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An updated history of the hotel - 1934 to the present day

An updated history of the hotel - 1934 to the present day

Published: 06 December 2018


As 2017 draws to a close, we felt the time was right to update the history of the popular and historically important hotel...

Moorland Garden Hotel 1934 – 2017

The position of this Dartmoor hotel built just over eighty years ago, close to the main road from Yelverton to Plymouth with views over the Tamar valley to the south and Dartmoor to the north, was far-sighted.

In July 1934 five Plymouth business men and one woman formed ‘The Moorland Links Hotel Company Limited’ to build a modern luxury family hotel on the edge of Dartmoor. Three fields totalling 12 acres were purchased on Yeoland Down, known as Higher Down, Lower Down and Down, formerly belonging to Sowton Farm a short distance west of the turnpike road (A386). Architects Lionel Vanstone and Frederick Taylor of Plymouth were chosen and Williams of St Austell were the builders. The foundation stone was laid on 15 August 1934 by one of the owners, Alletha Cockerton, proprietor of the Westminster Hotel in Plymouth (destroyed in the blitz on 22 March 1941) and wife of Ernest Cockerton a bank manager.

She chose Captain Gilbert Hudson RASC as manager who with his wife Maud and two young children Bruce and Rosemarie, were involved in the setting up of the hotel. They lived in a flat in the hotel.

The northern field of three acres was to provide produce for the hotel. Fruit trees were planted, gardens dug for vegetables and large poultry and pigs’ houses set up. Two thousand chickens and three pigs were purchased, offering an attraction in the first brochure of ‘food from hotel farm and gardens’. On the west side of the hotel an attractive feature was a heated swimming pool with an engine room and two changing rooms holding 32 cubicles. Close by were two hard tennis courts, and riding stables were erected in the lower corner of the field close to Sowton Lane. A large private soak-away was dug in this lower corner for cess pits.

Ten months after the purchase of the land, Moorland Links Hotel was advertised and opened for business on 3 May 1935. The heated outdoor swimming pool with diving boards and water chutes was officially opened with a gala on 31 July 1935. Mr Ramsdale was in charge and in attendance. A popular cafe was incorporated in the buildings at the pool.

A licence to serve alcoholic drinks on the premises had been granted in January 1935, but a bar was not allowed. The name of the hotel was painted on a large section of a tree trunk and placed over the entrance gate.

A low hedge was planted each side of the driveway. Each of the twenty-six bedrooms had hot and cold running water and faced south. Room 26 was the bedroom of Rosemarie Hudson next to her parent’s flat. The manager bought antiques for the rooms and had the front entrance panelled in ply-wood. It was hoped that families of golfers at the nearby Yelverton Golf Club would spend their holidays at the hotel which had cost £15,000 to build. Opposite the front door through the covered archway, garages were constructed and two petrol pumps placed in the car park for the use of guests. (Over the years it was reported that escaped prisoners from Dartmoor prison had stolen cars and petrol from the hotel).

A large ballroom, with a sprung maple strip dance floor, capable of holding three hundred people was, and still is, a special highlight. From its opening the luxury hotel attracted hundreds of guests to tea-dances, evening dances with buffets and evening-dress balls. It had its own dance band, ‘Frank Fuge and his Moorland Links Orchestra’. Henry Hall, the dance band leader featured regularly by the BBC, stayed at the hotel with his wife and children and was known to join in with the hotel orchestra. Henry Hall signed the visitors’ book in 1938 and added the musical notation of his signature tune, “Here’s to the next time”. He was a frequent visitor. Those who attended the elegant balls recollect that romance was always in the air on these splendid occasions. Advertisements were published in The Times newspapers from 1936 under the season’s lists of Hunt and Country balls in the UK.

Many celebrities enjoyed the hospitality they found at the ‘Moorland Links’ which was mainly due to the welcome and care given to them by Maud Hudson. Her husband was called-up to serve his country in 1939 and for the next twelve years she ran the hotel with a large staff many of whom lived at the hotel. Alletha Cockerton, whose husband died in 1944, continued to own the hotel until it was sold in 1951, but Bertie Hudson left his family and as manager after the war to live with her at Casey Town in Whitchurch.

Famous people recognised the place as somewhere they could find peace and quiet in the 1940s. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, US army field commander Omar Bradley and other senior defence personnel had meetings there in the manager’s flat. Among the signatures in the visitors’ book is that of retired General Sir Robert Kerr Montgomery. Was the destiny of the war planned here? Politicians and stars of entertainment slept in the hotel and enjoyed the food and comfort provided, such as David Niven, Rex Harrison and his wife Lilli Palmer, Cyril Fletcher, Elsie and Doris Waters, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, Basil Dean and Ray Milland and many others.

During the war years an air-raid shelter was built in the grounds close to the tradesmen’s entrance on Yeoland Down. Although stick bombs landed by the swimming pool the shelter was never used, other than by a family dog belonging to Maud Hudson, who ran there for cover on hearing a German plane flying overhead. Pilots of many nationalities, based at RAF Harrowbeer in Yelverton, used the hotel for many activities. From log books during the war, events 70 years ago are documented. The hotel was a favourite haunt for officers and the swimming pool was a vital part of the training for the search and rescue pilots. 

An entry from a log-book in 1943 reads: ‘The excellent weather has helped a great deal with outside activities although it has been much regretted that owing to a minor blitz disaster the swimming pool normally used by the Station at The Moorland Links Hotel has been damaged and is for present unusable. Various other alternatives are being suggested and will be tried out.’  

The River Tavy at Denham Bridge was used but the powerful currents of the river made the training hazardous causing a pilot to drown. The authorities had insisted that the swimming pool at the hotel was emptied for a year during the war as the water reflected light at night. Owing to the engine being switched off at this time, hens’ eggs could not be incubated in the warm boiler room at the pool.

Another entry reads: (August 1944) The swimming pool at the hotel was put into commission again. As this coincided with a burst of fire and hot weather, extensive use was made of the pool by Station personnel and several periods of Dinghy-Drill were put in by air-crew.’

Dinghy Drill was a procedure when aircrews were blindfolded to give the impression of night time conditions, then thrown into the water. Each man had a whistle which he could blow allowing them to come together as a group. An inflated dinghy was dropped upside down in the water and the aircrew had to locate it, right it then climb on board. It is reported that when officers were on stand down they enjoyed lunch and a few ales at the hotel and the large garage there was an unofficial officers’ mess. It was a time when these young men could relax away from the airfield. The official officers’ mess was at Ravenscroft, a former boys’ boarding school, on the edge of the aerodrome.

Dinner dances continued to be held after the war, the large garage sometimes converted to a dining room to accommodate the large number of guests. Frank Fuge and his orchestra were a great attraction. The Visitors’ Book dating from 1935 to 1948 holds signatures from guests all over the world. A few of the numerous remarks are, “One of the happiest holidays”, ”Would like to spend 20 days here out of every 21”, “Britain’s best hotel”, “Having found it never let it go”, “We lived at the Links”, “”I’m able to fight once more after a very happy time here”, “The Moorland Links, of thought a chain, to draw me to this place again”.

There was great excitement for young Rosemarie Hudson when the Spooner’s Harriers Hunt met in the grounds of the hotel in 1947. Several horses and riders and a pack of foxhounds met at the start of the hunting scenes in the film ‘Escape’ a version of John Galsworthy’s play. It was produced by Twentieth Century-Fox and Freddie Fox stayed at the hotel. It was the first film made after the war. Scenes of thrills and romance were shot on locations on Dartmoor including the Meavy valley, Sheepstor church and Princetown.

The exterior of ‘Sowton’, the house close to the hotel, is shown as home of the heroine. ‘Escape’ was first shown at the Gaumont Cinema in Plymouth on 5 May 1948 before release, to the many local people involved in the film. Rex Harrison was the star of the film supported by Peggy Cummins and famous stars of the time.

On 31 January 1951 the hotel company sold the hotel to Bennah Limited a family firm owned by Stephen Simpson of Spitchwick Manor. Advertised as the hotel which has everything, the swimming pool was open to the public and much enjoyed by local children. Mrs Hudson moved to manage a hotel in Cornwall. Bennah sold the hotel to a group of Devon business men in the late 1950s who added the gunroom bar in 1965, selling it to Simon and Janine Wertheimer in 1967.

The owner, director of Trans-Atlantic shipping, lived in Fleet, Hants. but updated the hotel over his fifteen years of ownership and appointed Michael Jenkin in 1970 to be general manager. He wished to live in Plymouth so the manager’s flat was converted to a conference centre. The land once used for gardens was sold in 1972 where four private bungalows were built. Plymouth businesses and companies booked rooms and held conferences here on a regular basis.

The small sitting rooms, from Reception to ballroom, were replaced with a large airy dining room and lounge bar. The thriving hotel was advertised for sale in 1982 as ‘one of the most distinguished and progressive hotels in the Plymouth area’. It was sold to Forestdale Hotels, a privately-owned group of nine 3-star hotels in the UK, at a cost of £425,000. The hotel was developed and modernised during the company’s ownership of almost thirty years and a new fourteen-bedroom wing was added in 1994, officially opened by Lord Morley. The swimming pool was filled in during 1989 and the tennis courts became overgrown. The hotel was known for its superb food and care of every customer and strong links were made with Plymouth businesses.

Sold to another hotel chain, Akkeron, in January 2011 it was bought privately five months later by Brian and Sonia Meaden. The 44 room 3-star hotel was once again lavishly updated with the owners’ personal touches adding special details to every room. Designer Nadine Judd of Scott-Masson Interior in Stonehouse had a key-role in the refurbishment.

The Meadens made a significant, if controversial, alteration by changing the name to The Moorland Garden Hotel. There is no association with golf links and the new owners wished the gardens to be a distinctive feature. Four luxurious suites, named after garden flowers and colour coordinated, and forty further bedrooms mostly over-looking the gardens are the investment of the hotel’s present owners. Conference rooms, meeting facilities, the Crystal ballroom, Wildflower restaurant and the Dartmoor Bar have all been modernised.

Diners are served with locally sourced food including meat from nearby Dartmoor farmers. Weddings and parties are most elegantly catered for with lavish personal consideration. Brian and Sonia Meaden are eager to promote connections with the local community. For eighty years this Dartmoor hotel has been ‘the place to be’ and special occasions are fondly remembered. The Moorland Garden is a delightful place in an enviable setting. The hotel is now re-categorised as an AA 4 star establishment.

Appointed in 2017, Head Chef Jake Westlake continues to serve good, honest locally-sourced food, in what is now our AA Rosette Wildflower Restaurant, having attainted the coveted rosette mark in 2017.

A popular venue for weddings and functions, the Moorland Garden Hotel continues to deliver an excellent personal service to such happy occasions.

Acknowledgements:

Caroline Balmer, Elizabeth Blott, Philip Brown, Jo DiCarlo, Josie Foster, Rosemarie Hamilton-Meikle, Michael Hayes, Michael Jenkin, Andrew Jenkins (general manager), Brian and Sonia Meaden (owners), Patrick Simpson, June Smalley and Dave Tucker.   

My husband Peter for his invaluable support, archives and photographs.                                               

Pauline Hamilton-Leggett

With updates by Andrea Johnson (marketing manager) 2017.