An hour’s train ride south-west of London brings you to the pretty commuter villages of East and West Horsley. Drive for five minutes from the station until you hit the Leatherhead to Guildford road. A little way along towards the county town, surrounded by fields, is a modest red-brick gate lodge and splendid wrought iron gates. Opposite is the rather lovely Saxon flint church of West Horsley – St Mary’s – with its rose window and wood shingled broach spire. Driving down the tree lined drive, you catch tantalising glimpses of the house through the trees, until finally you make a sharp left into a gravel turning circle. Before you is a magical vision. An elongated red brick facade – 10 central bays with two protruding wings featuring venetian windows (one now bricked up) topped with dutch gables. A further dutch gable crowns the central two bays above the ogee front door.
This is West Horsley Place. Until recently the private home of the late Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. As a local resident I had the privilege of meeting Mary Roxburghe, and saw the house when it still housed her extraordinary collection. Mary was the youngest daughter of Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe, and his second wife Peggy Primrose (herself the daughter of Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, who served as Prime Minister under Queen Victoria and whose wife was Hannah de Rothschild, the richest woman in England). The Marquess bought the house and estate in 1931 as a summer retreat, but the house’s history goes back many centuries.
There has been a manor at West Horsley Place since the Norman Conquest, but the present core of the house is 15th century. A timber-framed building with a double-height entrance hall, the house was given by Henry VIII to his friend and cousin, Henry Courtenay, in 1536. In return the grateful Courtenay hosted an extravagant lunch for the King. Records reveal that the 35-course lunch included stewed sparrows, larded pheasants, ducks, gulls, stork, gannets, heron, pullets, quail and partridge. However Courtenay’s tenure at West Horsley Place was short-lived; just three years later the King had him beheaded for treachery, and the house was sold.
By the early 17th century the estate belonged to the 2nd Viscount Montagu, who sought a cost-effective way of modernising the Tudor house in accordance with the latest fashion. The solution was a simple one. Rather than demolishing and rebuilding the house from scratch, he commissioned a long and beautiful red brick facade – in the latest Jacobean style – for the southern side of the house. This facade was literally screwed to the original Tudor timbers, and today the top is gradually coming away – it has drifted from the house behind by about five inches.
By the 1630s the house had come in to the hands of the politician Sir Nicholas Throckmorton Carew. He served as MP for Surrey, and his sister Elizabeth was married to Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1643 Sir Nicholas died, leaving his manor in West Horsley to his nephew – Sir Walter’s son – Carew Raleigh. Raleigh would later add the handsome staircase to the house, and some have suggested that it was he, not Viscount Montagu, who added the front facade – there are records of Raleigh spending £2,000 on the house; a vast amount at the time. In December 1656, Raleigh settled the West Horsley estate upon his son, Walter. However the early death of Walter from pestilence, in 1660, along with the deaths of his children, meant that West Horsley Place would not be passed down in the Raleigh family. He was buried in the chantry chapel of St Mary’s along with (rumour has it) the head of his grandfather, Sir Walter Raleigh. A broken-hearted Carew sold the house shortly after to Sir Edward Nicholas for the sum of £9,750. The house would remain in the Nicholas family, and their descendants the Weston family (Henry Weston married Sir Edward’s illegitimate granddaughter) for several centuries, until it was acquired by the Marquess of Crewe in 1931. It would later pass to his daughter, Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe.
No one knows the architect of the front facade of West Horsley Place, although some have suggested that it was the same person who designed the Duke of Wellington’s residence at Stratfield Saye – that house has a similarly long and low facade bookended with dutch gables. With the gables you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re in Norfolk or Suffolk, where the Huguenot influence was strong and dutch gables are commonplace. Here in Surrey, however, they are rarer than hens teeth. It is interesting that while the central and western gable are distinctly dutch in their appearance, the eastern gable is pyramidical. In addition, it must be noted that while the western wing boasts a majestic and recently restored venetian window, the matching window on the eastern wing has been bricked up. This is because the eastern wing houses the kitchens.
Another notable feature of the front facade is the large central brick doorcase with Doric pilasters. These flank a “Gothick” doorcase with brick hood mould and glazed ogee transome light. On either side of the front door are red brick dog kennels faced with matching dutch gables – an unusual addition, but one that reminds you that this house was built to be a home.
As you enter the house, you pass through a small domed lobby with a band of Greek key patterning, before entering the great hall. Originally double height, the hall is now a beautiful classical space with a flagged stone floor and a Doric colonnade separating the hall in to two spaces. The doors leading out of the hall – to the lobby, garden hall and library respectively – are panelled under Doric modillion pediment overdoors. A charming addition to the hall are the murals on the southern wall – these were painted during the recent filming of The Durrells when the interiors of the house doubled for the Countess Mavrodaki’s Corfu villa.
Through the colonnaded screen, you reach the 17th century oak staircase with turned balusters and decorated dado rail. The square newel posts match the square panelled ceiling. Up the stairs you reach the west wing with a marble fireplace with deep leaf moulding and a broken swan neck pediment over the fireplace. To the east of the great hall, before you reach the kitchens, is a smaller staircase with square newel posts and square balusters, and large spherical finials to the newels. This staircase brings you out (through another ogee door) to the principal reception room. A gorgeous, long room hung with crimson damask, the sun streams in through the south facing windows which offer views across the parkland and up to St Mary’s Church.
West Horsley Place is no longer a private home. In 2014 when Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe died, it was inherited by her great-nephew, the television presenter and author Bamber Gascoigne (himself the great-grandson of the 1st Marquess of Crewe). The house was filled with the late Duchess’s extraordinary collection, but was itself in a state of disrepair. Bamber made the difficult decision to place the house in to trust and auction the contents in order to pay for the restoration of the house. The two-day auction at Sotheby’s raised £9m and lots included paintings by Sir Thomas Lawrence and Lord Leighton and jewellery by Faberge and Cartier.
Wonderfully the house has been brought back to life. Not only is it used for filming and weddings, but West Horsley Place is the new home of Grange Park Opera. An opera house has been built in the woods behind the orchard, and in the summer the gardens and house are filled with laughter and singing. It may no longer be lived in, but West Horsley Place remains a magical setting, with an extraordinary history and exceptional architecture. I fell in love with it as a small boy living in the village, and I’d challenge anyone who hasn’t fallen under its spell.