04 March 2017

Art Deco Hotel in Devon, cocktails, gorgeous beach

Bigbury-on-Sea was a small fishing village on the Devon coast. Only 250 ms offshore was a tidal island called Burgh, cut off from Bigbury by the tide twice every day. The skyline at the top of Burgh Island was dominated by the remains of the Huers hut, where fisherman kept a lookout for shoals of pilchards. The Huers hut was built on the site of a chapel dedicated to Saint Michael, as part of a small monastic community that originally inhabited the island.

The Pilchard Inn was initially a C14th hideout for pirates and criminals on the run. The most notorious one was an Elizabethan smuggler called Tom Crocker, who was ?shot outside the Pilchard Inn by a Revenue officer. The Inn, situated at the foot of the island, is still popular.

When the music hall star George Chirgwin built a fairly ordinary wooden house on Burgh Island in the 1890s, his guests were thrilled. Weekend parties must have seemed very private and romantic.

Burgh Island was sold in 1927 to filmmaker Archibald Nettlefold who built a substantial hotel in the increasingly popular Art Deco style. Golden beaches and glamorous living were clearly visible to everyone on the Devon coast.

Burgh Island Hotel
fully restored to its 1930s Deco glory.
Note the sea tractor transporting guests at high tide

What did Art Deco architecture look like? In the inter-war era (c1925 -1939), Art Deco architecture was an opulent style whose richness was a reaction to the forced austerity of The Great War. It may have been used for any type of building, but I tend to think of it being most apt for leisure and pleasure – hotels, cinemas, theatres, bars and cruise ships. Deco petrol stations, bus and train depots, although not glam­­orous, were loved for their association with modernity and mobility.

Art Deco architecture popularised a style that was elegant, funct­ional and modern, largely white, streamlined and geometrical. It often drew on modern technology like aviation, electric lighting, radio, ocean liners and sky scrapers for inspiration. The bold use of stepped forms and sweeping curves, chevron patterns and the sunburst motif were very popular; symmetry and repetition were every where. Ribbon windows were preferred but porthole windows could add a nautical element.

Externally, Art Deco used steel framed construction, reinforced concrete and plate glass. Internally, Art Deco was characterised by use of materials like aluminium, stainless steel and inlaid timber.

So it should not surprise anyone that in the inter-war period, Burgh Island had become one of the most popular hotels in the West Country. Improvements and additions to the hotel were made during the 1930s and no facility was more popular in summer than the outside dance floor  - for romance under the stars or the Palm Court deco bar.

And there was a literary connection – crime writer Agatha Christie loved Burgh, living in the Beach House which was first built as a writer’s retreat! Christie wrote two books while on the Is­land (And Then There Were None 1939 and the Hercule Poirot mystery Evil Under the Sun 1941). Appropriately both books were filmed for tv on Burgh Island and in the Burgh Hotel. During the annual Agatha Christie Festival, Burgh Island Hotel hosts an in-costume lunch; visitors can see the actual spots on the island that made their way into Dame Agatha's books.
Noel Coward lounge
Original 1930s furniture

Palm Court cocktail bar
with the stained glass dome

When the tide covers the sand bar, access is by the sea tractor, as seen in the photo. It is a cute method of transport, but impract­ic­able in rough weather. When the tide is out, walking is easy.

In WW2 Burgh Island’s location on the coast meant the hotel was used by the armed forces. And was damaged by a bomb. It was only restored to its 1930s glory in 1985 and then again in 2001.

Fortunately Burgh Island is now a Grade II listed building and a fine example of Art Deco hotel architecture. The ballroom has been restored to Gaumont glamour, with a recessed ceil­ing and stepped angular pelmets in bronze, grey and pink. App­roach the ballroom by a flight of wide steps, flanked by the original black Vitralite panels. In the Palm Court room they have installed a mosaic fountain with peacock-feather motifs, inspired by the original peacock-domed glass ceiling. The grand suites are sooo Deco in their original 1930s furniture and their refurbished decoration, you might expect the playwright Noel Coward to walk in at any moment.

The book Great White Palace by Tony Porter is subtitled “Agatha Christie and all that jazz - the magical story of Burgh Island and its hotel”. On holiday in the West Country in 1986, the Porters fell in love with Burgh Island, with its little remembered Art Deco hotel. They bought it and over a ten year period, they restored it to its former glory, a reminder of the delights of a bygone era. The book includes many of the original 1931 drawings by artist Charles Mayo.

Bigbury on Sea, and Burgh Island,
southern coast of Devon.


Andrew said...

I want to visit. I have seen the sea tractor.......ah yes, in one of Hercules Poirot tv shows. I really like Art Deco. I think it is the symmetry and geometry that appeals to me. It always looks balanced.

Joseph said...

If I was going back to the UK to live, it would definitely be to the West Country. RIGHT on the coast.

Hels said...


we rarely love the style we grew up with in our parents' home (a 1936 white Deco house). But I have come to love the white, streamlined, very geometrical shapes with very little added decoration and no fussiness. Deco was a confident, technologically modern era, wasn't it?

Hels said...


agreed. But location and ocean views are not cheap. Mirror (25th May 2015) tells us where THE most expensive seaside houses are in the UK:
1. Salcombe in Devon
2. Sandbanks in Dorset
3. Dartmouth in Devon etc.

George Chirgwin might have built a simple wooden house on Burgh Island, but what a location!!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Art Deco can provide some of the most elegant architecture and interiors, but the original form was based on quality materials and close attention to design. There was also an element of Egyptian influence. In the U.S., New York City provides lots of prime Deco, as does Miami. Art Deco generally looks best when done on a luxury scale. Today's stripped-down Deco look relies to heavily on cheap materials with a few cliched arches tossed in--nothing like the real thing, as in the Burgh Island Hotel.

Hels said...


I agree that Art Deco generally looks best when done on a luxury scale, as it was created in its 1925-45 heyday. And I still believe it looked most appropriate when used for a] leisure and pleasure – hotels, cinemas, theatres and cruise ships, or b] modernity and mobility - petrol stations and bus depots.

For a tourist like me, it was thrilling to see quality materials and design in the Miami hotels, even though the 1970s colours might not have been original.

Christine C said...

Architectural style is always related to its own time. But Art Deco seems timeless.

Hels said...


Tricky to explain, nod. Gothic architecture belonged to the middle and late medieval era. If we see neo-Gothic architecture now, we _know_ it is a historicist reference to the earlier era, not the original.

But the Burgh Island Hotel could be a) the original Deco, b) the original style renovated or c) a more recent, neo-Deco style. So what accounts for the sense of timelessness? Perhaps Deco hasn't been around long enough yet. Or perhaps its style was so geometric and pared back, every generation can make it its own.

CherryPie said...

The building looks fascinating, I had not heard of it before. It also looks a bit out of place nestled on its island.

The sea tractor looks a most alarming mode of transport!

Hels said...


me either. I know Bristol and Bath in a sort of scholarly fashion, but Devon and Cornwall are just a boozy blur :) But I asked the students to find any Art Deco architecture in the UK still looking beautiful, and several people came up with Burgh Island Hotel.

Don't worry about the sea tractor. Just wait for the tide to go out and walk leisurely across the sand bar.

Jemima Coxshaw said...

Burgh Island Hotel was a bolthole sought after by everyone from Noel Coward to Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Winston Churchill to the Beatles.

Jemima Coxshaw
Discover Britain Magazine
April 2017

National Trust said...

Christie and Max Mallowan visited Greenway in 1938, a River Dart Devon property for sale. They thought it was the ideal house, a dream house. Now National Trust-owned, tbeir Greenway holiday home was the place she would rest after writing her books, playing croquet and clock golf, and reading her latest novels to her guests. Agatha and Max were both keen collectors and the house was crammed with archaeological treasures. She called it the loveliest place in the world, as you can tell from Dead Man's Folly and Five Little Pigs.

Visit Greenway by bus, ferry or steam train.
National Trust