A Right Swanky Pad

What to do on a warm summer afternoon? Try a visit to Polesden Lacey House near Dorking in Surrey. This impressive mansion looks like a Georgian Palladian house, but was in fact built in the Edwardian period of the early 20th century, remodelling an older, smaller property that stood on the site. This was to be the country home of wealthy socialites, Ronald (Ronnie) and Margaret Greville, but tragically Ronnie died in 1908, so Margaret lived there alone. The couple filled the house with a vast collection of paintings, porcelain, silver and furniture and Margaret took great delight in holding lavish parties at the house to which the crowned heads of Europe and anyone who was ‘anyone’ was delighted to receive an invitation.

Polesden Lacey House

Margaret herself was from humble origins, being the illegitimate daughter of William Younger the Scottish brewery magnate. When she was 21 years old, William Younger acknowledged her as his daughter and sole heir, which secured her future financially. All she needed now was a husband of suitable standing to allow her access to London Society, and this she found in Captain Ronald Greville of the 1st Life Guards. They married in 1891 and sadly had no children.

After her husband’s untimely death, Mrs Greville threw herself into the social whirl of the age, becoming great friends with the future King George 6th and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), whom she invited to spend part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey. After her death she left her jewels to Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother) who said of her “so shrewd, so kind and so amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty; altogether a real person, a character, utterly Mrs Ronald Greville”. (Bradford, S, 1989; King George VI, p11). Mrs G. (as she is often referred to) was a real ‘marmite’ person – love her or loathe her. It seems that the society photographer Cecil Beaton was a loather and is reported to have described her as  “a galumphing, greedy, snobbish old toad who watered at her chops at the sight of royalty … and did nothing for anybody except the rich” (Buckle, R (Ed), 1979, Self Portrait with Friends, selected diaries of Cecil Beaton, p.215-16).

Whatever the truth about her may have been, her home was definitely built to impress, she and Ronnie could be described as the Posh and Becks of their day, their home, while having ‘all mod cons’ being very ostentatious to the point of being vulgar.

Gold Room

Today part of the ground floor of the house is open to the public, dressed out as if a weekend party is about to take place. Entry through the front door reveals a symmetrical pair of curved bays, one with windows one without, with the window areas being obscured by trimmed hedges. This second bay housed the kitchens and did not have windows looking out to the front of the house, as Mrs G did not wish for her servants to be able to ‘gawp’ at her important guests arriving. Having the kitchen at the front of the house was very modern indeed as it was close to the dining room which meant that food at the Greville’s parties would always be served hot! (In most other large house the kitchens were in basements or in a separate annexe because of the danger of fire, it also meant that food was invariably cold by the time it reached the dinner table). A guided tour reveals some interesting snippets of information about the Grevilles and life at Polesden, but a free flow visit is also interesting. The upstairs of the house is laid out mainly to offices and is currently not open to the public. A warning to visitors, the lighting at Polesden is particularly low due to fragile nature of some of the furnishings and other display items.

Library

Polesden Lacey has a fantastic Rose garden as Mrs Greville was very fond of roses. The NT have commissioned Peter Beale Roses to create a Mrs Greville rose, and this can be purchased from the garden shop on site. In August however, the rose garden is past its best, which is during June and early July when the property hold an annual Rose Festival. There is a small formal walled garden with flowers for cutting for display in the house, with a long herbaceous border along the outside wall. Behind this is a small kitchen garden, tiny orchard and a new area for chickens, a bug hotel and a wormery, all in tune with the conservation ethos of the National Trust. To the front and side of the property are magnificent lawns where visitors can sit and admire the view across the Surrey Hills, or children can run about in safety.

Long Border
Sun Dial in Walled Garden wall
Peace Rose

20th Century Gothic

It’s been several years since I last visited Nymans Gardens, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I visited recently.  The weather wasn’t great, which was a shame for the middle of August, but although overcast, the rain did manage to hold off while I was there. 

The basic layout of the gardens hasn’t changed, but what had changed was the amount of activities there were available for children.  Nymans has lots of lovely wide open space which is ideal for children to run about in, and it was heartening to see that the team at Nymans has recognised that fact and come up with various garden activities including activity trails and games such as giant Jenga, skittles and croquet.  All this child friendly activity doesn’t detract from the formal garden areas where the interest is more adult orientated.  The Rose Garden had almost finished, with just a few blooms left, while the long border was looking suitably spectacular full of late summer flowers such as phlox, rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan), dahlias and sunflowers.

Wild meadow planting at Nymans Gardens

What had changed since my last visit was the house itself.  A charming country house dating back to the Regency period, the house was remodelled first by Ludvig Messel to reflect his Germanic roots, and later by his son and daughter-in-law Leonard and Maud.  Sadly, on the night of Leonard’s 75th birthday a fire broke out destroying much of the house, with only a small part being saved.  About half of the original property still stands a ruins giving the property a romantic, gothic feel . With only 4 or 5 rooms available to visitors, there was still plenty to see and helpful room guides were pleased to chat about the past occupants and to show interested visitors a selection of albums showing the house as it was before the fire which destroyed most of it and Messel family. The upstairs has now been turned in to a gallery space showing the work of a Polish artist, Mariusz Kaldowski  depicting views around the garden and estate.

The main room have been dressed out as the house would have been in the early-mid 20th century when the Messel family were in occupation.  One of the ‘funest’ things is the stage curtain surround that has been placed around the television set.  The Messel family were very keen on theatre. 

TV ‘Theatre’ (with another scary lady portrait above)

There are several portraits of quite scary looking females which sort of reminded me of Rebecca in the eponymous Daphne Du Maurier.  

One of several ‘scary’ looking female portraits wearing period costume

I was impressed with the small collection of blue and white china displayed in a side room, and had to laugh when, as I was leaving, a man entering remarked that I looked like I had escaped from the room – I was wearing a blue and white striped dress! 

Blue and White china display

Currently the property is trying to raise money to create a special garden in the ruins of the house left behind after the fire.  Some work has been carried out to make them safer, but general public access is not permitted.  The picture here shows the charred remains of the library of rare and specialist botanical books collected by Leonard Messel.  A fitting place to site a brand new garden.

Burned library at Nymans

I enjoyed my visit to Nymans, the property has undergone some changes which make a real difference to the visitor “experience” and the staff and volunteers I came across were all very friendly and knowledgeable. It’s a lovely place and I would thoroughly recommend it.

From humble origins

Having a ‘spare’ afternoon is always a luxury but sometimes it seems a shame to waste it doing nothing, so with this in mind I went to visit the National Trust property, Oakhurst Cottage in the village of Hambledon in Surrey.

Originally built in the 16th century most likely as a workman’s cottage, this tiny home saw some remodelling during the 19th century and since then time has largely stood still.  We met our guide (visits are by pre-booked guided tour only) in the garden of the cottage and were then treated to an interesting introduction in the adjacent store barn.  One of the most interesting things about this building, is that it is built in the same way as the main cottage as a large square timber frame with in filled panels of brick.  The original cottage was one large building with a central fireplace and smokehole in the roof, but during the 19th century this was altered and a small extension was added, the fireplace was moved to the side and a chimney built on.  The biggest change was the addition of an upper floor with two distinct rooms for sleeping.

sitting room fireplace
sitting room dining table
second bedroom with hand knitted blanket coverlet and hand made rag rugs
all mod cons, the outside ‘convenience’

The National Trust acquired the cottage as a legacy from two sisters who owned several properties in the village in the 1980’s together with its sitting tenants, who were living in the house without the benefit of mains drainage, electricity, central heating and hot and cold running water.  The Trust have dressed the cottage to look as it most likely would have done during the 19th century, sparsely furnished and with many handmade items of furniture, rugs and coverlets.

Victorian hand made ‘paper pieced’ quilt bed cover

At the same time as our visit a young family was visiting also, and I take my hat off to the two young boys (probably aged 5 and 7) who were for the most part very well behaved, for what must have been for them,  pretty boring.  In the scullery the guide talked at length about it being the women’s domain as it housed the bread oven, the washing tub and copper.  The mother of the family group seemed to take quite violent exception to this idea, which is a bizarre notion, as this is exactly how it would have been over 150 years ago for women.  It was very funny hearing her protestations about equality and her views on the subjugation of women in the past!  The poor tour guide (an elderly gentleman) was quite bemused by this “strong independent woman”. 

pantry and food store

It is interesting how many younger people see the past through a 21st century lens, constantly calling out perceived injustice and malfeasance.  I find this fascinating, it seems to me that there are many who are only interested in a sanitised version of history that fits with their own experience and ideals.  This is plainly ridiculous and it is the duty of organisations such as the NT to present the past as accurately as possible, while being mindful of current sensibilities.  However, no heritage organisations should be afraid of tackling ‘difficult’ issues from the past.  These cannot be airbrushed from history, it is so important that younger people know about past problems and what was done, to avoid them happening again.

Outside Oakhurst Cottage is a small garden filled with flowers and vegetables.  There are some interesting architectural features on the building, the oak timber frame beams being the most obvious, while at the back of the property is a nice example on the rear wall of bricks laid in the Rat Trap pattern.  This is a method that can save up to 30% on the number of bricks needed to cover a 1m square and up to 50% on the amount of mortar required.

Rat Trap brick pattern
rear cottage wall showing rat trap brick pattern and tin bath

The cottage is tucked away at the far edge of the cricket green in Hambledon village, which in reality is little more than a hamlet (although there is a village shop that also has a small café serving excellent food), it is open for 4 days a week, Wednesdays and Thursday and Saturdays and Sundays between April and October for pre-booked guided tours only. Also available at the cottage are some albums and books showing the cottage at different stages in its life including a book of prints of watercolours by the well-known Victorian painter, Helen Allingham who painted the cottage. It seems that it is this painting on which the Trust have modelled the cottage we see today, and which includes the replacement of the windows from rectangular panes to diamond lattice panes.

Image result for oakhurst cottage surrey by helen allingham
Oakhurst Cottage, Hambledon Allingham
from the book “The Cottage Homes of England by Helen Allingham and Stewart Dick

Oakhurst Cottage is tiny gem, like an oversized dolls house frozen in time. Definitely worth a visit.

Navigating the past

Tucked away behind the cricket ground in Guildford are the Wey Navigations.  Opened in 1653, the site was dominated by two boat building families the Stevens and the Edwards but is now owned by the National Trust. This compact property offers an interesting snapshot of a what traditional barge building yard was like. It has been over a decade since I last visited and much has changed including the  addition of the Wey barge Reliance, built at Dapdune between 1931-2 and which sank in the Thames after striking a bridge.  It was acquired by the NT it is now moored at the Wharf for visitors to board and sample cramped, dark conditions that made up everyday life for watermen. Various outbuildings and old stores provide an array of information panels and interactive exhibitions including model navigation system and the block and tackle weight lifting exhibit, where three 56lbs weights are attached to different lifting methods to demonstrate how difficult and easy it can be to lift the same weight.  The complex is very child friendly and would make an excellent schools visit, with plenty of activities available for families.

Relaince, built at Dapdune Wharf 1931-2

The day I visited was the final day of an exhibition by 4 graduate students at UCA Farnham, titled ‘Tumblehome’ it is the result of how these four artists reacted to the surroundings, history and traditions of the wharf.  I found out about this exhibition by accident, and being a huge fan of site specific artwork, was curious to see their ideas.  There was disappointment from the start as there was no information available at the entry kiosk, now it may be because it was the last day of a month long exhibition, but the reception staff didn’t make any mention of it when they spoke about what there was to see on site.

There’s an exhibition here….somewhere

A couple of inconspicuous ‘A’ frame poster boards  signalled where artworks were sited, but I almost missed the largest exhibition area completely as it was so inconspicuous!  A quick check on the NT website revealed a short section about the project and the inevitable self-important verbose statements by each artist.  Of all the work on show, the digitally printed papers and fabric of Noelle Genevier, I felt were the most engaged and relevant pieces on display.  I have to confess that the large piece of canvas and rope suspended from a makeshift wood frame did little to provoke any questions, while the slideshow running in the background opposite was pretty standard stuff, modern photographs interspersed with archive images presumably drawing comparisons to how the use of the wharf has changed from industry to pleasure.  The quirkiest piece was the installation of cottage shaped teapots on show in the Smithy and the giant papier mache teapot in the main exhibition area and which apparently draws attention to our relationship with tea and comfort, a comment I am assuming, on the changing nature in use of the site from industrial workplace to leisure attraction.

Digitally printed fabric in the old stable
teapots in the old smithy
Giant papier mache teapot

Unfortunately most of the labelling of the artworks had disappeared and in the absence of any other information I think that most visitors would have found it all very hard to engage with.  This is hugely disappointing and a massive missed opportunity.  Art is a fantastic way to draw attention to an historical collection or site and to engage a more diverse audience than may usually be expected.   Overall I suspect that the students were not given enough time to work on this project alongside their degree show work which is a shame, although I feel that some of the work missed the mark in terms of thinking and display.  Still, there is always next time.