonel Lake continued pouring money into the area in an effort to see his dream become a reality. This included a small golf course, opened in 1894 and a bathing pool on the beach at Woody Bay. His standing in the local community grew and he became chairman of the Law Society and a Devon Justice of the Peace. It soon became known that the money Lake was using was not all his own and he was jailed for fraud.

The estate is auctioned

Due to a prison sentence Lake was not able to continue with improvements to the estate. The property and pots of land were auctioned in 1900 and purchased by Squire Charles Frederick Bailey who bought the first nine lots for £6,500. In 1965 the estate was sold to the National Trust. Today thousands of visitors every year visit the legacy that Benjamin Lake left behind when they walk the carriageway, visit the beach at Woody Bay or take lunch at The Hunters Inn.

A visitor walks along a coastline path with the sun peaking out behind the cliffs in the background at Heddon Valley, Devon

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