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Humble Exmoor cottage with proud history waiting to be told

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 12, 2013

By Martin Hesp, Twitter: @MartinHesp

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If walls had ears there's many a Westcountry building that would have a tale to tell – but none more so than the humble single-storey cottage in our pictures.

It played host to the offspring of the folk who turned up to transform Exmoor into a profitable prairie, and failed. It gave warmth to the children of miners who wanted to turn the hills into a British Klondike, and failed.

The walls may have given protection to local girl Anna Maria Burgess, and failed – she was murdered by her wicked father.

The walls of White Rock Cottage, which was once the tiny school serving Simonsbath in the heart of Exmoor, certainly did keep out the snow which lay deeper than the gutters in the winter of 1962/63 – but now they have fallen on hard times.

Recently the Exmoor National Park Authority (ENPA) purchased the building after previous owner West Somerset Council agreed to sell the site once it became clear plans to develop it for affordable housing were not financially viable.

The question is – what to do with the place? Whoever owns it has to keep the building's historic fabric and value – so its potential for future use is not altogether clear. Which is why the ENPA has launched a plea asking local people to come up with ideas.

Chief executive Dr Nigel Stone said: "The national park decided to buy the property primarily with the objective of safeguarding the historic interest of this important site which formed part of the Knight estate and the 19th-century reclamation of Exmoor Forest.

"We are already working with the parish council and local community and there will be an open day on Monday, November 18 when we look forward to welcoming anyone who would like to help shape our thinking on the best way to conserve and utilise White Rock Cottage and other heritage sites in Simonsbath.

"We intend that the project should be led and managed by a local group and would be pleased to hear from anyone who would like to play a part," said Dr Stone. "We would also like to hear from anyone who went to the school or has memories of the site."

A recent report on the old school revealed it was built in the early 1800s as a "picturesque" element – a cottage orné – set in a garden landscape developed by the Knight family who had moved to Exmoor to improve the barren moors.

Now that the building has been acquired, ENPA will be undertaking conservation work aimed at halting further deterioration.

The open day on November 18 will also feature the village's historic 19th-century water-powered sawmill.

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