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What’s So Royal About the Royal Beacon?

The Royal Beacon Hotel – How Come


Since the millennium, the Royal Beacon Hotel, Exmouth has become one of the best-appointed and popular venues for small to medium chess events. It also has an interesting background: so, what’s so “Royal” about the Royal Beacon? 

First of all, the Beacon. The hotel is situated on the highest point of the old cliff-top nearest the town centre, the site of the original beacon, which probably dated back to Elizabethan times. At that time, with the constant fear of invasion by Spanish Catholic forces, the whole of the English south coast was linked by a series of beacons on every prominence, each visible to those adjacent when lit. In this way, news of an approaching Armada could travel from Land’s End to London in a matter of hours – the nearest thing the Tudors had to e-mail. The cliff-top would have been kept well clear of the kind of scrubby bushes and trees that so annoyingly obscure the sea view today, so the beacon-keepers at Exmouth were in visible contact with Berry Head, near Brixham, and as soon as that was seen to be alight, Exmouth would spring into action, relaying the danger message eastward along the coast.  The original beacon has long since gone, of course, but a modern structure, symbolic of the original, still stands outside the Hotel’s front door. (see left)

The hotel’s origins can be traced to the French Revolution of 1789, which, after the guillotining and general Terror died down, was hijacked by the Corsican corporal, Napoleon Bonaparte, who for the next 20 years stomped up and down Western Europe with his armies, from Madrid to Moscow, fomenting further revolutions and was viewed at the time as being at best a bit of a pest, and at worst a dangerous megalomaniac. 

These troubles made it too dangerous for the British aristocracy to take their traditional Grand Tour, during which they would tour the Continent in general and Italy in particular, drinking in the culture of warmer climes. Now they had to make the best of things and make do with the English seaside – a novel idea at the time. This saw small towns like Sidmouth and Exmouth rise from fishing villages to become fashionable resorts for the moderately wealthy. Young Victoria herself had a place in Sidmouth, while Exmouth’s Beacon area became filled with fine Regency houses and hotels. Lady Nelson and Lady Byron lived there, and in 1810, with the Battle of Waterloo still 5 years away, the hotel was built, and named the Marine Hotel. 

And what of the royal connection, and how “royal” is it?  This is another fascinating story, woven into the mainstream of European history. At the recent 15th Seniors’ Chess Congress held there in November 2015, one of the players, Roger Scowen, ever the scholar, put me on to the story of how it all came about. 

Germany in the early 19th century consisted of a patchwork of small kingdoms, dukedoms, electorates, states etc. each with its own hierarchy of aristocrats. The Kingdom of Saxony (1806 – 1918), as it emerged from the post-Napoleonic upheavals, was centred around Dresden and Leipzig in the east of modern day Germany. 

In June 1836 Frederick Augustus II became King of Saxony. He was intelligent, liberal, popular with his people, and keen to learn about the natural world. To this end, in 1844 he organised an informal tour of the UK accompanied only by his personal physician, Carl Gustav Carus. After paying his respects to Victoria and Albert at Windsor he set off with Carus along the south coast, noting among other things, interesting flora and fauna, human activities, geological formations etc. 

Carus himself was a true polymath, being a doctor both of medicine and philosophy, scientist, artist, naturalist, psychologist and goodness knows what else besides. En route, he made regular notes about anything that interested either man, which were later written up into a book entitled The King of Saxony’s Journey Through England and Scotland. 

After purchasing a large ichthyosaur skeleton from Mary Anning herself in Lyme Regis, the pair proceeded westward. This is the relevant extract from pp 200 & 202 of the journal. 

Exmouth: July 1st  Evening. 

……. ‘At the top, the road passes through a deep cutting, and, after a short drive, we arrived at this place, which takes its name from its situation at the place where the river Ex empties itself into the channel. Exmouth is also very much visited by those who wish to enjoy the benefits of sea air and bathing. In my “Road Book of England”, Exmouth is said to be “the oldest and best frequented watering place in Devon;” and the height on which our small hotel (The Marine Hotel) is situated, it can clearly be perceived that the wide bay, with its numerous and boldly projecting promontories, must be a place in which ships can lie in perfect safety, sheltered from every storm. We went down to the shore and found it covered with the finest sand, in which here and there were specimens of the violet convolvulus (Convolvulus Soldanella), and the blue flowering Eryngium maritimum, and multitudes of shells of various colours. The evening had become gloomy, but calm and warm; merchant vessels at anchor were scattered about in the bay; small fishing-boats were cleaving the glassy waters, enclosed by the beautiful projecting headlands; whilst two ships, with their full-set sails flapping loose and scarcely able to catch a breath of wind, were being towed out to sea by a fishing-boat. The whole scene was charming; and when we remembered the noon-tide heat, the cool air proved doubly delightful and refreshing. 

Next morning: 

Exmouth bay penetrates deeply into the land, so that it would have added greatly to the distance to have travelled round; the carriages were, therefore, early in the morning put on board boats and thus conveyed across the water to a sandy promontory on the opposite side (Dawlish Warren) from which they were drawn by horses, sent for the purpose, to the high road on the further side. We, ourselves, passed the bay in a small row-boat, enjoying the delightful morning air and glorious sunlight reflected in all directions from the clear waves”………. 

And that’s it. One evening in Exmouth is all it took to establish that royal connection. Actually, the pair were travelling incognito, as they didn’t want a lot of fuss and fanfare to impede their progress, and the hotel staff may not have known at the time exactly who these bed & breakfast guests were, but word must have got out at some point. When it got back to the Proprietor, he wasn’t slow to spot an opportunity, and changed the name from the Marine to the Royal Beacon Hotel, and that’s how it’s been for the past 170 years. 

What happened to our pair of Saxons? Exactly 10 years after his Exmouth escapade, he was making a trip through the Tyrol and fell beneath the hooves of a horse that stepped on his head, and being childless was succeeded to the throne by his younger brother, Johann. 

Carus died in 1869 aged 80, and his work influenced, among others, Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories and Carl Jung’s theories on the role of the unconscious in the psyche. In 2015, his grave in Dresden is currently due for removal due to non-payment of fees.

Roger Scowan with a problem

Carl Gustav Carus - Polymath.

King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony

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