The Pack o' Cards Inn Combe Martin (Monument)

The Queerest Looking Hostelry in the World


By Combe Martin History and Heritage Project 2023-2024 

Modified on March 31, 2024


Combe Martin's 17th century Pack o’ Cards Inn is a rare Grade Two Star listed national monument, and a prominent historic local landmark on the High Street. It was an originally an ostentatious standalone townhouse, erected by a squire.

This local icon including courtyard walls and bee boles has been designated as a listed building, according to the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act of 1990 as amended. It is listed for its unique architectural features and historical significance (Historic England L.E.N. 1169072, 1953).

If there are similar buildings anywhere else, they are not well-documented or as well-known as the Pack o' Cards. It was constructed in 1690 by Combe Martin Squire George Ley (gentry, benefactor, schoolmaster and landowner).

Dive into our history of Combe Martin˃ | Local historic landmarks˃ 

Built of stone, rubble and cob: the house symbolises a full pack of playing cards. Combe Martin's Town Hall and courthouse stood in what is now the inn's car park. On this site during the 19th century: the Combe Martin petty sessions panel tried and ruled on minor criminal matters or summary offences. 

Celebrating Squire Ley's big win at cards: this extraordinary edifice represents his high social status in the reign of King William III (of Orange, r. 1689-1702) and Queen Mary II (d. 1694). 

Visit Heritage: William and Mary | A new age of monarchy

At the time, England was recovering from the English Civil Wars and in the throes of the Glorious Revolution. These were tumultuous times in British history.

The Pack o' Cards also spent its early years under the reign of Queen Anne (r. 1702-1714). Anne, the younger daughter of James II, is frequently overlooked by historians. Her reign had a profound impact on Britain, marking the conclusion of the Stuart dynasty, and paving the way for the Georgian period.

Also Known as The King's Arms

The manor house remained in the Ley family for over a hundred years, with subsequent elements including a south-facing sundial mounted on the wall above the car park. The gnomon on the sundial appears to be missing.

The squire's eldest son, also George, added to the building in 1752, with the inscription 'G1752L'. Until June 1933, The Pack o' Cards Inn was advertised as The King’s Arms Family and Commercial Hotel (colloquially the 'Pack of Cards').

An Internationally-Renowned Novelist

Popular Victorian and Edwardian author Marie Corelli's novel The Mighty Atom (1896) is set in Combe Martin, and Marie lived for some time at 'Waverly' near Combe Martin Seaside

Corelli stayed at the landmark King's Arms ('Pack of Cards') whilst writing The Mighty Atom; the authority for this is Exmoor National Park (27 April 2015): "Marie Corelli"

The inn's Corelli Room has or had a desk, at which Marie is said to have written her unusual story about the conflict between science and religion. 

Combe Martin's Ascentiontide Earl of Rone Festival

During Combe Martin's annual Earl of Rone festival every spring bank holiday:  the historic trad/folk street pageant has always made several halts on the way (supposed to be reminiscent of the Stations of the Cross in more pious ages).

The Pack o' Cards Inn continues to be one of those checkpoints, mainly for refreshments. At each stage the Earl is fired upon and falls wounded from his donkey. He is mourned by the fool, and heckled by the many spectators. 

Secrets of The Pack o' Cards Inn

Topographer Frederick J. Snell wrote that mining levels were driven under Combe Martin; "and beneath the King’s Arms (or Pack of Cards, as the old manor-house of the Leys is usually designated) runs a subterranean passage, constructed for drainage purposes [a Mine adit]" (The Blackmore Country ,1911).

The North Devon Mills Group (1994) states that "a recorded watermill once stood in the grounds of The Pack o' Cards Inn, High Street, Combe Martin. The leat for the mill once ran where the Old Police House now stands next door. There remains no trace of either" (p.118).

Learn more about Combe Martin’s Mills and Milling ˃

19th Century Fruitsellers and Strawberries

Industrious old Combmartin was famous for growing and exporting hundreds of tons of fine strawberries, other fruits, and vegetables, from the late 19th century into the 20th century. And fruitsellers congregated on the High Street at the old King's Arms. 

Read how Combe Martin segued from silver mining to strawberries.

The Pack o' Cards in Antique Histories

In 1895, the antiquarian John Lloyd Warden-Page wrote in The Coasts of Devon and Lundy Island that "fruit sellers mostly congregated about the King's Arms, an inn situated near the centre of the village. The queerest looking  hostelry in the world, it is commonly known as the Pack of Cards."

"Each storey is smaller than the one below, and the house certainly does look very much like one of those unsubstantial structures which we all delighted in raising when we were children"(Ibid).

The house boasts multiple entrances, a quaint front courtyard, outbuildings, and spacious gardens. The four-storey building consists of thirteen rooms and fifty-two windows and stairs, representing the number of cards in a full deck.

The total number of panes in all the inn’s windows equalled the value of a pack of cards, until the window tax (introduced in 1696 by William III) was imposed.

A distinctive feature is the polygonal sundial on the central gable of the third storey. The property also includes outhouses and a walled garden. The north-west garden wall incorporates two tiers of six straight-headed bee-boles, ornamental niches for beekeeping.

Bee boles, rows of recesses in walls, were used in Britain to shelter straw skeps from the elements before the invention of bee-hives in the 19th century.  Positioned to face the south, they would receive morning sunlight, keeping the stones warm and protecting the skeps from adverse weather.

In 1822, the inn was managed by landlady Jane Huxtable. The building, listed on the National Heritage List for England, is a Grade 2 Star structure, a category reserved for buildings of more than special interest, with only 5.8% of buildings listed in this category by Historic England.

The structure boasts four levels (four suits), thirteen chambers (number of cards in a suit), and 52 windows (cards in the pack]. It was constructed on a fifty-two square foot plot.

The Squire’s Library window above the main entrance features thirteen glass panes. Another noteworthy window is located to the right of the ground floor entrance facing the street. Each pane’s central circle was formed by the glass blower’s iron (Historic England, 2024).

Glass was a costly commodity in 1690, and after the primary glass was used, the centre pieces were either discarded or used for less significant windows. This could be due to several reasons such as the quality of the glass, the shape or size of the remaining pieces, or the cost-efficiency of reusing them.

The British glass industry expanded rapidly during the seventeenth century, making use of coal as its major fuel source and setting the industry far in advance of its European counterparts. The replication of 17th-century fine glass techniques would be fairly costly today (British History Online, Industries: Glass).

The balustrade at the top of the house was made of wrought iron. There is oak panelling, and an arched door to the Oak Room, which is believed to be much older.

Despite having thirteen rooms each with a fireplace, the building only has eight chimneys. This was Ley’s strategy to evade some of the Hearth Tax, which was introduced in 1662 (Hughes, E., 1991).

To determine the tax due, tax assessors would tally the number of chimneys visible from a building’s exterior. However, in 1696 (William III), Ley encountered a new challenge when the Window Tax supplanted the Hearth Tax. Individuals had found ways to evade these taxes.

The base tax was set at two shillings, with an extra shilling charged for each window. After fitting his property with 52 windows, Squire Ley promptly had a large number of them blocked off. These sealed windows were later referred to as permanent ‘Pitt’s Pictures’.

“Pitt’s pictures” was a term for ‘blind windows’ which were intentionally blocked from the inside. This was a common practice to evade the highly unpopular window tax. The first permanent British income tax was introduced in 1842.

Window Tax ceased in 1851, after objections from doctors and campaigners arguing that poor light caused ill health. Under Victoria, the Window Tax was repealed and superseded by a House Duty (National Archives, Window Tax).

The Pack o' Cards was said to house a ‘press gang table’, a hiding spot for sailors evading the press gangs. There was a time when Combe Martin and the Pack o’ Cards Inn were a haven for sailors between ships.

#Marie Corelli | #Hunting The Earl of Rone Photos 2023 | #Combe Martin's Industrial History | #Earl of Rone Video 1998

© Author December 2023 - March 2024


Combe Martin described in 1895 by John Lloyd Warden Page

All along the bottom [valley], watered by a brisk trout stream, are gardens galore, varied with orchards of apple, pear, plum, and cherry. In season, the wayfarer is beset by vendors of fruit, but let him not think that he will get it cheap, for nothing is cheap within six miles of Ilfracombe, the all-devouring.

Still, they do a good trade, especially with passengers by the coaches, for those who can afford to pay coach fares are not careful to resist the temptation of purchasing one or more of the dainty maunds [baskets in Old English] that are held up so enticingly. These fruit sellers mostly congregate about the King's Arms, an inn situated near the centre of the village, the queerest looking hostelry in the world. It is commonly known as the " Pack of Cards."

Each storey is smaller than the one below, and the house certainly does look very much like one of those unsubstantial structures which we all delighted in raising when we were children. Excerpt taken from Coasts of Devon and Lundy Island; their towns, villages, scenery, antiquities and legends, by John Lloyd Warden Page (1895). London. Horace Cox.


References accessed December 2023 - March 2024:

Berrynarbor News (2008): Movers & Shakers - No. 17, GEORGE LEY.

Church of England (2023): Stations of the Cross.

Combe Martin History and Heritage Project (2023-2024): Historic Mill and Water Power for Combe Martin.

Historic England (2024): Industrial Heritage - The Glass Industry. Education, Teacher's Kit.

Pack o' Cards Inn website:  

Page, John L. W. (1895): Coasts of Devon and Lundy Island Their Towns, Villages, Scenery, Antiquities and Legends .Horace Cox; First Edition (1 Jan. 1895)


The National Archives, Kew (2024): "Window tax".

Visit Exmoor:

Warden Page, John (1895): The coasts of Devon and Lundy Island; their towns, villages, scenery, antiquities and legends. London. Horace Cox.

Watermills in North Devon 1994 Group: Watermills in North Devon 1994. Kingsley Printing, Ilfracombe.