As long as I have been interested in English Country Houses, I have yearned to visit Penshurst Place in Kent, near Tonbridge. It was definitely worth waiting for. Their website is here.
On a warm sunny day in early June 2011, we were greeted by a local organic food fair outside the entrance. I wanted to browse, but I was far too eager to get to the house and gardens. From the looks of the crowd, however, they were doing a good business in eggs, meat, poultry, veggies and ciders.
When I took a course on English Country Houses at Oxford, one of the prime examples presented of the ancient fortified manor house was Penshurst Place. Though many others still exist, the Baron’s Hall (built 1341) is, according to the guidebook and my don (professor), “the best preserved example of 14th century domestic architecture in England.”
This is where the members of the household lived, ate, slept — and died. The fire pit in the center of the hall was vented through the roof, so it would have been smoky, as well as crowded, smelly, and noisy. If danger threatened, many more people — farmers, shepherds, villagers — would crowd in for protection. The Lord of the Manor and his family ate at the High Table on a raised dais, but probably withdrew to the Solar for most of their activities.
Cinque Ports, the enlarged house became the home of the Sidney family, various branches of which have owned it ever since.
Penshurst was the birthplace of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), one of those amazing examples of the Renaissance man: courtier, statesman, soldier, and poet, known for his honor and virtue. There are hundreds of fascinating stories about the people who lived here, or wanted to: feuders, plotters of intrigue, scandalous characters, builders, and wastrels, as well as many government officials, country gentlemen and ladies who were sober and industrious — and everything in between the miscreants and the gallants. The interiors of the house are fascinating, showing features from many centuries and reflecting the history of the family — but again, there are no photos permitted. Why? Talk about cutting off your own nose, etc. Below, looks like somebody scanned the Long Gallery photo from the guidebook.
And here’s another interior, of the Panelled Room, with its magnificent bed.
Below, the Nether Gallery, with its collection of arms and armor, from Country Life magazine.
Dudley, are many of the most famous names in English history: Sidney, of course; Dudleys, Perrys, Shelleys, Spencers, and Churchills; Dukes of Northumberland; Lady Jane Grey; Earls of Leicester, Salisbury, Sunderland, and Bridgewater, and the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. His daughter by the actress Dora Jordan, Lady Sophia FitzClarence, married Philip Sidney, 1st Lord L’Isle and
There are many wings of the house which are not open to tourists, but I felt quite satisfied with seeing the oldest areas, which are impressively preserved. Bravo, Viscount D’Lisle!!
Travels with Victoria will journey to Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, next.