The Pack o' Cards Inn Combe Martin (Monument)
The Queerest Looking Hostelry in the World
Modified on January 6, 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 originally an ostentatious townhouse or manor, built for a Squire.
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 (gent, benefactor, school-master and landowner).
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 dates to the reign of King William III (of Orange, r. 1689-1702) and Queen Mary II (d. 1694).
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 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 (1906) 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).
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).
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.
At that time, glass was a costly commodity, and after the primary glass was used, the centre pieces were either discarded or used for less significant windows. Nowadays, achieving the same effect would be expensive.
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.
Tax assessors would count the number of chimneys from the outside of buildings to calculate the tax owed. However, Ley faced another issue in 1696 when the Window Tax was implemented to replace the Hearth Tax that people had managed to avoid.
The basic tax was two shillings, with an additional shilling for each window. After installing 52 windows, Squire Ley quickly had many of them sealed, and they became known as permanent ‘Pitt’s Pictures’. The Window Tax was abolished in 1851 and replaced by a House Duty.
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.
© Author December 2023
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 The coasts of Devon and Lundy Island; their towns, villages, scenery, antiquities and legends, by John Lloyd Warden Page (1858-1916). London. Horace Cox.
References accessed December 2023:
Berrynarbor News (2008): Movers & Shakers - No. 17, GEORGE LEY.
Church of England (2023: Stations of the Cross.
Pack o' Cards Inn website: https://www.packocards.co.uk/.
Visit Exmoor: https://www.visit-exmoor.co.uk/our-towns/combe-martin.
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.