Visit Leith Hill Place - childhood home of Ralph Vaughan Williams
PUBLISHED: 12:22 13 October 2014 | UPDATED: 12:38 02 March 2016
©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler
One of Surrey’s best-loved pieces of countryside, Leith Hill has long been a destination for walkers, cyclists and riders – but now there’s a new reason to visit, with the childhood home of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Leith Hill Place, opening its doors. Jack Watkins follows in the footsteps of this celebrated composer…
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2014
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On a clear day, looking through the telescope at Leith Hill Tower, you can see the clock face of Big Ben to the north and the glint of the English Channel to the south. It’s not surprising really when you consider that the tower soars to over 60 feet, and as it stands on a hill that at 960 feet is the loftiest in south-east England, you are actually higher here than if you climbed to the top of the London Shard.
People have been marvelling at the view from Leith Hill for centuries. Even before the gothic tower was built in 1765, John Evelyn, diarist during the reign of Charles II, who lived at nearby Wotton, reckoned you could see across to the counties of Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire. “The like, I think, is not to be found in any part of England, or perhaps Europe besides,” he wrote.
But a fascination with long-distance prospects needn’t blind us to more immediate delights.
The place to be
Further down the hill, on its south-facing slopes, is Leith Hill Place, an old house steeped in historic connections. I say further down the hill, but the prospect across the Surrey countryside is still strikingly beautiful. On a recent visit, I paused on the terrace-like grasslands a few yards below the house – the area has many public footpaths – in order to sample the views. In the refreshing westerly breeze, the jackdaws chuckling, and the outlines of the far-off Sussex hills appearing through a thin haze, there’s an almost mystical quality about this spot.
The house itself, set back beyond the trees, looks atmospheric, even a little ghostly. In all honesty, it could do with a lick of paint, though the faded look is more conducive to imaginative conjecture about its past. But it would be wrong to depict it as neglected and unloved. And thanks to a current initiative by the National Trust, it can count itself as Leith Hill’s ‘newest visitor attraction’.
Of course, those familiar with the area probably already know about the Palladian-style building, since it is reckoned there has been a house on the site going back at least to Tudor times. Its association with eminent names such as the famous Wedgwood family, the esteemed naturalist Charles Darwin and the celebrated composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who lived there during his childhood, is also well known. But despite having been in the hands of the National Trust for 70 years, it is only now that its potential public appeal in a much-loved beauty spot is being properly developed, says Gabrielle Gale, the Trust’s visitor operations manager.
“When we opened the house to the public for an exploratory period of 14 weeks last summer, we had around 8,000 people coming through the door,” she explains. It was enough to persuade the organisation to extend the opening period this year to four days a week, from April until the beginning of November. It’s also ended years of speculation over the property’s future.
Ralph Vaughan Williams had given the house to the Trust in 1944 on inheriting it from his brother. After that, it was tenanted by members of the Wedgwood family, to whom he was related via his mother, a direct descendent of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the pottery firm. When the Wedgwoods’ tenancy ended, it was used as a boys’ boarding school, but after they departed in 2008, the Trust was left agonising over plans for its long-term future use.
“Plan A was simply to let it out again on a long lease, and we’d had plenty of expressions of interest from developers and private individuals,” explains Gabrielle. “Plan B was to embark on something for the public benefit, rather than locking it away from them. Unfortunately, there are serious issues with accessibility and parking here, and given it is a Grade II* Listed Building, it was difficult to come up with a definitive plan, so the debate went on for four years. In the end, we decided that, given the house’s history, we would embark on this experiment with opening it up on an informal basis to the public.”
Actually, it’s not the first time visitors have been allowed in. Gabrielle shows me a guidebook, written by the historian CV Wedgwood in the 1960s, during which time guided tours were given by members of the family. In its heyday, the property was full of art treasures, including Wedgwood vases and cameos, and paintings by Stubbs and Reynolds. These items were subsequently dispersed, but the place still has an undoubted ambience from the days when Charles Darwin, who married the granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood, was a frequent visitor, carrying out experiments in the fields and working on his papers in his room in the upper west wing.
“It’s a big challenge,” says Gabrielle of the process of ‘reviving’ Leith Hill Place. “But it’s great to have a blank canvas to work with, and a lot of local volunteers have come forward to help and have made the place their own.”
Formerly employed at Ham House, another atmospheric National Trust property on the Thames near Richmond, and having been a professional musician herself, Gabrielle is clearly relishing bringing to life the story of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the figure most obviously connected with the district, thanks to his founding of the annual Leith Hill Musical Festival.
“Although he didn’t compose any of his famous pieces here, he lived at Leith Hill Place between the age of two and 20, and spent a lot of time wandering the lanes round here, collecting folk songs he overheard in the fields and inns,” she says. It was also here that Vaughan Williams was taught to play the piano and sing by his aunt, Sophy Wedgwood, and where he played on a small organ installed at the east end of the entrance hall.
Photographs of the great man line the mantlepiece as you walk into the hall, and someone has copied a choice example of his wisdom onto a wooden board. It reads: ‘The composer must not shut himself off and think about art. He must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole community – if we seek for art we shall not find it.’
Up on the second floor, Gabrielle has created a Vaughan Williams soundscape, which over a succession of rooms tells the story of his life, from his schooldays to his time in the trenches of the First World War, to his years of fame, ending with a recording of his most popular piece, The Lark Ascending.
A glorious past
That’s not the sole extent of the story of Leith Hill Place though. One of the house’s earliest owners, Richard Hull, built Leith Hill Tower. And the Wedgwoods really were a talented bunch. Caroline Wedgwood, wife of Josiah Wedgwood III – who acquired Leith Hill Place in 1847 – designed the much-loved rhododendron wood. You can still walk its winding paths and enjoy some of the original plantings of towering rhododendrons that, along with the azaleas, provide a visual feast of colour in the spring.
“We’re still working out a long-term plan for the property, because it can’t pay its way as it stands,” says Gabrielle. “I suspect though that it will involve a mixture of visitor access, along with a residential element, and availability for hiring out for functions such as weddings. But our firm desire is to keep it open for many years to come, and not to lease it out or shut it off from people again.” That’s got to be great news for anyone with an ear for music, or an eye for the soul-stirring viewpoint.
• With grateful thanks to The Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust for kindly allowing us to use their portrait photos. For more on their work, which includes promoting knowledge about the composer and performance of his works, see vwct.org.uk
Need to know: Leith Hill Place, Leith Hill Lane, near Coldharbour village, Dorking RH5 6LY. Tel: 01306 711685. Web: nationaltrust.org.uk/leithhill. Open: Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, 11am–5pm, until October 25, and then up to 4pm until November 2, and then closes for the winter. Admission: Adults £4, children £2. Teas, coffees and cakes available.