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Peter de Savary bought Bovey Castle in January 2003 and embarked on a rapid-fire renovation program.
Peter de Savary bought Bovey Castle in January 2003 and embarked on a rapid-fire renovation program. (Courtesy of Bovey Castle)

New owners bring much-needed changes to Bovey Castle resort in Devon, England

By James Y. Bartlett,

DEVON, England -- Bovey Castle took its first bow in 1939 when some exterior shots, bathed in eerie dry-ice mists, made it into the final cut of the movie version of Hounds of the Baskervilles.

By that time the formidable mansion, originally built in 1906 by Viscount Hambledon, son of the newsagent WH Smith, had been transformed from private Devonshire country home to a railway hotel and golf course.

Guests arriving at nearby Moretonhampstead station would be greeted by horse and buggy for the short commute to the hotel. These days, guests greeted at Exeter St Davids station (or at the nearby regional airport) will ride in Range Rover comfort back to the hotel.

Both hotel and its 1926 golf course, laid out by JF Abercrombie in a verdant Dartmoor valley bisected by the rivers Bovey and Bowden, had passed their prime when the flamboyant Peter de Savary -- whose past triumphs included the St. James Clubs and Scotland's Skibo Castle -- happened to drop by for a look at the end of 2002.

In his usual impetuous manner, de Savary bought the place in January 2003 and embarked on a rapid-fire renovation program.

The hotel reopened for business at Easter this year and the golf course in June. All of the 65 rooms and suites have been redecorated in Art Deco-ish d'cor that might have been seen during the hotel's heyday in the 1920s.

The public rooms were also rescued from decades of neglect: a dropped ceiling had bisected the dramatic Cathedral Room's towering fireplace and the wood panelling was white with dryness. De Savary imported legions of European craftsmen to restore the place's patina and filled the ground floor with overstuffed chairs, reading nooks and the calming atmosphere of a country house.

Of course, de Savary never does things by half measure. He is also building some 21 three-bedroom 'cottages' near the hotel which will be offered to investor members for use either as private getaway homes or to be put into a rental effort.

In addition, an entire new wing is being added to the south of the mansion which will contain a modern health spa, fine-dining restaurant, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, the golf shop and deluxe facilities for those who sign on as members of the new Bovey Castle club.

Golf at Bovey Castle

When he bought the place, De Savary brought in his favorite golf course architect, Donald Steel, to give the old Manor House Golf Club an updating. The course got a much-needed irrigation system, but Steel and his Scottish right-hand man Tom McKenzie also started carving away hilltops and adding length to many holes.

Richard Lewis, the hotel's long-time golf professional, is ecstatic over the changes. He's worked for six different owners over the last 20-odd years, and says de Savary is the first to follow through on promised improvements.

The golf course facelift will make it more relevant for the modern game, Lewis says.

On the card, the new Bovey course does not look threatening: it's just 6,252 yards, par 70 from the tips. But this is a course that demands accuracy and shotmaking far more than brute power.

Those little burns are constantly in play over the first eight holes. If one can manage to avoid the little tug or minor push that will send a tee ball careering into the drink, it seems that every green is also bordered by a burn. After a while, it gets in one's head.

By that time, one has graduated to the back nine, which traverses some of Devon's dramatic hills and dales. While water hazards are taken out of the equation, now there are bad bounces to worry about - although much of the earth-moving has helped eliminate some of the more unfair slopes.

Greens on the back are also tucked in behind new bunkers -- some of them sod-faced -- and approach shots must be threaded through protective stands of trees.

When all is said and done, Bovey Castle may be the toughest 6,200 yards to be found anywhere.

Other activities at Bovey Castle

Guests at Bovey Castle can also enjoy fly fishing -- both on the resort's own trout-stocked lakes and on the nearby rivers - tennis, horseback riding, archery, skeet, hunting (in season), off-road driving, the full-service spa and exercise facility or just hiking a peaceful riverside trail to the quaint village of North Bovey for a pint at the local Ring of Bells pub.

The resort has an excellent children's game room and organised programs, and there's a theatre showing movies every night. The adults will enjoy the private cigar room down in the basement, next to a wine-tasting room where new vintages are often decanted and sampled.
Of course, the desolate reaches of the Dartmoor National Park are near at hand for hillwalkers and bird lovers. Golfers, on the other hand, can easily visit some of the other renowned courses in the area, such as St. Mellion, or even Royal North Devon or Saunton links.

Guests will not want to be far away in the afternoons, however, when a full Devon cream tea is laid out in front of the fire in the Cathedral Room. That holds most over until dinner in the Palm Room, with its silk Chinoise hand-painted murals, beveled mirrors and potted palms, where chef David Berry produces cuisine of a high order.

De Savary has also purchased the White Hart Inn in the town of Moretonhampstead - he needed the guest rooms for staff accommodations - and guests will find excellent dining there as well.

Bovey Castle: The verdict

Whether for a golf weekend with the boys or a family vacation, Bovey Castle has been transformed into a memorable destination in the heart of Devon.

And while the physical surroundings -- whether bathed in movieland's dry ice or the occasional ray of sun -- are indeed dramatic, it is the friendly and well-drilled service that will impress.

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