I have been putting off doing my local properties with the view that I can do them anytime. Having discovered, though, that Uppark is another house that is closed on Fridays, I decided to take a gentle drive up the road to Polesden Lacey instead. After all, if I can do them anytime, why not now?
I have visited Polesden more than any other NT property over the years so I wasn’t sure that I would learn anything new by ‘doing’ it properly. That wasn’t the case, however, and I’m glad to say that I learnt a few new snippets by giving it more of my time and attention than usual.
Like a number of other properties, Polesden Lacey has changed its visiting system this year and now offers guided house tours from 11 till 12.30, at which time the so-called ‘free flow’ begins. This may be annoying for visitors wanting to go their own way a little earlier or for families whose children are not invited on the tours, but I quite like this system, having already taken advantage of it at Ickworth on an earlier visit; it helps to give an introduction to the house and history so you are better informed when you take a more detailed look later on.
The Polesden tours are only half an hour in length and cover just a handful of the rooms that are open to the public. I already knew quite a bit about Margaret Greville, the brewery heiress (or ‘beeress’ as she once called herself) and society hostess, who surrounded herself with the rich, famous and royal at her weekend parties at the newly renovated Polesden Lacey, so I took the opportunity to have a look at some of the pictures and artefacts while these parts of the talk were going on. There were still a few snippets of information in the tour that were new to me, though, including the fact that the ceiling in the picture corridor is a copy of one at Chastleton (I may be going there shortly so will look out for that!) and that the architectural firm brought in to do the renovations at Polesden were the designers responsible for The Ritz Hotel. The bathroom in Mrs Greville’s apartments certainly has a Ritzian (is that a word?) feel to it… not that I’ve ever seen a bathroom at The Ritz but it gives that impression with all the marble and silver plating.
My tour guide wasn’t as smooth and effortless in his presentation as the woman at Ickworth but he covered all the main points and was clearly enthused about his subject, which is always slightly contagious, so I enjoyed the short peek into the house. This also seems to be a good place to mention just what a completely fantastic bunch of volunteers there are at Polesden Lacey (OK, that should keep my Mum happy for a while!).
After the tour, I took a wander around the extremely familiar gardens and revisited a few old friends, including Diana the Huntress and her stag alongside the Croquet Lawn and the pairs of grumpy griffins that stand guard over the entrance to the Rose Garden and the front lawn. I also trekked up through the Kitchen Gardens, north of the formal gardens, to say hello to the chickens, one of whom – a rather fine black and white speckled lady – was in fine voice. Anyone interested in the gardening process should track down this area as the potting shed is home to some interesting old bits and pieces, including printed advertisements for the latest (at least, the Edwardian latest!) in gardening equipment.
Apart from my noisy hen, it was a very peaceful walk around the grounds, with the only other sounds being the occasional tap of mallet on ball and complaints about rivals’ dastardly deeds as a number of visitors made full use of the Croquet Lawn. I then took a short detour through the Pets’ Cemetery on the way back to the visitor’s facilities Among the mini gravestones is one to mark the final resting place of Tokio, a Pekingese who was supposedly one of Mrs Greville’s favourites; a photo of Tokio can be seen on the desk in the Study and I’m afraid to say that, bless his little velvety paws, but he was one scary ugly dog!
As with Chartwell, the facilities for visitors are a bit of a trek from the house if you get caught short or require some quick refreshment. Polesden also shares large visitor numbers with Chartwell so the large restaurant can get crowded at busy times. Fortunately, my slightly rainy afternoon in September was not one of those times so my lovely vegetarian cottage pie was quickly served up. I sat outside under the canopy to tuck into my meal, alone except for a trio of wasps who thrilled and delighted me with their company for a while. There was then a brief interlude – spent reading the guidebook – while the rain drummed on the canopy, but it was only a short shower and I was soon heading back to the house for a more detailed look.
As with many properties, the NT are constantly looking for ways to expand the visitor experience and this was the first time I had been in the house since Mrs Greville’s Apartments were opened up to the public in 2011. One of the rooms is being used to show a DVD about Mrs Greville and Polesden Lacey, narrated by Siobhan Redmond, which is very useful background for visitors who haven’t previously been to the house or taken the morning tour. The other rooms are also mainly empty as the original furniture has not survived in the Trust’s hands, but it was still interesting to see the private rooms of Mrs Greville herself and to appreciate the lovely views she had across the estate and the valley.
And here comes a gripe! The views are part and parcel of what makes Polesden so special but the downstairs rooms are so carefully protected from sun damage that the curtains and shutters are always closed and you can’t see out of the windows at all. There surely has to be a balance between protecting the house’s contents and actually allowing people to see them. Some of the paintings in particular may just as well not be there as they are virtually invisible in the gloom (admittedly the situation in the picture corridor is a little worse than usual at the moment as the shutters are down on the windows while some work is being done). Other properties managed by English Heritage and private owners (Mr Cobbe at Hatchlands allows a lot more light on his collection) do not have quite the same vampirish terror of sunlight. Granted, there will be certain items that need greater protection (e.g. tapestries and silks) but surely oil paintings and ceramics are a little more resilient. I have to wonder – what is the point of preserving artefacts for the nation if the nation can’t actually see them? OK, gripe over…
So, highlights of the house? The Gold Room, more properly known as The Saloon, is the stand-out feature of Polesden, perhaps not to everyone’s taste but dazzling enough to impress this particular visitor and entirely ‘fit to entertain Maharajahs’, which was Mrs Greville’s specification when looking to renovate the room.
If you like Dutch art, you’ll love the Picture Corridor, running along three sides of the central courtyard. I don’t particularly (at least nothing pre-Van Gogh), so the ceiling was my highlight in the corridors, plus the sarcophagus – a very odd thing to own but certainly an interesting addition to the décor. An old wedding chest in the corridor is also open at the moment for visitors to appreciate the intricate detail of the wooden design inside, which is really special.
As in most NT houses, there’s a wealth of things to see, including a few oddities like the sarcophagus. Other things that caught my attention include:
- An old photograph of Margaret Greville with Spencer Tracy, a highlight for a film fan.
- A rare tea service in the study decorated with monkeys doing human things… very Planet of the Apes (I did just say I was a film fan!)
- A horrendous Meissen bowl in the study decorated (on the inside!) with images of insects, yuck; my own personal volunteer later informed me that this was one of the bowls that Mrs Greville would sometimes use to feed her dogs.
- A Thomas Lawrence painting of two boys with a donkey in the Dining Room; this is an especially poignant picture as one of the boys was to later drown alongside his new wife on their honeymoon. Mind you, you should know by now, the real attraction for me is the donkey!
I will also mention a painting in the Billiard Room by Henry Hine, someone I’d never heard of but will look out for from now on. He seems to be a very minor artist, apparently best known for his pictures of Sussex and Northumberland, but he clearly loved the same bleak landscapes as me. The Polesden painting shows a plain, sweeping expanse of the South Downs, with a small shepherd in the foreground to give a real impression of the scale of the rolling hills. I thought it was really beautiful.
I would also just like to say how impressed I was with the visitor information that Polesden supplies in each room. A brief summary of the room’s use and highlights is available for those wanting just a snapshot, while more detailed folders itemise the main items of furniture and pictures so more curious folk like me can discover that their favourite painting is by a certain Henry Hine and that he was best known for his pictures of Sussex and Northumberland! Unlike my visit to Monk’s House, there was no need for me to look anything up when I got home. So hats off to the Polesden administrators, now all they need to do is work out how to shed a little more literal light on things!
Highlights: The Gold Room (aka The Saloon)
Refreshments: Red lentil and vegetable cottage pie with sweet potato mash and roasted vegetables; tea and a chocolate brownie
Purchase(s): Ruth Rendell and Dean Koontz books from the second-hand bookshop, a gift and card from the shop; I inherited a guidebook so didn’t need to buy one of those.
Companion(s): None + Mum (later on to join me for a cuppa)
NT Connections: Chastleton House & Garden (the barrel-vaulted ceiling in the picture corridor is modelled on Chastleton’s Long Gallery ceiling)