HOME FOR In the past 65 years Bal­combe Place has been a prep school, con­fer­ence cen­tre and a care home. But now the fam­ily is tak­ing it back as an events venue PHO­TOS: WORDS:

Sussex Life - - Front Page - Dun­can Hall Jim Holden

This month the de­scen­dants of Lady Den­man will cel­e­brate Christ­mas in their fam­ily home for the first time in 65 years.

It will mark al­most 18 months since Fiona ‘Fo’ Martin, the great-grand­daugh­ter of the co-founder of the Women’s In­sti­tute, first got the keys back to Bal­combe Place from her brother, es­tate owner Si­mon Green­wood. On that oc­ca­sion, at the be­gin­ning of Septem­ber 2017, she cel­e­brated with her 55th birth­day party. Re­turn­ing guests will no­tice the dif­fer­ence in De­cem­ber. Much hard work has gone into trans­form­ing the 162-year-old house – and it is clear by com­par­ing the com­pleted rooms in what is known as the Pres­ti­gious Wing with those still await­ing ren­o­va­tion. What will even­tu­ally be­come a din­ing room has had the wall­pa­per stripped off the wall, an en suite bath­room ripped out and its car­pets taken up. A re­dis­cov­ered fire­place from the ex­ten­sive cel­lars lies wait­ing to be re­built to one side, while the floor has traces of the glue used to hold the old car­pets in place.

In con­trast the com­pleted neigh­bour­ing li­brary looks as if it has been trans­ported to the 21st cen­tury di­rect from the 1950s when Lady Den­man last in­hab­ited the house. The floor­boards shine, the wooden pan­elling adds warmth to the space and a log fire blazes hap­pily within easy reach of com­fort­able so­fas, built-in book­cases and a writ­ing desk by the win­dow. The one as­pect which re­mains the same be­tween the two rooms are the win­dows, look­ing out over a ver­dant green land­scape which stretches as far as the eye can see.

“My mother has said this is very much how the li­brary was,” says Fo, point­ing out the orig­i­nal log box and the fur­ni­ture which has largely come from the fam­ily. “We keep bring­ing mummy in to check how close we are to bring­ing her granny’s bed­room and bath­room to how it was.”

Mummy is 86-year-old Penelope Green­wood, who lives with Fo in a cot­tage around the cor­ner, and re­mem­bers her grand­mother well. Born Gertrude Pear­son in 1884, Lady Den­man was given the house in 1905 as a wed­ding present by her fa­ther Vis­count Cow­dray. Lady Den­man was a truly for­mi­da­ble fig­ure. A one-time cam­paigner for women’s suf­frage – whose stated hobby was build­ing bon­fires – she of­fi­cially named Can­berra when her hus­band was Gov­er­nor Gen­eral of Aus­tralia; was the first pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Women’s In­sti­tutes in 1917 and first chair­man of the Fam­ily Plan­ning As­so­ci­a­tion as well as a di­rec­tor of the Women’s Land Army dur­ing World War II hav­ing do­nated Bal­combe Place as its head­quar­ters. This last act helped keep the house in­tact when many other fam­ily homes were dam­aged or lost af­ter be­ing req­ui­si­tioned by the mil­i­tary.

“My great-grand­mother had no ma­ter­nal in­stincts sadly,” says Fo. “But she fell in love with her grand­daugh­ter – which is why the in­her­i­tance is all down the women’s line.”

Fol­low­ing the death of Lord and Lady Den­man – within 22 days of each other in June 1954 – the house was leased, first to a prep school, then as a con­fer­ence cen­tre, and fi­nally as a care home in 1985. It is this in­car­na­tion of the house which Fo is now try­ing to re­move, with the help of Bal­combe Place’s live-in gen­eral man­ager Emma Sargeant. A for­mer univer­sity friend of Fo’s daugh­ter Ar­tie, Emma was in­vited from Hert­ford­shire last Novem­ber to give ex­pert ad­vice on events man­age­ment at the venue, but stayed on as soon as she saw its po­ten­tial.

“We have done 90 per cent of the work our­selves,” says Fo. “Strip­ping wall­pa­per, pol­ish­ing floors – we just get a man in when it’s some­thing we can’t do our­selves.”

The process of reimag­in­ing each room be­gins with strip­ping out as much of the old as pos­si­ble. This can mean re­mov­ing en suite bath­rooms, or in the case of the large ground floor space strip­ping out chip­board which had been used within carved arches to di­vide up the mu­sic room and bil­liard room.

Some­times the act of strip­ping the room back can re­veal its true char­ac­ter. “There’s a bed­room up­stairs which had a hor­ri­ble cup­board built into it,” says Fo. “We went in there, took out the car­pet and the cup­board and found a beau­ti­ful fire­place.”

For Fo the fire­place is of­ten the in­spi­ra­tion for how the rest of the room might look. “Ev­ery room has an amaz­ing fire­place,” she says, point­ing to the range of styles from beau­ti­fully tiled Vic­to­rian fire­places to the draw­ing room’s shiny mar­ble columns. “We tend to dec­o­rate the room to the fire­place.”

Just strip­ping back the floors can be a big job. It’s not just a case of rolling back the car­pets as most have been glued and nailed down to the floor. “We have pulled up thou­sands of nails,” says Emma, point­ing to the work which has al­ready been done on the ground floor. “We have a vi­brat­ing ma­chine to take the rub­ber of the car­pet off, be­cause it was glued to the floor. Then we sand the floor two or three times,

mop 100 times be­fore we put on the floor pol­ish which we call the goo. Once we leave it to dry, then it looks okay.”

All that work is noth­ing to the amount of time it took for Fo to get plan­ning per­mis­sion to ren­o­vate the Grade II listed prop­erty. Hav­ing se­cured ar­chi­tects in June 2017, it took from Novem­ber to March 2018 for changes to be ap­proved. “We make com­pro­mises all the time,” says Fo – point­ing to fire doors in the ser­vice wing which the his­toric house rep­re­sen­ta­tives said had to go, but fire of­fi­cers in­sisted re­main, and so have been kept in an ap­pro­pri­ate style. A stock of old fam­ily pho­to­graphs has helped – es­pe­cially when it came to open­ing up the arches in the mu­sic room. The pho­tos proved that the space had once been open. “The plan­ners didn’t know how to make an in­sti­tu­tion back into a home,” says Fo. Although there is a big em­pha­sis on get­ting the house back to how it once looked, they are mak­ing mod­ern con­ces­sions where pos­si­ble – such as a biomass heat­ing sys­tem and the rolling out of LED light­ing to re­place the old en­ergy hun­gry bulbs.

The fam­ily is shar­ing the home with the pub­lic – of­fer­ing Bal­combe Place as a hire­able venue for wed­dings and par­ties. Work is on­go­ing to cre­ate 14 bed­rooms by 2020 – four of which are now on­line. And with the open spa­ces of the mu­sic room, draw­ing room, hall­way and li­brary down­stairs there is room for up to 250 guests.

“It’s about keep­ing the roof on,” says Fo. “We are try­ing to make it bet­ter and bet­ter – our next de­scen­dants might want to live here, so we want to make it ready for them.

“When the house is full of peo­ple it feels fan­tas­tic. It was built to en­ter­tain – the orig­i­nal ar­chi­tect Henry Clut­ton was com­mis­sioned by [owner] John Hankey to build a house for en­ter­tain­ing.”

“Some coun­try houses have lots of lit­tle rooms,” adds Emma. “But this is so open it flows and is per­fect for en­ter­tain­ing – whether it is ten or 12 peo­ple, or 250.”

The house hosted a launch event in May, a Hunter’s Ball in Novem­ber, and has sev­eral Christ­mas par­ties al­ready booked. But things will hot up next year as the ren­o­vated bed­rooms grad­u­ally open up on the first and sec­ond floors.

There are al­ready 11 wed­dings booked for 2019. “The de­mand is there,” says Emma. “And we are go­ing to meet it. What is nice is there are very few pri­vate houses to this scale which are avail­able, and which peo­ple can make their home.”

out­side which she turned into a swim­ming pool,” says Fo. “We have a pic­ture of her swim­ming in it with her head up and a cig­a­rette go­ing.” There are no plans to bring back the pool, or Lady Den­man’s nine-hole golf course – whose ninth hole was ap­par­ently placed de­lib­er­ately near the house so vis­i­tors were too ner­vous to take a true swing for fear of break­ing a win­dow. But once the rooms are fin­ished the pair plan to turn their at­ten­tion to the gar­dens, which are al­ready grow­ing a crop of Christ­mas trees in one cor­ner.

Cur­rently un­der ren­o­va­tion are the old din­ing room, a sit­ting room which will be turned into a guest’s kitchen so res­i­dents can make a cup of tea or snack with­out us­ing the cater­ing kitchen fa­cil­i­ties in the ser­vice wing and the re­main­ing ten bed­rooms on the first and sec­ond floors. Other projects may take a lit­tle longer – such as restor­ing the or­gan in the mu­sic room which has been quoted as “a high six fig­ure sum” ac­cord­ing to Emma, or open­ing up the cot­tages across the court­yard from the main house. There’s also a large cel­lar, stretch­ing the length of the ground floor, where Lord Den­man ap­par­ently used to re­tire to in the sum­mer ow­ing to se­vere al­ler­gies.

Fo is keen not to turn the house into a per­ma­nent wed­ding venue though: “We don’t want 120 wed­dings a year,” she says. “We want ev­ery bride to feel that it is spe­cial. We’ve got birth­day par­ties and other events. You can get into Lon­don from here on the train or by car, Gatwick is only ten min­utes away, although the planes don’t fly over us.”

And the house still gets vis­its from peo­ple who re­mem­ber study­ing in the prep school, us­ing the con­fer­ence cen­tre or who dropped in on par­ents or grand­par­ents in their dotage. For Emma though the best time is when any work­men have gone and she gets the house to her­self. “I find my­self pot­ter­ing about the house at seven or eight o’clock,” she says. “It feels so calm and lovely. It’s im­por­tant that there is some­body al­ways on site – this is a house to be lived in and used. It is amaz­ing and a priv­i­lege to be lucky enough to live and work here.”

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