Behind the scenes at West Horsley Place as renovations near completion
PUBLISHED: 15:54 07 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:54 07 January 2020
Andy Newbold Photography
West Horsley Place has existed as a private home since Saxon times, but when renovations are completed next year it will welcome visitors as a new arts centre for Surrey. Tinx Newton went behind the scenes to report on the progress so far | Photos: Andy Newbold
At the end of a long driveway in West Horsley sits a beautiful manor house that was once the home of Henry Vlll and is on Historic England's Heritage At Risk Register.
West Horsley Place is set within 380 acres of grounds and has been in private ownership for 600 years. It has remained unchanged for almost a century and has gently crumbled away, but thanks to the vision of its benefactor and the efforts of the Mary Roxburghe Trust, the house will once again become a hive of activity.
In 2014, Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, left the entire estate to her nephew, TV Broadcaster and author, Bamber Gascoigne. He was delighted, but slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of the restoration project - initial surveys estimated that more than £7 million was needed to bring it back to life, with another £2 million for other listed features.
Undeterred, Bamber and his wife Christina set up the Mary Roxburghe Trust to oversee and protect the future of the house with the aim of not just restoring the buildings, but also to engage the local community by offering a programme of arts and events.
These began on a large scale when Grange Park Opera was established in the grounds opening their first season in 2017. Since then outstanding performances from international musicians have been held in the glorious four tier opera house.
Encouraged by the success of the opera, plans to restore West Horsley Place gathered pace and the house is now bustling with teams of builders and specialist conservators who focus on making it safe and restoring the original features.
Peter Pearce, director of the Mary Roxburghe Trust, explains the progress: "Although our mission is to restore the house, we do not want it become a museum. We naturally want it to be safe for visitors, but we want open, user-friendly spaces rather than areas roped off to the public.
"This will remain essentially a historic manor house but with modern purpose. I liken her to a sleeping beauty, waiting to be woken again and it is a real privilege to be part of this large team who are committed to creating a house that has culture, community and a real sense of history at its heart."
Craftsmen such as R. J. Smith & Co with their wide experience in the renovation of buildings of historical interest have investigated thoroughly the needs of West Horsley Place.
This includes installing heating, lighting, power, the removal of asbestos in the main house and a comprehensive system of fire precautions which is vital to make the old house compliant with regulations before it opens to visitors.
As a sign of the proposed blend of old and new, fabulous new loos are already in place where modern design and facilities blend surprisingly well with the timber framed walls of 1425 and the 15th century fabric.
While these services are installed, the disruption appears initially alarming as workmen drill holes and pull up floors and timbers, but they tread carefully past original wall hangings, threadbare carpets and old tiles. It is apparent that immense care and specialist knowledge lies behind this apparent upheaval.
In addition to the main house, the 18th century, Grade ll listed Place Farm Barn and old stables are destined to be a centre for arts providing spaces for creativity, performance, talks and meetings.
Currently braced for safety reasons, the first step is to strengthen the timber roof trusses and re-roof using traditional handmade clay tiles in keeping with the original buildings. If sufficient funds are raised, the plan is to open in late spring 2020. In the meantime, ideas from local societies and groups for its future use are welcomed by the trust.
Discoveries of historic treasures are not limited to the buildings. Laid out in the early 1700s, the gardens were once full of lavish flower borders and were famous for their glasshouse fruits but they gradually went into decline after World War II.
Head Gardener Nicky Webber and her team have carefully removed the ivy and brambles and uncovered the five acres of formal walled gardens which were laid out in 1710, a rare crinkle-crankle wall and a Knot Garden which harks back to the 1530s and 40s when Henry Vlll lived in the house.
The garden team are also working with Surrey Wildlife Trust to learn more about the medieval fishponds and ancient walled orchard.
A little help from friends
Alongside the expert advisors, West Horsley Place is supported by around 80 volunteers and their involvement has been of upmost importance to the project.
"There is something about this grand old house that people love, and many local people are already part of this growing family that will bring her back to life," explains Peter.
"At our Open Day in September, 900 people came through the doors and the West Horsley WI did a wonderful job picking fruit from the orchard. We welcome people of all ages, backgrounds and interests to help us in a range of activities which we hope will be of mutual benefit and that people will enjoy a purpose and possibly new interest or skill by getting involved.
"Our policy is very much 'Open Arms' - the communal feeling of care is already here, and that is something we aim to nurture.
"This is an unusual experiment," he continues, "where an estate like this is made fit for the 21st century, opening not just as an historic property, but also as a working environment where people can engage in all areas of the arts without damaging the fabric of the house. With this in mind we hope to be sustainable in all ways, environmentally, socially and financially.
"Bamber and Christina's generous gift and a grant from the Country Houses Foundation has allowed us to undertake the most urgent repairs and prepare to open the house to the public.
"When works are complete we will open our doors with a wide range of cultural and learning programmes in art and crafts, historic and natural heritage which we hope will appeal to a wide audience.
"We now need to raise funds for the for the next phase which will be the restoration of the gardens, Grade II listed stables and the glorious 380 acre estate."
For more information about the project or to make a donation to the fundraising efforts, visit westhorsleyplace.org.