Our efforts to find another buggy friendly walk took us on a rare spring day, that actually felt springlike, to Polesden Lacey, a National Trust property I had never heard of before. It was in the direction of Box Hill, so having been there and knowing how lovely the scenery was round there, I was keen to explore more.
As I grew up in flat-as-a-pancake Essex, I am always surprised to find rolling, proper hilly countryside only a short drive from London – there is even the odd bit of heathland in *Croydon*! The countryside round the village I grew up in has its own charm and will always be dear to me, but nothing can quite beat the drama and beauty of the North Downs (by Home Counties standards at any rate) – and Polesden Lacey turned out to be a bit of a hidden gem.
The house itself is probably not remembered for any great architectural significance, nor is it particularly ancient, and the historical connections are mainly of interest due to the Royal Family (George VI and the Queen Mother honeymooned there, but no great scandal or drama associated with the place as far as I could see).
It’s the setting, on the edge of a valley, which really makes Polesden Lacey special. What struck me first as unusual was that the main facade of the house looked out along the gardens rather than down into the valley – the ground slopes away so steeply to one side that the gardens are mainly in front and behind the house, creating a very linear structure. This lends itself nicely to creating various garden ‘zones’, some more wild and some more formal, with hedging and walls to divide up the different areas.
The buggy-friendly walk takes you along a sandy track away from the house, past a woodland play area, (nicely done, but not wildly adventurous for our mountain goat of a girl) and then doubles back on itself to take in the Long Walk, a level terrace path hidden behind a tall hedge which gives you amazing views across the valley. (See above)
Of course the land across the valley is all part of the estate so it was a beautifully managed vista with what looked like a Wealden-style rustic cottage folly nestled among the trees, a farm in the valley bottom and sheep dotting the landscape in all directions. It was all too perfect not to feel like you were being stage-managed, but when the views are this lovely, who cares, frankly?
There were several longer trails that took you down into the valley – even one that would have been accessible for buggies and wheelchairs assuming you had enough spare hands to help open gates – but we decided to stay inside the grounds themselves, and went on next to the kitchen gardens.
This was a scene straight out of Mr MacGregor’s garden, from the rows of lettuces and radishes to the potting shed – the perfect place for Peter Rabbit to hide. The gardens actually grow food that is used in the kitchens and cut flowers for displays in the house – not only sustainable and zero food miles, but actually using the gardens for the purpose they were designed for – awesome and very sensible at the same time.
The other decorative walled gardens weren’t quite at their best when we visited – no roses out yet – but there was a great wilderness area to explore, across a little footbridge from the main garden, and a rockery that was full of interest for a 3-year-old, with little paths winding up and down it to have a proper explore, and lots of ferns and alpine flowers to admire.
After lunch, we went inside the house, which had not nearly so much to amuse a small child, although there was a suitcase of costumes to ‘dress up like an Edwardian child’ and a few other hands-on exhibits – more of this, please, is what I’d say! The lavish interior of the house – gold, embossed wallpaper, Faberge, more gold – is a sharp contrast to the more simple pleasures of the gardens outside, but it was certainly worth looking around (and more of the interior will be opened up in future years, they say).
There was a good bit more to the estate than this – an orchard, another woodland area and huge open lawns where families were picnicking, plus the cafe and enormous gift shop with its ubiquitous plant sale. (That is, plant sales seem to be ubiquitous at National Trust properties now, and I ain’t complaining, I thoroughly approve!)
I hadn’t been to a National Trust stately pile for years, I don’t think, and I’m sure this one during the week is full of coach parties trekking round the house- but it was lovely at a weekend to see it full of families enjoying the gardens too.
Best of all, I discovered later that the cottage across the valley is actually a youth hostel, Tanner’s Hatch. It is inaccessible by car, so you have to walk or cycle from Box Hill station, or leave your car in a lay-by up the lane. You can cook outside on a fire pit, and with no permanent warden I reckon if you struck lucky you could have the place to yourself.
We aren’t yet at the stage of planning a weekend away without children, but when we do, it’s this place I want to go to, it’s gone straight to the top of my list of most-wanted places to stay. We will definitely be back!