The period from October last year, when I took up the reins as the first Director of the new Mary Roxburghe Trust created by Bamber Gascoigne, has been one of intense activity. It is, in every sense of the word, a start-up; a new trust, a new project, and a new vision for the future. Perhaps the greatest change of all is the transfer of West Horsley Place, after almost a thousand years of private ownership, into the hands of a charitable trust created to care for the house and estate and give them a new life and purpose. With that momentous step come new opportunities to create something of even greater value to the local community.
West Horsley Place inspires a sense of romance in everybody who visits it. The house and its estate have passed through the hands of a succession of great families through inheritance, marriage, royal favour and disfavour and in one instance following execution. It has hosted royalty (both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I), and in each successive ownership, and each century, has been extended, reduced, altered and rebuilt to suit the wealth (and, sometimes lack of it) of each new owner. The result according to Pevsner, is “…an atmosphere of happy domesticity, one of the most important achievements in British architecture. Versailles is a very long way away…”.
West Horsley Place thus gives a sense of its development in the hands of each owner, and the result is less a logical plan or sequence in its rooms than a freeze-frame in a process of continuing change. This is highly relevant to the planning of repairs as the building needs to be fully understood before effecting change; and there is a precious patina and atmosphere which we will be careful to respect in the works which must now be undertaken. So far as possible, our aim must be to leave the house after all the work has been done with the feeling that its atmosphere is unchanged.
Outwardly, at first glance in soft focus, the house looks good for its age but then one looks more closely. The 1630s renaissance brickwork which gives the house its charismatic south front is crumbling away from the Tudor timbers behind to which it is fixed. Decades of neglected maintenance have led to rotting timbers, leaking gutters, a weak structure, failed rendering and a virtual absence of modern services. There is asbestos, a remnant of of insulation from an early 20th-century heating system. Everywhere one looks there is decay. A major project looms.
However, all is not lost, very far from it. Of course money is needed, very large amounts of it even despite the sale of the contents by Bamber Gascoigne and the most generous gift of the proceeds into the Trust, funds which allow us at least to start the work although not to finish it or achieve our ambitions for the house’s new life. The repairs which are needed, in the hands of a skilled and experienced conservation building firm, are well within reach. What is required, as so often, is to raise the necessary funds.
The first stage, in which we are currently engaged, is planning a campaign to address the most urgent works, which will take place through the course of 2017. This work will include investigation of weak areas of the structure including the south-west front, the timbers in the north-west corner of the house hidden behind render, and parts of the roof.
We have only begun to unravel the complexity of all the changes through the centuries at West Horsley Place which have had an impact on the structure we have today. The process of learning will continue through the course of the coming year, both through documentary research and building archaeology. Sleuthing to tease out the sequence of changes as evidenced in the building fabric will play an important part as will dendrochronology, the science of dating timbers, many of which will have been reused in later alterations.
The planning of the next phase, or phases, will be based on this work. It will include conservation repairs to the main house and the start of work on garden walls, the installation of new services and other works necessary to enable the new life of the house. We also want to explore opportunities to use the project as a vehicle to train the next generation of craftsmen in heritage conservation skills.
In parallel with the restoration of West Horsley Place, we are keen to make as early a start as we can on our objective to create a vibrant centre for the performing and visual arts and the teaching of crafts. The enabling of Grange Park Opera’s project to build the Theatre in the Woods is, of course, a major element in the achievement of this; but we plan to have a much wider reach than that great project alone.
The early eighteenth century stable block, a beautiful but currently severely dilapidated and unused building of mellow brick and tile, will become a centre for the teaching of arts and crafts. The surrounding farmyard at Place Farm will be tidied; we have already removed ugly modern steel-framed farm sheds from the area. The remaining listed farm buildings of brick, timber and tile will be repaired and brought into new uses for craft teaching, events, the provision of information for visitors and catering facilities. The great timber framed South Barn will be converted to a new use to host events and provide further space for cultural activities of all kinds.
These buildings need substantial repairs and upgrading, but, subject of course to the necessary consents and securing funding, we are hopeful that this can proceed alongside the programme of preparing for work on the house and that the commencement of courses in creative skills is not that far away. It may even be possible to hold some early events and courses in the house- at least in the summer, when it is not as glacially cold!
West Horsley Place will be reborn as a place for everyone to enjoy, whether as an opera guest, visitor to the house or garden or as a student learning a new craft. There is a great history to be discovered, and a new role for this grand old house to play in its community.