Nicola here. The sort of stately home visits I tend to make usually involve a gorgeously-furnished and decorated historic house, beautiful gardens, a gift shop and afternoon tea (or morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea to be more specific.) Those are usually the National Trust places or the Historic House Association. Alternatively I might go to a ruined castle or a site in the care of English Heritage and it’s always amazing and I learn a lot about the place and the people who lived there.
I’ve never “done” a stately home visit like the one I went on last week at Clandon Park in Surrey. Originally built, or re-built in the early 18th century, Clandon is a Palladian-style mansion built for Thomas, 2nd Baron Onslow. The interior of the house was completed in the 1740s and it was glorious, with a two storey, forty foot Marble Hall and stunning plasterwork ceilings. Described by the National Trust as “a gleaming white forty foot cube”, the hall must truly have been a jaw-dropping space and hugely impressive. It was the centrepiece of entertainment at the house, surrounded by other grand rooms and with two huge staircases and was designed to emphasise the status of the Onslow family.
Other rooms, including the State Bedroom, were equally grand. The state bed was made in about 1710, with exquisite silk embroidered hangings, a reminder of the visits of King George I and George II. Although the bed was already 50 years old in 1778 it was described as “a noble and costly bedstead with hangings beautifully worked in a great variety of colours lined with sattin and superbly finished.” The bed was not used frequently; the last person to stay in it was the Princesse de Lamballe, a friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was a guest in 1791 and was subsequently guillotined in the French revolution.
On April 29th 2015 everything changed at Clandon Park when fire gutted the entire mansion. Everyone was evacuated safely but the house was left a shell. A complex salvage operation followed and plans have been made to rebuild Clandon in a way that pays tribute to its history but also creates different opportunities for the future. In the meantime, it’s possible to enter the house via a walkway to see both what has been lost and what survives. I found this a very poignant and moving experience. It’s so seldom one gets to see what lies beneath a grand house – I’ve only had the experience once before when we were undertaking conservation work at Ashdown House – and in the case of Clandon, of course, the reason for the opportunity a tragic one. And yet it’s also a way to see and learn new things – about how the house was built and decorated, about what is usually hidden underneath all that gorgeous decoration.
Standing in the Saloon the first thing that struck me was the noise. The house is completely covered to protect it from the weather
and the false roof and the scaffolding vibrate in the wind like an instrument. It adds a rather eerie quality to what is already a strange experience. This room has had many different roles in the history of the house. It has variously been used for dining, as a parlour, and as a billiards room. An inventory from 1778 noted that it was painted dark green and hung with oil paintings; it was used as an entrance from the gardens and as an extension to the Marble Hall. After the fire the room was full of debris from the floors above which collapsed into it and a huge amount of salvage work has been done here. One of the fine fireplaces survives which gives a flavour of the intricate decoration that was once in the room.
The Marble Hall still retains its floor, which is damaged and covered over, and if you take the walkway to the left you can see down into the basement of the building and up to the sky. All the beams and flooring have gone but the fireplaces and some of the statues remain. It was an extraordinary feeling to stand in that space, feel the emptiness and try to imagine the original grandeur.
In the state bedroom some of the wallpaper, panelling and even the plasterwork was saved so the traces of what was here before can still be seen. Our guide told us that the bed hangings had been saved because by a miracle they had been taken down for renovation and were still parcelled up when the fire started. Even more miraculously, the dining room next door, known as the Speaker’s Parlour, remained largely unscathed. It is hoped that this will be open to view again soon. Little by little the house comes back to life.
In addition, other parts of the house have been revealing secrets that would otherwise not have been known. Down in the basement is a room that in the Victorian period was called “The Butler’s Room.” Once the fire debris had been cleared it became apparent that the floor there was different from the rest of the house and that it contained brick and tile. Drains have been found that date prior to the time the house was built and are the remains of a previous house on the site, a Jacobean mansion whose footprint lay hidden beneath and would never have been found but for the fire. Whilst in no way underplaying the devastating effects of the fire, our guide emphasised the positive opportunities they now have at Clandon to learn about its history and construction and to make exciting progress going forward into the future.
After the emotion of touring the house we went out into the gardens, a beautiful landscape created by Capability Brown which subsequent owners and generations added to with a parterre, grotto and Dutch garden. The Dutch garden is gorgeous and felt exactly the right place to sit and think about all we had seen at Clandon, both the terrible destruction but also the secrets revealed and the hope for the future.
You can find out more about Clandon Park and the restoration project here.
When we restored Ashdown House we found lots of hidden things, from old newspapers to a secret passageway beneath the building. Have you ever seen "behind the scenes" at a place that usually looks quite different, and did you find anything that would normally be hidden? Do you think it's important to restore old houses or other properties that have been damaged by natural disasters or should we move on and put the money to other uses?