It’s a lovely afternoon, shall we cycle up to Polesden and see what’s blooming in the garden?
First stop the rose garden.
The walled rose garden is set out in a simple cross pattern. Climbing roses festoon the rustic wooden pergola and an old Chinese wisteria climbs the water tower. It was a hive of activity this afternoon with lawn mowing and an army of volunteers busy dead-heading and weeding. Spent Purple Prince tulip bulbs were being offered for a donation so I collected a dozen to plant in open ground at the allotment.
But it was not the roses growing neatly in the four quadrants that I had come to see. In the shade of a North-facing wall grow the most beautiful old-fashioned roses. They have wonderful romantic names, their scent is divine and the flowers are soft and loose but most of all I love how they jostle and sprawl above a dense under-planting of shade-loving perennials, proving that the old-fashioned roses don’t need to be grown in open sunny borders to do well.
The double peony borders are another highlight of this time of year. I noticed how the strong deep-pink peonies are growing towards the sun while the paler-pink and white peonies were happy in the shade of the yew hedge at the back of the border.
These wonderful wooden cold frames on brick plinths were used to grow violets and other flowers for the house. Polesden always has beautiful flower arrangements and today there is a cutting garden to supply material. I’m not sure if the lettuces are decorative or for use in the restaurant.
These sleepy chickens are most definitely not on the menu. They were very sensibly staying in the shade and cooing happily. Beyond the chicken coop is a new orchard with bee hives.
The double herbaceous borders have recently been reinstated. The North-facing border under the yew hedge was turned over to grass for decades but a few years ago the Garden team decided they had enough volunteer labour to manage the original double borders and the ground was prepared. There were a couple of disastrous experimental years with bedding tulips and pictorial flower meadow mixes, but last year the border was finally planted up and only one year on it looks magnificent.
In the spirit of an Edwardian house party you can borrow mallets and balls and challenge your friends and family to a game of croquet. I think these players were from a local club as they seemed to know the rules.
The sound of piano playing drifts out from the saloon on Wednesday afternoons. A team of volunteer pianists play and it is rather lovely sitting and listening here in the shade of the South-facing Ionic portico which dates from Cubitt’s villa of the 1820s. In April the delicious scent from Clematis Armandii growing on the walls fills the air too.
The view from Mrs Greville’s boudoir. The path you see winding away was the original approach to the house and if you can remember the opening sequence to the film Gosford Park you will have a very good idea of what it must have been like here in the 1920s and 30s as guests arrived. The Hon. Mrs Ronald Greville was a celebrated hostess in the Marlborough House set of Edward VII and Polesden Lacey was her country home and a hot-bed of gossip, intrigue and romance from 1906 until her death in 1942 when the house and 1400 acres of farmland, woodland, chalk downland and gardens were bequeathed to the National Trust. The present house was built by Thomas Cubitt in the 1820s but Mrs Greville had it considerably enlarged and refurbished in a French neo-classical style by the architects of the Ritz. Mrs Greville’s enormous wealth came from her natural father, William McEwen, who established a brewery in Edinburgh which became famous for its Indian Pale Ale, brewed to withstand export to the furthest corners of the world in order to quench the thirst of the British army.
In order to satisfy our curiosity Mrs Greville’s suite of rooms, including her extremely luxurious bathroom, has been opened to public view. I’m not sure about this decision. Although the views looking south are wonderful the rooms themselves are quite sad and it is quite a contrast to the saloon below which was designed as a room “fit to entertain maharajahs in”, think gold leaf detailing, crimson flock wallpaper, fine Persian carpets and 4,000 piece crystal chandeliers which were recently cleaned in situ by young conservation workers perched on temporary scaffolding. However, for me, the outstanding feature of the house is William McEwen’s collection of paintings including exquisite Dutch Old Masters and a fine display of paintings by Joshua Reynolds and Henry Raeburn. I am also very fond of the picture corridor which runs around a central grassed courtyard and features a copy of the Jacobean barrel-vaulted plaster ceiling found at Chastleton House in Oxfordshire. A strange addition you may say, but it works.
The future George VI and his bride, Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, spent part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey in 1923. Mrs Greville adored Elizabeth, the mother of our present Queen Elizabeth, and she was bequeathed her fabulous collection of jewellery which now forms part of the Royal Collection. This isn’t a photograph of the royal wedding but is of significance to me as my mother-in-law, who was a babe in arms at the time, waved to the bride Edwina Ashley as she left her Sussex home in the village of West Ashling for her London wedding to Dickie Mountbatten. I’m digressing, let’s go back outside.
The view from the house across the sloping lawn which is studded with daisies and a tiny creeping purple flower which attracts bees and other insects and gives the lawn a purple haze in high summer. Rabbits can be a problem here as they love digging up the lawns and borders but as at the allotment there seem to be fewer of them around these last couple of years. The formal garden is bounded by a low yew hedge, then there is wood pasture (see the shadows cast by the trees as the sun sinks in the west) and high on the ridge you can see Ranmore common.
Davidia involucrata (the handkerchief tree) in the sunken garden where winding paths are mown through the grasses and wildflowers. A very good place to sit and contemplate the spirit of the place.
I have had a wonderful afternoon. Thank you Mrs Greville and the National trust for taking such good care of Polesden Lacey. It’s not easy with thousands of visitors at weekends, but weekdays in term time are always quieter and if you do feel like visiting that is the time I would recommend. The wider landscape rarely gets busy and as well as the way-marked walks there are miles of footpaths and bridle ways which will bring you out onto the North Downs. Later this week I’m thinking of going back in the car. I have my eye on Rosa Cecile Brunner, I’m hoping I may be able to squeeze her into my garden…