diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 20, 2014

Leith Hill Place
Location: nr Coldharbour, Surrey RH5 6LY [map]
Open: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday (11am-5pm) (Apr-Oct)
(welcome leaflet)

One of the National Trust's newest, or at least most recently-opened, properties sits on the slopes below Leith Hill. It's called Leith Hill Place, perhaps not surprisingly, and is of note not because of its architecture but because of the astonishingly talented dynasty that lived there. In particular that's three families instantly recognisable from their surnames; Wedgwood, Darwin, Vaughan Williams. That's quite some dynasty.

The house is a fairly standard country affair, by which I mean it's big and gabled and surrounded by a considerable chunk of land. The shell dates back to 1600, but was done up in Palladian style in the 18th century by Richard Hull, the bloke who built the observation tower on the nearby hill. It's just the sort of house a high-flying businessman might own, and so it was in 1847 that Staffordshire pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood III snapped it up. That III should be a clue that he's not the Josiah Wedgwood, merely his grandson, who escaped the business early to move to Surrey. He married his cousin Caroline Darwin, sister of the famous Charles, who in turn married Josiah's sister Emma. I hope you're following this.

Joe and Caroline had four children, one of whom - Margaret - married a Gloucestershire vicar called Arthur Vaughan Williams. And their youngest child was called Ralph, who moved to Leith Hall Place in 1875 when his father died prematurely, and who later grew up to become a famous composer. When the house eventually passed back to him in 1944, Ralph met with the National Trust the following day to begin the transfer of the property. The house finally opened, fullish-time, to the public last summer. It's still not really ready, currently being described as "a house in transition", but the NT wanted people in before they'd completely finished restoration. A floor and a bit are open, but you're assured of a warm welcome if you visit.

The house is easily missed, indeed if you follow the orange waymarkers of Leith Hill's woodland walk it's not even signposted, despite being a few yards away. But if you walk up the lane, or park in the Rhododendron Wood car park, you should find the (not especially well signposted) front door. This brings you to the entrance hall, and the official National Trust Greeter, where you can pay your four pounds or flash your card. Ralph learned to play the piano in this hallway, so they've installed one here that wasn't his so visitors can have a go. A much nicer antique piano has been positioned by the window in the Wedgwood Room, also playable, but don't touch the special instrument in the Terrace Room because that's for recitals only.

Rest assured the tea is excellent. Volunteers bake their own cakes in the kitchen, from which the most gorgeous smell of flapjack was emanating on my visit. Refreshments aren't actually priced, you're asked to leave a donation, and then there's the chance to eat and drink your purchases in the Wedgwoods' actual dining room. And the view's good, isn't it? The lawn drops away beyond the rear terrace to reveal the golden farmland of the Weald stretching off as far as the South Downs. You can stand and stare while the music of RVW plays from a recording, or you can step out through the courtyard and enjoy the garden down to the ha-ha at the end. For a completely different aspect, head down to the cellar to see some Egyptian-type murals, more recently graffitied over by pupils at the boarding school Leith Hill Place became.

It won't take you long to look around, afternoon tea excepted. But there is one additional treat upstairs, a 40 minute Ralph Vaughan Williams "soundscape". This covers the length of the second floor and is accessible only by timed ticket, not that there seems much danger of these running out. If the NT volunteer can press the controls correctly, a four-part recording traces Ralph's life story from his Leith Hill Place childhood to a second wife and international acclaim. The first half's narrated by Virginia McKenna, and the last part is really quite moving as the Pastoral Symphony gently fades away.

It's much more a four quid visit than a tenner, but none the worse for that. You could hang on a couple years until they've done the place up properly, but thus far there's music and cake, and an evocative homage to a prodigious talent.


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