Four Fabulous Historical Staircases to Visit. Blog first published at

Four Fabulous Historical Staircases to Visit

What do you think of your staircase?  If you’re anything like me, then you really only notice it when you give it a quick vacuum or try to wrap the Christmas garland around it.

But, when visiting a house for magazine earlier this week, I was reminded that, once upon a time, staircases were designed to be one of the main attention grabbing, ‘just look how wealthy I am’, showpieces of the historical home.

Captivating Carvings at Godinton House  

And if you want to attract attention, you have to give people something to look at.  Captain Nicholas Toke, a very wealthy 17th century merchant and member of the militia, decided that elaborate carvings would be the eye-catching feature of his new staircase at Godinton House, near Ashford.

The spectacular carved staircase at Godinton House, Nr Ashford. Kent Copyright belongs to Godinton House
The spectacular 17th century carved staircase at Godinton House, Kent. Image published with the kind permission of Godinton House.

It seems that every piece of the chestnut wood is carved or shaped into something amazing. Unfortunately, nothing is known of the craftsman who spent endless hours creating the trailing vines, exotic beasts and domestic animals but their talent is unmistakable.

The three newel posts are shaped as inverted obelisks and decorated with the ornamental intertwined line designs known as arabesques. These have then been surmounted by three very strange figures that, despite much speculation, no one has yet determined.

Symbolic animals have also been added.  A griffin and greyhound represent the Toke family’s heraldic achievements while a dragon, hornless unicorn and a lion represent Wales, Scotland and England.

The staircase was completed in 1628 and was just one piece of an elaborate renovation that saw the entire eastern side of the house rebuilt. In order to fit the new staircase in, Captain Toke had to reduce the size of the internal courtyard. He deemed the sacrifice worth it, however, as he wanted to impress guests on route to his new Great Chamber.

If you would like the chance to try out figure out those unidentifiable carvings for yourself, you can find further visitors information at .


The Chinese Chippendale Imperial Staircase at Chilston Park

Just a little bit further down the road is Chilston Park. And it’s hard to look at this historical staircase without wanting to don a very large ballgown and make a dramatic appearance at the top of the stairs. Fortunately, the country house is now a hotel so guests can do just that if they wish but it would never have been possible without the influence, and wealthy pockets, of Thomas Best.

The Chinese Chippendale Imperial Staircase at Chilston Park Hotel, Kent
The Chinese Chippendale Imperial Staircase at Chilston Park Hotel. Image published with the kind permission of Chilston Park Hotel.

Thomas bought Chilston Park in 1737. At the time he was a rising political star and he went on to be a twice elected MP for Canterbury, Lieutenant-Governor of Dover and Deputy Warden of the Cinque Ports.

As such, he and his wife, Caroline, needed a house to entertain and impress and the now Grade 1 listed building saw many improvements during his ownership.  One of which involved the complete remodelling of the east side of the property to accommodate a staircase hall inspired by the fashion for Chinese Chippendale.

The mid-eighteenth century craze for anything Chinese was largely prompted by the business exploits of the East India Company.  Written and verbal accounts of the exotic architecture, objects and customs seen in the Empire of China quickly spread through the ballrooms and gentleman’s clubs of Britain.

Imported goods, porcelain and silk swiftly followed, making their way into the homes of the wealthy and inspiring architects to incorporate their designs into the local architecture.

Furniture designer and cabinet maker, Thomas Chippendale, was one of the first to catch on to the new trend and in 1754 he published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Directory. As the directory included patterns and making instructions is was easy for his designs to spread and this  resulted in the term ‘Chinese Chippendale’.

The Chinese Chippendale influence is easy to see within Chilston Park but Thomas Best was not a man to be content with a simple staircase, no matter how ornate. No, something much grander was called for and he decided to commission an ‘imperial’ staircase with its trademark symetrically divided flights instead.

The lower flight of stairs are generally wider than the higher, seperated flights as, although designed to be visually stunning, the two individual flights are basically a form of traffic control. When entertaining, guests would only be allowed to ascend or descend in one direction.

It’s easy to see why this type of staircase is sometimes wrongly called a double staircase but to be a true double staircase you need to have two flights of steps, generally leading from opposite points, that meet at a certain destination such as a front door.

To find out more about the rest of this gorgeous hotel, which serves a fantastic afternoon tea by the way, take a look at 

The central elliptical staircase at Danson House, Kent. Image taken by Rachael Hale with the kind permission of Danson House.
The central elliptical staircase at Danson House, Kent. Image taken by Rachael Hale with the kind permission of Danson House.

A Georgian Spiral of Elegance at Danson House in Bexleyheath.  

Travel closer to London and the light and airy feeling attached to the elliptical staircase at Danson house is hard to ignore.  My last visit soon found me laying on the floor trying to capture the curves of this lovely staircase which due to its architectural structure seems to be magically suspended in the air.

The staircase owes its existence to, yet another, upwardly mobile gent. This time it was John Boyd, the son of a West Indies sugar cane merchant who wanted to build a home that would demonstrate his classical education and project an image of refinement far deeper than he had claim to.

No expense was spared and John Boyd commissioned Robert Taylor, the architect appointed to the Bank of England until his death in 1788, to realise his dreams.  The stunning oval staircase that now stands at the centre of the Danson House soars up from the service ground floor area to a surprisingly small number of bedrooms on the upper floor. I say surprisingly because John Boyd had five children by his first wife and three by his second.

One third of each step is built into the wall so each stone slab is held up only by the weight of the ones above and below it. Creating a staircase of this design takes a lot of skill and therefore expense. A fact that wouldn’t have been lost on John Boyd’s Georgian visitors.

Neither would the wrought iron railing enhancing the edge of the elegant spiral or the beautiful pale coloured Georgian trompe l’oeil, once hidden beneath a layer of duck egg blue paint, adorning what appears to be a stone beneath a glass dome.  In reality, the structure of the house could not support the weight of real stone but the fact that this is just an illusion doesn’t make the staircase any less ‘wow’ worthy.

The sad reality is that this entire building, like many other historical properties, was nearly lost for good. In 1995 English Heritage stated Danson House was the ‘building was the most at risk’ in London. Fortunately for us fans of historical buildings, a huge restoration project costing over 4.5 million pounds has since restored the building to its former glory. It now serves as the official Register Office for the London Borough of Bexley. Allowing the staircase to once again take centre stage and impress visitors.

Danson House is open to the public every Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Further information can be found at


Owletts 3

Plasterwork Perfection at Owletts near Cobham

My fourth and final staircase, and yes, I know there are far more than four fabulous historical staircases out there to see, is at Owletts in Cobham, Kent.

The dark wooden staircase is far simpler in design than those listed above but it still has the ‘wow’ factor due to the vibrant stained-glass windows and the extraordinary Carolean plasterwork ceiling that hangs above your head.

The stunning Carolean plasterwork ceiling at Owletts. Kindly published with the permission of Owletts and the National Trust.
The stunning Carolean plasterwork ceiling at Owletts. Kindly published with the permission of Owletts and the National Trust.

According to the 1988 version of Owlett’s guidebook, ‘The staircase and hall panelling were originally painted French grey, then grained oak (mustard) to be later covered with dark brown.  The Staircase is typical of the period of Charles II with a broad handrail and twisted balusters, built of pitch pine.’

Owletts is the 17th century, grade II listed birthplace of British architect Sir Herbert Baker. During his lifetime, Sir Herbert’s work received great criticism (for his work on the Bank of England) and acclaim.  He is, however, responsible for one of the most iconic war cemeteries visited today – Tyne Cot in Belgium.

Sir Herbert also remodelled Owletts before gifting it to the National Trust upon his death in 1946. His great grandson and his family still live at the property and Camilla Baker has kindly shared some of her family’s memories involving the staircase that is such a pivotal part of her home.

‘We live at Owletts and are lucky to use this lovely staircase every day. It is very similar to the ‘new’ staircase at Restoration House in Rochester, which if I remember correctly was built 1683. It spirals in the other direction. Owletts ceiling is dated 1684 and presumably the same craftsman journeyed from one job to the next. Restoration house was the inspiration for Dickens’ ‘Satis House’, home of Miss Havisham. So, we can imagine the jilted bride descending our staircase.’

And it’s a memory of its remarkable plasterwork ceiling that stands out for Caroline Baker who adds:

‘During the Big Freeze of January 1987, Michael and I awoke at 5am to hear water running outside our bedroom. Dashing out of the door, water was cascading through the plaster ceiling above us. Michael rushed up the spiral staircase and set the ladder to climb up into the attic to turn off the water, while I wrapped myself around in a dressing gown. Too late – as I followed him, in front of my very eyes there was a tremendous crash, as the heavily decorated ceiling fell, followed by a torrent of water.

I was terrified, panic struck. I paused and then followed Michael up the stairs, as an eerie silence fell. The dam was released, the flow of water from a burst pipe stemmed.

Recently we had been snowed in and no oil had been delivered, so there was no heating in the house, it was bitter. But we did have light, and our first thought was to find all the trays we had and pick up the damp plaster, rescuing the flowers, the heavy bunches of grapes, that luckily had not fallen on my head, and preserve them hoping modern day conservationists could piece the ceiling together again.

Luckily only part of the ceiling fell, and the rest was deemed safe, propped up in the meantime. Eighteen months later, with the knowledge of the original 1684 makers, conservationists returned having painstakingly pieced together the jigsaw of pieces and restored the ceiling. The patterning and dull white colour were similar to the original, and the joins invisible.’

As a final comment Camilla Baker adds, ‘As a teenager during the great fixing up project, I remember the fun of having scaffolding to swing on for the months it was installed. It made a change from sliding down the bannister (always a bit painful because of the square endings!)

I am so grateful to the Baker family for sharing their memories. They’re a great reminder that no matter how old, or grand, a house may be it was, and in many cases still is, a home.

To make your own tour of the Bakers remarkable family home visit for more information.

And if you know of a staircase that’s open to the public and deserves a mention, please add a comment below.

Until next time



How To Design A Fictional Stately Home

Authors and film makers have been using stately homes as a source of inspiration for centuries. Take Groombridge Place from my last blog post, Arthur Conan Doyle renamed it ‘Birlstone Manor’ for his fourth Sherlock Holmes novel, director Joe Wright turned it into ‘Longbourn Manor’ for his production of Pride and Prejudice and Peter Greenaway transformed it into the setting for his 17th century erotic murder mystery, ‘The Draughtman’s Contract’. Sometimes though, an existing house just doesn’t fit the plot and an entirely ‘new’ stately home is required.

Image of Groombridge Place taken by Rachael Hale

Crime and suspense author Amy Myers is no stranger to hiding bodies, planting clues and creating villains but, as she explains below, designing ‘Wychbourne Court’, a fictional stately home owned by the Ansley family for her new book, ‘Dancing with Death’, wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be…


‘Creating a fictional home of the magnitude of Wychbourne Court in 1920s Kent, where my new crime novel series about chef Nell Drury is set, sounds so easy. I even thought that myself when I began, only to find out how wrong I was. Not only did I have to work out what had happened to the building since its modest beginnings as a farmhouse before the Norman Conquest, but the lay-out of Wychbourne Court had to fit in with the finer points of my plot. Where was the murder going to take place? How could the murderer avoid being seen? Where would the ghosts walk? (Oh, yes, ghosts play a part in the plot of Dancing with Death.)

The evolution of a stately home

The original farmhouse, even then lived in by the Ansley family, had grown with the status of the Ansleys and was largely rebuilt in Tudor times; in the 18th century it acquired two large wings, one of which became the servants’ wing. Easy enough to type those few words, but this took much burning of the midnight oil on my part. I pored over plans of large country houses to see how they coped with their servants’ working and sleeping quarters. None seemed to fit Wychbourne Court exactly and hence the need for creativity on my part.

First draft of the floor plan for Wychbourne Court as designed by author Amy Myers

The historical kitchen conundrum

Take the kitchens, for example. Of course the Ansley family could not be inconvenienced by kitchen smells up their noses. Of course it mustn’t be at risk from the many fires that could break out. Was the answer a completely separate block for the servants with an open corridor to link it to the main house? Possible, as at Petworth House. No, I decided. Not for Wychbourne. Too difficult for chef Nell Drury to be easily involved with what was going on.

Besides, it would be too far from the dining room I’d planned. Underground tunnel linking the two? No. That might rule out the servants as suspects. Could it be incorporated in the main house? No, Wychbourne had grown too large for that solution, and anyway the smells would be too overpowering.

The kitchen at Petworth House used under the creative commons license.

The solution was to replace Wychbourne’s Tudor kitchen with a wing connected to the house to which the servants and waiters would have easy access. It wasn’t ideal, but it could be made to work. Then I realised the snag. Kitchens should be north or north-east facing which clashed with part of the plot. Plot therefore had to be changed, as did the old dairy which had to be both a fair way from the kitchen wing and also facing north or north east. Every brick and tile of the imaginary dairy had to be heaved up and moved.

Floor plan devised for the fictional stately home Wychbourne Court by author Amy Myers

Wychbourne Court is far from the elegant and immaculately planned house I had fondly imagined I could design, but then so are most stately homes. Their history is visible to all and therein lies their charm.

Nell Drury’s first case, Dancing with Death, has just been published and I have now begun the second. This time the requirements are entirely different. I can’t change the layout of the house, so the plot has to accommodate the nooks and crannies of Wychbourne Court. That’s fine with me. The house I created now seems to me as though it’s always existed.’

Amy Myers Top 5 Tips For Creating A Fictional Stately Home:-

1. Be prepared to change the layout as your plot progresses (and keep a note of what you’ve written about it in case you have to change it)

2. Think of access: live with the characters as they move about the house, needing access to various floors, rooms stairs etc. Also think what rooms and stairs etc they might need in case you mention them later, e.g. bathrooms, bootrooms etc.

3. Think of the house in context, i.e. design its grounds as well (often vital for the plot) and the village or farms etc surrounding the estate.

4. And don’t forget the points of the compass – which way the house faces, where the sun is etc

5. Don’t panic if your design isn’t perfect! We’re novelists, not Lutyens.

Thanks so much for taking the time to write this guest post Amy, as you know I love your books and can’t wait to read this new series.

And if you would like to know more about Amy, Nell and Wychbourne Court please follow Amy’s blog at chat to her on twitter or buy a copy of the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I’d love to know what you thought.


Dancing with Death by Amy Myers book cover

Arthur Conan Doyle, Murder and Ghosts at Groombridge Place


The Drunken Garden at Groombridge Place Image Rachael Hale

The Enchanted Forest at Groombridge Place draws thousands of visitors every year yet Arthur Conan Doyle was far more intrigued by its ‘Drunken Garden’. Surrounded on all sides by dense hedges and high walls the Drunken Garden feels slightly removed from the rest of the estates formal gardens.

Even on a sunny day, the shadows of the bent and twisted topiary lend it a mysterious air and on a cold, foggy day it can feel downright eerie. A stone seat hidden behind arching greenery in one corner is a brilliant hiding spot or in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle, the perfect place to plan a murder.

A Spiritual Connection

Arthur Conan Doyle was a frequent visitor to Groombridge Place in the early 20th century due to his friendship with Louisa and Eliza Saint, the two sisters who owned the estate at that time. They shared an interest in spiritualism and their frequent séances drew the author from his home in Crowborough.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes was also one of the first people to encounter, and apparently converse with, the ghost of Dave Fletcher. Mr Fletcher was an ostler who drowned in the moat in 1808.

A side view of the privately owned Groombridge Place  Image Rachael Hale

When relaying an account of the ghostly meeting in his book of essays, The Edge of the Unknown, Conan Doyle says the medium Mrs Wickland described him as being ‘a strange old man. His face is sunk forward. His back is hunched. He is earth-bound.’ When asked how the ghost was dressed, Mrs Wickland replies, ‘He has knee-breeches, a striped vest, and quite a short coat.’

Experiences such as this must have fuelled the authors imagination and Conan Doyle subsequently renamed the house ‘Birlstone Manor’ and placed it at the heart of his fourth, and final, Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear.

Published in 1915, the story revolves around the murder of Mr John Douglas, the owner of the fictional Birlstone Manor, and reveals just how familiar the author was with the original location.  The drunken garden provides the setting for a pivotal scene.

Dr Watson: I took a stroll in the curious old-world garden which flanked the house. Rows of very ancient yew trees cut into strange designs girded it round. Inside was a beautiful stretch of lawn with an old sundial in the middle, the whole effect so soothing and restful that it was welcome to my somewhat jangled nerves.

In that deeply peaceful atmosphere one could forget, or remember only as some fantastic nightmare, that darkened study with the sprawling, bloodstained figure on the floor. And yet, as I strolled round it and tried to steep my soul in its gentle balm, a strange incident occurred, which brought me back to the tragedy and left a sinister impression in my mind.

I have said that a decoration of yew trees circled the garden. At the end, farthest from the house they thickened into a continuous hedge. On the other side of this hedge, concealed from the eyes of anyone approaching from the direction of the house, there was a stone seat…

The Drunken bushes at Groombridge Place Image Rachael Hale

The Arthur Conan Doyle Museum

It’s not surprising that a memorial to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be found in the gardens and at one time it was also the setting for the Arthur Conan Doyle Museum. The room is still there, staged as a study and decorated with the red drapes and William Morris inspired blue and pink wallpaper I remember from previous visits. But all the pictures and personal objects are gone.

Sadly, the museum was only at Groombridge Place for four years and was the result of a collaboration between Mr Andrew de Candole, who owned Groombridge Place at that time, and The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment.

It was officially opened on 1 July 1995 by Mrs Georgina Doyle, the Establishment’s Patron, in the presence of Sir Arthur’s daughter Dame Jean Conan Doyle. Andrew de Candole took responsibility for decorating and furnishing the old dairy in a style that would have been familiar to Sir Arthur. He also provided the desk that remains on display although sadly, despite current belief, it wasn’t the desk used to write ‘The Valley of Fear’ and it unfortunately has no direct connection with the author at all.

Dame Jean Conan Doyle at the Arthur Conan Doyle Museum Groombridge Place
Dame Jean Conan Doyle at the opening of the Arthur Conan Doyle Museum, Groombridge Place. Image Brian Pugh – The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment

The display of Sir Arthur’s personal belongings, photographs, sketches, maps, memorabilia and archive material all belonged to The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment. The Establishment was formed in 1953 by Mr Malcolm Payne, a retired teacher, local historian and educational psychologist linked. He was linked to Sir Arthur through several relations who worked at Windlesham, the authors home in Crowborough.

Sir Arthur gave many items to his staff members and they in turn passed some of them on to Malcolm Payne. The collection was initially housed within ‘The Conan Doyle Room’ at The Crowborough Cross public house thanks to the support of Tony and Marian Yates, its licensees. Plans for the pub’s refurbishment in 1995, however, meant the collection needed a new home and it subsequently made its way to Groombridge Place.

Upon hearing where the collection would be re-homed, Dame Jean Conan Doyle wrote to Malcolm Payne, ‘it’s good news that the collection would be moving to Groombridge Place. My father went over there whenever we had guests staying at Windlesham who hadn’t stayed before. He was fascinated by the old house and felt that by showing it off to visitors from overseas he was introducing them to the very essence of England. Yes – if your collection cannot be in Crowborough, then Groombridge is quite the most suitable place for it… a splendid achievement… (as is) the happy news that there will be a memorial to my father in the grounds of Groombridge Place.’

The remains of the Arthur Conan Doyle Museum at Groombridge Place           Image Rachael Hale

The collection stayed at Groombridge Place until 1999 when the opportunity arose for it to return to Crowborough, as desired by Malcolm Payne. Malcolm sadly died in May 1997 but in honour of his wishes the collection was moved to the Beacon Community College. Unfortunately, the collection had to move on from there too and is now safely stored in a location known only to a few.

That is not the end of the story for the room at Groombridge Place, however, as puppet shows are now performed in the room inspired by the author of some of the greatest adventures ever written.

The study feel also still lingers and a display case in the right-hand corner displays some pipes, tobacco tins and a chess set that will be familiar props to fans of the show. It doesn’t take much to imagine that the author has just stepped away from the desk for a moment, to take a puff on his pipe or sit on the stone seat in the Drunken Garden.

Photograph of one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sons, probably Denis,  on display at Groombridge Place   Image Rachael Hale

Many thanks to Clare Singer and Sam Donaldson at Groombridge Place and Brian Pugh, Curator of The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment for all their help and the permission to publish the above images.

Front view of the privately owned Groombridge Place  Image Rachael Hale






Hello and Thank You


Once again the clocks have struck midnight and we’re into a New Year. Personally I’m excited, it feels like the reset button has been hit and I can start afresh with a new batch of goals.  But before I do,  I’d like to say thank you to you for reading my blog, whether this is your first visit or umpteenth.  I really appreciate your support.

I’d also love it if you would continue to join me in going behind-the-scenes at some of Britain’s most beautiful historical houses, discovering extraordinary restoration stories and sharing the stories of some of the county’s most remarkable rooms.

So if that sounds like the sort of post you would like to see in your inbox, please click the follow button at the right hand side of this page and get ready to take a peek inside some beautiful homes.

See you soon





What can you see at Knole’s Great Store?

03/03/2016 – Ciaran McCrickard / National Trust – Staff at Knole put the finishing touches to the Great Store as part of the house’s huge renovation.

Have you heard about the ‘Great Store’ at Knole? The National Trust property based in Sevenoaks? It’s a fantastic temporary exhibition that allows visitors to get close enough to see over 150 pieces of art and furniture in detail. And one of the most amazing things is that the store was never supposed to have existed in the first place.

As far as houses go, very few can compare with the sheer size of Knole. It was built to impress and show off and has been described as looking more like ‘a town rather than an house.’ Since I was a little girl, I’ve known it as the ‘calendar house’ due to its reputed 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards. I’ve recently learnt that this is sadly, just a myth. In the past, Knole has served as an archibishop’s palace and a hunting lodge for King Henry VIII.

With a footprint of over four acres, Knole is the largest private residence in the country and since 1603 it’s been in the custody of the Sackville family. The family has always moved in elevated circles and Knole’s gigantic ‘showrooms’ and galleries have been filled with an amazing array of paintings, furniture and objects, which were once on display in royal palaces, to amaze and amuse the great and the good.

Over time, however, the need for such formal spaces has dwindled, as have the resources to maintain such an extravagant property, and the Sackville family has withdrawn from the large formal ‘showrooms’ and galleries leaving them untouched and preserved in a somewhat Miss Haversham fashion.

Decanting the rooms - Knole House 2016
Image published with the kind permission of The National Trust

Many of these enormous rooms are now managed by the National Trust and the house is in the middle of a five-year, £19.8 million building and conservation project in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The current phase involves the opening of a new conservation studio, where Knole’s treasures can receive some tender loving care under the watchful gaze of visitors, and the conservation of the Reynolds Room, Cartoon Gallery, Ballroom and King’s Room.

Centuries of damp and poor heating have severely damaged both the rooms and their objects and, once the showrooms have been returned to their former glory, the newly conserved objects will be returned to their original settings.

Although running alongside one another, the building of the conservation studio and the conservation of the showrooms are separate projects with their own timelines. The original idea was that the conservation studio would house all the objects removed – or decanted to use the correct terminology – from the showrooms. But the building work didn’t quite go according to plan and the opening of the conservation studio was delayed.

All the objects from the showrooms still needed to be safely re-homed, however, and the idea for a Great Store within the Great Hall was conceived.

It took eight members of staff and twenty-seven volunteers 1,124.5 hours to move all the furniture, paintings, textiles and objects to their new temporary home in the Great Store and place them in the carefully lit, non-reflective cabinets and wall racks

Decanting the rooms - Knole House 2016
Image published with the kind permission of The National Trust

Hannah Pearson, Knole’s Marketing and Communications Officer, says ‘you walk into a room here and they are massive. With enormous ceilings and huge paintings and it’s easy to overlook things. So, although it wasn’t planned, the Great Store has worked nicely because it’s allowed people to see things up close’.

Past visitors will know that, although it has many treasures, Knole is not the brightest of buildings. Some people take the view that it’s dark and gloomy but I prefer to think of it as being part of the house’s slightly mysterious atmosphere. When the current conservation project is over, and the showrooms are fully re-opened, they ‘will be more environmentally friendly for the collections and the lighting will be better for visitors to see’.

Decanting the rooms - Knole House 2016
Image published with the kind permission of The National Trust

Back within the Great Hall, the furniture and objects are being well cared for. Items range from a crimson velvet close stool – that’s a stool containing a chamber pot – that originated from one of the royal palaces and is likely to have been used by King Charles II or King James II to an incredible silver table that was made for Frances Sackville, Countess of Dorset. Each corner of the table displays her initials and this type of ornate silver furniture was made fashionable in Versailles by King Louis XIV. That is, until the money was needed for military campaigns and every piece in France was melted down. In England, only three sets now survive, two at Windsor Castle and this one at Knole.

Numerous ornate silver and gold objects can be seen shimmering under the spotlights so when I asked Hannah what her two favourite objects would be her answers were a little surprising –

John Miller July 2012 - copyright The National Trust
Image published with the kind permission of The National Trust


Russia Leather Coffer circa 1668

Her first item was a Russia Leather Coffer or chest made in the 17th century. Hannah says ‘I love this chest. It was in the Cartoon Gallery before and you couldn’t see it up close. When you see things in the rooms, your mind is trying to take in everything but when you are close to the objects, they are all you focus on. I love all the detail, even on the lock itself – all the etchings and designs.’

Russia leather is cattle hide that’s been processed using birch oil to make it hardwearing and water resistant. This one was probably made by Richard Pigg, coffer maker to Charles II and Hannah explains that ‘coffers were usually used for storage as the richer families moved between houses quite a lot. This one is quite a grand one, so it’s ornamental as well as practical.’

Decanting the rooms - Knole House 2016
Image published with the kind permission of The National Trust

Ebony Cabinet made in Paris circa 1650

Moving onto her second object, Hannah is quick to point out this ebony cabinet. A photograph shows that it usually has legs attached but they have been removed for ease of storage. Hannah’s says ‘It’s usually displayed in the King’s Room which is very gold so you walk in and your eye is immediately drawn to the bed’.

This cabinet is also usually closed ‘so you don’t get to see all this beautiful detail which is just really lovely. When they opened it up I was like “Oh, that’s amazing!” It’s got all these little cabinets and storage bits and there are hidden sections behind the mirrors that you have to tuck your hands around to get to.

It’s in this cabinet that they found a note from Vita Sackville-West. Vita was about six when she wrote it and it reads ‘Dada, Mama and Vita looked at this secret drawer on 29th April 1898. It’s still in there, tucked back in the secret drawer.’

Once Hannah has finished telling me about her two favourite pieces I ask her why she chose them, she says ‘I really like that chest and maybe I go for the less blingy sort of objects. We don’t always tell the people stories at Knole, its usually about the collection or showrooms, so it’s amazing when you make a connection between an object and a person who lived here.’

Decanting the rooms - Knole House 2016
Image published with the kind permission of The National Trust

Moving past the lower level of furniture, towards the rear of the Great Hall, you come across a large rack of paintings. Their sheer size is staggering and somewhat intimidating, but being able to peer closely at the textures and detail is amazing. As is the fact that, once you have taken the stairs to the upper level of the store, you can see the plasterwork ceiling at close quarters and admire the detailed carvings adorning the Minstrel’s Gallery.

What strikes me most though is that, if all had gone to plan, then this remarkable experience would never have been available and that, in my opinion, would have been a great shame.

When the conservation studio opens later this year, the furniture and objects within the store will start to be moved over. As an item is removed, another will take its place until on 30 October 2016 the house will close for the winter and the Great Store’s 375 metres of scaffolding will be dismantled.

03/03/2016 – Ciaran McCrickard / National Trust – Staff at Knole put the finishing touches to the Great Store as part of the house’s huge renovation.

The Great Hall will then start yet another phase of its life as it takes its turn to be conserved. Until then, Hannah says that it will be ‘such a busy time. The Gatehouse Tower has just opened. It’s part of the conservation project but, as its where Edward (Eddy) Sackville-West lived, it’s the first domestic space to be opened and has a very different feel to showrooms in the main house.’

‘Then there’s the conservation going on in the showrooms, the conservation studio being built and the opening of the Hayloft Learning Centre and the Brewhouse Café. It’s so exciting and busy, people always seem to be moving some incredible object or finding something new’.

It’s also a very exciting time for visitors as a series of behind-the-scene tours and up-close sessions with expert curators and conservators, have been arranged to give an insight into the objects on display and reveal more about the ongoing conservation work. You can find out more by visiting Knole’s events page.

With the opening of several new spaces, this conservation project has also given rise to a range of new opportunities to volunteer at Knole. So, whatever your skills or the amount of time you have available, if you fancy stepping behind-the-scenes to help put the sparkle back in Knole and help visitors find its best bits, take a look at Knole’s volunteering page or pop along to one of its special volunteer coffee mornings.

Full visitor information, including opening times and charges, can also be found at

Knole, Knole Park, Sevenoaks TN15 0RP Tel: Phone: 01732 462100

2016 – Ciaran McCrickard / National Trust – Staff at Knole put the finishing touches to the Great Store as part of the house’s huge renovation.

How to be inspired by Kent Homes

Peering in estate agents windows, looking through the property pages and drawling over gorgeous houses on the net can become addictive.  We’re all looking for something, our dream home perhaps or inspiration for what we can do with our own home.  The styles and materials that build those properties can vary vastly from one end of the country to another, so when you spot another house that looks similar to your own, it adds that extra spark of interest. Which is why you may like to know that a new magazine titled Kent Homes & Interiors has just hit the magazine stands (with ahem…three of my articles in it.)  At the head of the production team sits Lee Grover, its co-owner, and Lee has kindly agreed to tell us all about it.

Kent Homes & Interiors Spring 2016 Cover

Hello Lee, thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me. How does it feel to finally hold a copy of the Spring 2016 Kent Homes & Interiors magazine in your hands?

I feel it’s my baby so of course I’m very proud but I don’t intend to rest. My plan is now to improve the magazine by increasing the number of pages and the number of issues being released in the future.  For 2016, we’re producing four seasonal issues and, being Kent’s only dedicated Homes & Interiors magazine, I hope our readers enjoy it and gain inspiration for their own homes.

You’ve wanted to publish this magazine for a long time – can you remember what inspired you in the first place?

I’ve been in the publishing industry for a long time and I’ve always loved working on home interest magazines.  Over the years, I’ve heard from lots of readers who were fed up with seeing adverts for shops and products they could never go and see before buying, because they were at the other end of the country. So I wanted to publish a regional magazine to highlight everything that Kent has to offer.

G. Dalby Stairway Image taken by Amanda Bryant
Take a tour through the Dalby’s ‘Modern Classic’ in the Spring issue of Kent Homes & Interiors magazine. Image taken by Amanda Bryant

Kent Homes & Interiors will be highlighting homes of all ages, styles and decorating tastes – what would be your ‘perfect home’ and how would it be decorated?

I already live in my perfect home.  It’s a Georgian house split up into apartments and I’m very much into furnishings that complement the period features in the property.  My personal taste is to decorate with egg shell paint colours on the walls and bold colour on the chairs and picture frames. I’m also always keen to find something wooden to put on my shelves. 

One of your aims it to highlight Kent’s abundance of independent shops, talented tradesmen, and women, and crafts people. In your home, what’s your favourite item that’s been ‘made in Kent’?

Well, I bought a side table from The Painted Pearl in Whitstable, it’s been upcycled with Authentico Vintage Chalk Paint and new drawer handles and I love it.  I’m now looking for glass vases to put on the top. 

A. Campbell Front Room Image taken by Rachael Hale
Garden blogger Alexandra Campbell reveals her secrets for creating ‘Eclectic Elegance’ in the Spring Issue of Kent Homes & Interiors Image taken by Rachael Hale

Three very special homes are highlighted in each quarterly issue, what else can readers expect to see?

One of the special things about the magazine is that we insist that over 60% of it is editorial and in the Spring Issue we have a very special guest writer in the form of interior guru, Kelly Hoppen.  We also have many other features covering Kitchens, Bathrooms, Extensions & Renovations, Flooring, Home Automation, Gardens, Shutters and Blinds and a lot more besides.

Is there a chance for readers to become involved in the magazine?

Yes, of course! It’s their magazine so if our readers want us to cover something in the magazine they just need to email me at  We are also seeking houses to feature in future issues so if you have a beautiful home and would be happy for us to come and talk to you, and takes some photos, then again, email me with half a dozen photos.  (For more information about what is involved click here or the tab at the top of this page that reads Your Home In The Press)

derek_seaward_dining_room_2_final.-p1aehdci3i11o31bjd1tchndpq7b (1) (1)
Discover how artist and author Janet Seaward showcases here artwork in ‘Picture Perfect’. All images for this feature were taken by Derek Seaward.

I know that choosing a magazines’ front cover can be tricky – what made you choose the Spring cover and why did you like it?

Having looked at many images we found this one from Wesley Barrell in Tunbridge Wells. It’s light and fresh with a hidden, budding flower to the right of the image which I think gives it that spring feel. 

Now that readers know what the magazine looks like, where can they find it?

It will be on sale in Supermarkets such as Asda, Co-Op, Tesco, Waitrose as well as premier newsagents such as One Stop, Martins and McColl’s.  We also have a facebook page and a twitter account and would love to know what readers think of the new magazine and what they would like to see in the future. (You can also buy a copy through


Kent Homes & Interiors Spring 2016 Cover

And finally, when you’re not working, do you have a favourite historical house that you like to visit and, if so, why?

I have an annual ticket for Leeds Castle, which I regularly visit.  I’m one for dragging family and friends on walks around the castle and pointing out the changes of the seasons in the trees and woods surrounding it.  I even play golf at the club there so I can spend more time taking in the views and I always go to their open air classical concert and firework nights.

Many thanks for taking the time to chat to me, Lee. I wish you every success with the magazine.

Leeds Castle Kent Photo by DAVID ILIFF.jpg
Leeds Castle, Kent Photo by David Iliff.  License: CC-BY-SA 3.0


Expert Interview: Jonathan Riley shares his passion for Indian Antiques, Food and Artwork

Jonathan Riley of Grand Auctions
Jonathan Riley of Grand Auctions  – Image Rachael Hale

As a journalist, I’ve had to become very aware of people’s facial expressions and how they react to questions so I love watching the faces of the Antique Roadshow experts when they’re first presented with ‘Great Aunt Maud’s treasured teapot’ or some flea bitten teddy found in an attic. Their range and depth of knowledge is staggering but, as they listen intently to each owner’s story, I can’t help wondering whether they’re actually thinking, ‘Wow what a gem!’ or ‘Crikey what can I tell them about that?’  So when I was offerred the opportunity to talk to Jonathan Riley, a painting and sculpture specialist based at Grand Auctions, by Jeff Sims at Edwards Harvey Limited, I jumped at the chance.

Jonathan was holding a valuation day at the Indian Restaurant ‘Flavours by Kumar’ in Ramsgate when I managed to catch a few moments with him and watch his partner Robin Newcombe in action.  No two valuation days are ever the same and Jonathan says ‘you never know what will come through the door’ although, usually, ‘70% will be rubbish and 30% will be interesting’.  Every item and owner is treated with the same respect, however, and Jonathan says that ‘art has become very much part of my life’.

It hasn’t always been that way and he reveals that his personal ‘damascene moment’ occurred while visiting the Uffizi gallery in Florence on his way back from a cricket tour he took while at university.  He says, ‘I had never been in an art gallery before because all the art I had ever seen was utterly boring, dull religious pictures. Anyway, I decided I had better go and what did I see? Dull, boring, religious pictures but then I turned a corner and there was the Birth of Venus by Botticelli and I was absolutely transfixed.  I had never seen anything like it and the colours… it had been done in 1480’s and it looked like it had been done yesterday.  It was so bright and colourful and that was me, totally hooked.’

Birth of Venus by Botticelli – Image sourced via wikipedia


From that moment on Jonathan became passionate about paintings and although his ‘original interest was Modern British’ he’s also ‘had to learn German, French, Chinese and God knows what – you have to widen out as you see things from all over the world all the time.’  Jonathan is now the leading authority for certain English artists but he has strong interest in Indian art, and food, due to spending the first eight years of his life in Gwalior. He says he was so immersed in the Hindu culture that Hindi was his first language and it was only when his parents were travelling back to the UK that he realised he was different. He says, ‘we went to the swimming pool and apparently I rushed back to my mother howling ‘Mummy, Mummy, they’re all white!’

13th Century Sandstone Temple Statue of Shiva
13th Century Sandstone, Temple Statue of Shiva – Image Rachael Hale

Jonathan’s deep-seated love of the country has remained with him so, when asked him what his favourite antique object was, it was no surprise to learn that it too was Indian.  With a rustle of paper and bubble wrap Jonathan revealed a small, smooth sandstone sculpture about 30cm high. Its delicate, slightly feminine, facial features are compellingly tactile and Jonathan explained that it’s the image of Shiva, one of the top three Gods within the Hindu Pantheon.  The other two, Brahma and Vishnu are credited with creating and preserving the universe but Jonathan says that Shiva is said to have ‘destroyed the universe in order to recreate it.’  The God ‘represents all the contradictions of man – of good and evil, kindness and unkindness and ignorance and knowledge etc.’ and by destroying the world he hoped to ‘bring back kindness and peace but, as a God, he is also known to lose his temper very easily.’  Dating from the 13th Century, Jonathan’s sandstone temple statue was bought at auction some 15 years ago and now stands in his sunroom as ‘there’s no chance it’s going to fade.’ As a child Jonathan says he ‘spent hours and hours talking about the gods’ and, as he holds it close while I take a photograph, he adds ,‘It’s not worth very much but to me it’s worth a great deal.’

Khajuraho by Charles Newington
Khajuraho by Charles Newington

With his ingrained love of Indian art and the admission that, to him, ‘Indian food is a drug’ which he has to have every week , Jonathan reveals that he’s recently been working hard to bring his two passions together through a special art exhibition called the ‘Best of the Best: Homage to Indian’. With the aim of ‘celebrating and rewarding excellence’ Jonathan says this event will ‘bring together what I regard as the best two local people in their fields.  It’s especially hard for people in the art world to get recognition for what they really are’ and Charles Newington, ‘is the best local artist by a street’.  He ‘is a painter of exceptional ability and originality’ and ‘a fabulous painter of Indian art’.  The exhibition will showcase some of Charles’ work which, in Jonathan’s opinion ‘captures what I would call the sensuality of India’ his work is ‘tactile, with very gentle curved lines and I think that’s the great joy of Indian work. To me all art has to have an element of poetry, if it doesn’t its boring.’


Anil Kumar, Tiffin Cup holder and owner of Flavours by Kumar in Ramsgate
Anil Kumar, winner of the Tiffin Cup and owner of Flavours by Kumar Image Rachael Hale

Hosted at Flavours by Kumar in Ramsgate, which was recently lauded the ‘best South Asian Restaurant in the UK’, the event, which begins on Sunday 6 March 2016, will also provide visitors with an opportunity to  taste ‘exceptionally good and exceptionally reasonably priced’ Indian food made by restaurant owner Anil Kumar. Jonathan has been enjoying Anil’s food for several years now and is thrilled that this ‘humble, decent man’ recently gained the recognition he deserves by winning the prestigious Tiffin Cup. Beating off competition from 121 other chefs, Anil was presented the award at the House of Commons where judges included celebrity chef Ainsley Harriet and EastEnders star Nina Wadia.  Anil says he’s, ‘excited and happy to see the exhibition happening in my place and that people are learning about the culture and seeing what the paintings are.  At the same time, I’m happy that people are also seeing my restaurant and trying my dishes.’

Following a private viewing on Sunday 6 March, ‘Best of the Best: Homage to India’ will continue until 16 March 2016 and be open from noon to 3pm every day.  All ages are welcome to dine at the restaurant, although the paintings on display during this period are of a very sensual nature, and guests wishing to taste Anil’s food are encouraged to book a table by calling 01843 852631.

The entire event is sponsored by Grand Auctions and Flavours by Kumar is based at 2 Effingham Street, Ramsgate, Kent CT11 9AT. Further information about both businesses can be found at and

Charles Anil and Jonathan
Artist Charles Newington with Anil Kumar and Jonathan Riley



Be inspired by History, and the History Magpie, at the Rochester Litfest on October 10 2015

Poster for Rochester Litfest 2015
Poster for Rochester Litfest 2015

On Saturday 10 October, the third Rochester Literary festival – ‘Live’n’Local’ – will be kicking off a fantastic line up of literary events inspired by local people and places.

The Saturday programme is full of workshops and talks perfect for history fans and I’m absolutely thrilled to be running a creative writing workshop in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester between 10am and 12 noon.  I’ve been busy taking photos and arranging to borrow a few of the more tactile pieces from the museum’s collection for you to get your hands on and I hope the morning will inspire you to use objects as prompts for your own writing. The session is suitable for both fiction and non-fiction writers and I would love to see you there. (Cue sales pitch – tickets are £5 each and you can find further info here :))

What’s even more exciting is that the museum will also be hosting talks by these amazing speakers that afternoon:

Toni Mount Rochester Litfest

Toni Mount: 12 noon – 1pm

Prolific medieval specialist Toni will be unravelling the mysteries of ancient medicine and revealing a time when butchers knew more about anatomy than university trained physicians.

Truda Thurai Rochester Litfest

Truda Thurai: 2pm-3pm

Referencing short stories inspired by Rochester Cathedral and her own methods of research, Truda will share some of her secrets to writing historical fiction.

Sir Robert Worcester Rochester Litfest

Sir Robert Worcester: 4pm-5pm

Sir Robert’s talk inspired the festival’s history themed day. The Magna Carta is widely regarded as a potent symbol of the freedom of the individual and 2015 is the 800th anniversary of its sealing at Runnymede. Sir Robert, the Chairman of the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, is a powerful and evocative speaker and during his talk he will be discussing its legacy.

Rochester Litfest is ‘run by writers for readers’ and materialises each year through the efforts of an incredible group of volunteers led by local writer Jaye Nolan. Jaye is one of life’s little whirlwinds, who filled with passion and commitment, has a knack for making things happen. This year’s ‘Live’n’Local’ festival is going to be amazing and I’ve only highlighted a few of its wide-ranging and diverse events.  The full programme can be found here and it would be wonderful if you could join us.

Looking forward to seeing you there.


Anonymous copy of original 1693 'Cast out all Witches and Devils' poster

The 17th Century Trial of Elizabeth Wood – the Benenden ‘Witch’

Anonymous copy of original 1693 'Cast out all Witches and Devils' poster
Anonymous copy of original 1693 ‘Cast out all Witches and Devils’ poster

During the 17th Century the accusation of witchcraft was a real threat and on 8 September 1653 the people of Benenden eagerly awaited a verdict from the Kent Quarter Sessions.

Following an alleged quarrel between Mrs Elizabeth Hodge and her neighbour, Elizabeth Wood, ‘a singlewoman’, Mr Hodge had accused Elizabeth Wood of witchcraft on the basis that their six-year-old son had begun to be ‘taken in the night time with strange fits of crying’ that could not be gratified.

When giving his evidence before three Justices of the Peace (William Boys, Robert Gibbon and Richard Kilburne) Mr Hodge stated that Elizabeth Wood had threatened to take her revenge on his wife and for past two months their son had suffered, calling out to him saying ‘Here comes a black thing and teares me and pulls mee by the backe’. On another occasion he is alleged to have said that ‘Bess’ would kill him and Mr Hodge believed he was referring to Elizabeth Wood.

Testimonies from all three adult parties are recorded within the Kent Quarter Sessions papers* and following an examination of Elizabeth Wood the entry reads…

‘She doth deny that she did…or practice any witchcraft upon Edward Hodge (son of Edward Hodge of Benenden aforesaid labourer) or by any other… or thing whatsoever, not hath she any skill or knowledge at all in any kind of witchcraft whatsoever and she doth deny that she did fall out with the wife of the said Edward Hodge his father.’

She was later acquitted.


These Kent Quarter Sessions papers can be found at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone under the reference of: Q/SB/4/52

Additional information was sourced from B.R.Dyer’s book ‘Kent Witchcraft’ published by James Pike Limited. 

Pre WW2 boys at St Matthew's School, including Syd Dixon, who died 12 December 1942, aged 20

Take a war time history walk with ‘Southborough War Memorial’ author Judith Johnson – September 12 2015

Pre WW2 boys at St Matthew's School, including Syd Dixon, who died 12 December 1942, aged 20
Pre WW2 boys at St Matthew’s School, including Syd Dixon, who died 12 December 1942, aged 20

For years, local history author Judith Johnson researched the stories of the 250 people remembered on the Southborough War Memorial. She visited their former homes and workplaces, talked to their relatives and laid local mementos at their distant resting places. Within the pages of her book ‘Southborough War Memorial: The Stories of Those Commemorated’ she has retold their stories and now, as part of the Heritage Open Days programme, she is giving you the opportunity to walk in their footsteps too.

Judith is passionate about these people and I’m thrilled that she has taken the time to tell us a little more about the walk and how her book originally started.

Over to you, Judith….

When I set out some years ago to find out as much as I could about the names on the Southborough War Memorial, the first step was walking up onto Southborough Common with a pad and a biro and making a list. I hoped to excavate some of the history of the more than 250 people from Southborough and High Brooms who were recorded there as having died in the First and Second World Wars, and make some kind of record that anyone interested might read.

There were to follow many hours down Tunbridge Wells Library at weekends searching through old newspaper reports on the microfilm machine. I had some very rewarding encounters with a number of close relatives, who were kind enough to share their memories with me. As they recalled their loved ones, they were  frequently moved to tears as the pain of their loss was revived. I was grateful too for the help and generosity of other local amateur historians, including members of the Southborough Society and medal collectors, who I found were always eager to give me whatever material they had discovered.

When my book was completed, my husband and son gave their time to proofread the text. Both of them were surprised at how moving it was to read of those, long dead, who they had never known and the cumulative impact of taking in the patchwork of information I’d gathered about these men (and one woman). Many of the relatives of those named on the memorial were prompted to tell me how touched and grateful they felt that the sacrifice of their loved ones had finally been honoured.

Some years later, I volunteered to do a guided walk of High Brooms as part of the Tunbridge Wells programme for the Heritage Open Days weekend. I spent several days walking around the streets of High Brooms with my husband, book in hand, researching a route (there are indexes at the back of my book which list the names in order of surname, military unit, place of rest, residence, and death date). I was amazed, given that I had been familiar with so many of the men’s details, at the further emotional effect of actually standing in front of their houses, speaking of them, and considering how it must have felt for the families left behind, who went in and out of those front doors.

I’m looking forward to repeating that guided walk, which will also include some High Brooms’ war-time experiences, on Saturday 12 September. This year will be particularly resonant, being the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of HMS Hythe. I also hope that we shall have access to the Hythe Memorial in St Matthew’s Church.

The walk will last for approximately ninety minutes and we will be leaving from outside St Matthew’s Primary School in Powdermill Lane (TN4 9DY) at 2.30pm. Therefore, anyone planning to attend should aim to be outside the Primary School at least five minutes before we leave. I’d recommend some comfortable walking-shoes, and you should be prepared for some steep walks uphill. Look forward to seeing you there!

Author Judy Johnson
Author Judy Johnson