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:
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.”