Behind closed doors at the National Trust's Polesden Lacey
PUBLISHED: 13:26 21 December 2016 | UPDATED: 17:21 22 December 2016
Always a special time of year at the National Trust property Polesden Lacey, near Dorking, the house looks magical when decked out in all its festive finery. This year, however, there's even more reason to visit as a new behind-the scenes tour offers the chance to see parts of the house never before open to the public. Surrey Life editor Caroline Harrap gets a sneak preview
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2016
Tucked away in a former servant’s bedroom, in the eaves of the roof at Polesden Lacey, the National Trust’s Lauren Milsom is telling me to press on the corner of a bookcase. I look at her rather doubtfully, but with a wave of her hand she urges me on, so I do as I am told. As I push gently on the wooden frame, to my surprise, the bookcase swings silently and smoothly open, revealing a dark, cavernous space behind.
It’s an episode straight out of an adventure story, and exactly the sort of experience one might hope for when spending a winter’s afternoon exploring an old country house in the manner of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – discovering hidden nooks and crannies, finding forgotten corners and stumbling upon secret passageways. It’s no wonder then that the new Unseen Spaces tour at Polesden Lacey has proved such a hit because that’s exactly what this tour provides – a chance to go beyond the well-worn route through the grand public rooms of this Edwardian property, stunning though they may be, to discover the hidden parts of the house not normally open to the public.
“The tours have been so popular that we’ve already had to increase the number we put on,” says Lauren. “I think people are just fascinated to see behind the scenes here, especially into the private spaces of the house, which they’ve never been able to explore before. So they get to see places such as the male servants’ attic quarters, where we are now, the guest suites on the first floor, currently used for storage of the collection, and King Edward VII’s bedroom, where he stayed during the very first house party at Polesden in 1909, and which is now used as a meeting room.
“It’s a fascinating opportunity to find out about how and why the house has changed over the years and how we plan to return several of the rooms to their authentic state and rediscover their untold stories.”
For the benefit of those who are new to Polesden Lacey, there has been a house on the site here since the Middle Ages. Rebuilt by English master builder Thomas Cubitt in 1821-3 in the style of a regency villa, the property was remodelled again in the early 1900s by the architect Sir Ambrose Macdonald Poynter, creating the Edwardian mansion house that we see today. Then came a key moment in the Polesden story…
In 1906, the super-rich socialite Mrs Margaret Greville and her husband, the Honourable Ronald Greville, moved in – and, under the stewardship of the renowned society hostess, the property would go on to become one of the leading party-houses of its day. It was a place where the great, the good and frequently royalty would gather to enjoy weekend get-togethers that would start on a Saturday and continue right through until Monday. Even King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were regular visitors, famously taking their honeymoon at Polesden as the Duke and Duchess of York.
The perfect country retreat, the house was the very height of Edwardian sophistication, kitted out with everything from the most lavish of staterooms to marble bathrooms designed by the architects of The Ritz to every mod-con imaginable, all of which visitors can still see here today.
“I think that’s one of my favourite things about the Unseen Spaces tours,” continues Lauren. “While it’s always lovely to see the rooms that the property is famed for, such as the gold saloon that was famously designed as a room ‘fit to entertain Maharajahs’, the servants’ quarters are just so different. These rooms are smaller and private.
“I like to think about the servants walking back up there after spending a whole day seeing to every whim of Mrs Greville and her many guests. I imagine them sharing gossip, reading before bed, and writing letters home to mum.”
While the tours have certainly proved a big draw for visitors, there is also another important reason behind them. The National Trust has big plans for Polesden Lacey over the next few years, with the aim of restoring an additional 40% of the property. Since inheriting the house from Mrs Greville in 1942, they have already managed to open 29 rooms to the public but, until now, the rest have been used as offices and living and storage space. Needless to say, though, it’s an expensive process renovating them all, so during each tour, guests are invited to make a donation towards the Unlocking Polesden appeal, as it’s been dubbed, and even to vote on which part of the house they would like to see restored next.
“We came up with the idea for the Unseen Spaces tours early last summer when restoration work began on the bedroom belonging to William McEwan, the father of Margaret Greville,” explains Lauren. “This had previously been a flat and then storage space, but is now returned to its original layout and colouring with the authentic features restored. We knew people would be interested to know how and why we were planning to change the fabric and structure of the house, so we wanted to find a clear way of sharing the exciting plans for unlocking more of Polesden. And, of course, we want to grow support because the scope of the project is ambitious and we need to fund-raise in order for the plans to go ahead. The restoration of the king’s suite, for example, will cost over £40,000.”
As Surrey Life went to press, work had just got under way on the aforementioned servants’ attic bedrooms, which are due to open fully in January when a special exhibition will explore the lives of the men and women behind the scenes, who ran the house like clockwork. Then, next year, work is due to start on the king’s suite, including the bedroom and parlour, in time for the summer.
For now, during the month of December, visitors will be able to see all these spaces and more, while also getting a peek into the ongoing restoration work, so they can witness the transformation for themselves. And, of course, that’s not to mention all the festive finery in the public rooms too. As such, the property will be blooming with seasonal flowers, Christmas trees will twinkle gently throughout the house and the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon will float through the air.
Christmases past “One of my favourites stories of the house is a Christmas one actually,” adds Lauren. “Mrs Greville was a good boss to work for and she liked to hold a servants’ ball every Christmas in the main hall. One year at the ball, she noticed two young housemaids on the balcony peeping through the bannisters at the dancing below, so she said, ‘Why aren’t you girls dancing?’ and promptly chivvied them downstairs to join the festivities.”
As for us, it’s time to leave the cosy servants’ quarters and head back downstairs, too, though in our case for a wander around the public areas of the house – maybe after just one more peek through that secret bookcase…
Need to know
Getting there: Polesden Lacey, Great Bookham, near Dorking, RH5 6BD
Admission: Adults, £17; children, £9.60; family ticket, £44; car parking, £5.
Opening hours: The house will be open fully until Friday December 23, closed on Christmas Eve and Day, and open with a reduced offering from Monday December 26 to Sunday January 2.
Unseen Spaces tour: Tours will take place daily from Thursday December 1 to Friday December 23 at 2.15pm (suggested donation of £2 per person towards the Unlocking Polesden appeal).
Christmas highlights: The house will be dressed for a 1930s Christmas party; an 18ft tree will take pride of place in the hall; there will be carol singing in the courtyard at weekends; the property has one of the largest gift shops in the National Trust; and there will be seasonal food in the restaurant using recipes from Mrs Greville’s dinner book.
Top tip: Travel by public transport and you’ll qualify for a £1 voucher for the restaurant.
Contact details: Tel: 01372 452048. Web: nationaltrust.org.uk/polesden-lacey