The West Horsley Place story

Bamber Gascoigne

Bamber GacoigneIn 2014 I had a considerable shock. I was an executor of a 99-year-old aunt, Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. A few days after her death the solicitors made an appointment for the two executors to meet with them. I was handed a copy of the will and was asked to look at page 10. It revealed that she had left her extraordinary house, West Horsley Place, to me – both a thrill and a very alarming new challenge.

My wife Christina and I felt daunted by all the problems involved. The surveys that we commissioned revealed that the house needed more than £7 million to bring it back to a safe and healthy condition, with a further £2 million required for the other listed features. But our spirits lifted once we had thought of forming a charity, the Mary Roxburghe Trust, to achieve these purposes. I have given to the Trust the entire estate and the proceeds of three Sotheby’s sales of my aunt’s possessions.

The first Object of the Charity is the obvious one – to restore the buildings. But the second Object provides a different and exciting challenge. To become a charity one needs to demonstrate public benefit, meaning that as many people as possible should derive pleasure and interest from West Horsley Place in addition to visiting a restored house. This led to two ideas of how the place could become a lively centre, with people constantly arriving for different purposes.

The first was to encourage performances of all kinds, concerts in the house or in a restored barn, and summer music or drama in a beautiful corner of the garden with excellent acoustics. This purpose received an unexpected and welcome boost when we received a surprise and very secret visit. We almost had to sign the Official Secrets’ Act before the visitors would tell us what they had come for. They said they represented Grange Park Opera, a very well-established summer opera festival. Their lease at Grange Park in Hampshire had been brought to an end. Like us, they are a charity but with more limited aims (‘the support and encouragement of the art of music and drama and in particular the promotion of opera’). They had looked at various alternative homes, and we were their first choice. Would be interested? It is not every day that someone proposes building an opera house in your garden. It took Christina and me little time to say yes indeed.

Nothing could have set our programme of performances at West Horsley Place off to a more promising start. Grange Park Opera aims high. They are building a beautiful theatre, with four tiers of boxes round horseshoe-shaped stalls in the Covent Garden style, and they have announced their first night – the 8th of June 2017, with the great Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja in Tosca. Liaising with Grange Park Opera will be an important and fascinating part of the duties of our new director, Peter Pearce.

The second of our two themes for enlivening the place derives from Christina’s profession. She is an artist in several fields, but particularly nowadays a potter, so we came to imagine West Horsley Place as a centre for crafts of all kinds in the restored stables and the large barn. The range of people interested in learning to use their hands in a creative activity is wide – children of all ages, working-age adults wanting a satisfying evening or weekend relaxation, and the increasingly large number of retired but very active people who like to enjoy the pleasure of working with their hands and ending up with a beautiful object.

So the director will have two very different but related tasks. One is to manage the funding and the restoration programme to bring this remarkable house and the other ancient buildings back to a state of health. The other is to create a diverse programme of performances and crafts to bring life back to West Horsley Place.

It is an inspiring vision. And I believe it will be an exciting adventure.