Sophie Campbell



A Surrey mansion comes to life

March 23, 2019

One crisp afternoon this winter, a Surrey mansion lay dreaming in the sun. White-framed windows marched across a rosy seventeenth-century façade, separated by pilasters with stepped capitals. In the centre, a flirty ogee doorframe directed the eye up to a Dutch gable and deeply-pitched tile roof. Tucked into the corners of its two uneven wings were twin redbrick dog kennels, added by a Victorian owner.

There it had stood for much of the twentieth century, gently subsiding into old age alongside its occupant, the Duchess of Roxburghe, all set fair for a peaceful future until in 2015, eight months after her death, a small hurricane hurtled up the drive.

West Horsley Place, Surrey

The house was West Horsley Place, on the edge of the Surrey Hills, an H-shaped early-Tudor manor house with later additions, unexpectedly left by the Duchess to her great-nephew, the former University Challenge presenter Bamber Gascoigne.

The hurricane was Wasfi Kani OBE, the founder and CEO of Grange Park Opera in Hampshire, who, after a rupture with her freeholders, found herself with one of the world’s top tenors booked for summer 2017 and no opera house to put him in.

Hearing that Gascoigne was setting up the charitable Mary Roxburghe Trust to run the Grade I listed house, Grade II listed outbuildings and 380-acre estate as an arts entity in some form, she sent ‘a couple of spies’ (including Joanna Lumley) to case the joint and then arrived in person to persuade him that what he most needed was an opera house in his garden. Eleven months and £10 million later, in June 2017, the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja opened in Tosca, in the new Theatre in the Woods.

Theatre in the Woods, West Horsley Place

What sort of energy do you need to do that? Well I can tell you, after scuttling around in Kani’s wake trying to take notes for a morning. ‘I feel as though I’m in a Shakespeare play in these gardens,’ she said, zooming through an iron gate into a dreamy wilderness of box hedges, brick walls and lawns, stopping to point out the arthritically-gnarled damson, mulberry, pear and apple trees in the old orchard.

Every summer these spaces, laid out in 1710, sprout marquees and little Indian pavilions in which people can eat, and rugs are spread between molehills and box balls for that greatest of country-house opera traditions, the long interval picnic.

A lucky few dozen eat in the house itself, choosing between the Morning Room, hung with paintings owned by the Duchess, and the Doric-colonnaded Stone Hall, a former version of which once staged a 35-course feast for Henry VIII, who beheaded his host three years later. This year for the first time 20 people will eat upstairs in the Red Drawing Room, with two tables of ten balanced on the wonky timber floors.

‘Look,’ said Kani, downstairs again and tapping a toe on the Stone Parlour flags, ‘Elizabeth I walked on these.’ Her builder and collaborator Martin Smith, ferreting around in the Surrey archives, had discovered that Elizabeth had stayed for a week. ‘She progressed around the country, sponging off people,’ added Kani, ‘And there were revels of some sort, so we’re not the first opera house here! Isn’t that amazing?’

The place is magical; still in an abstracted, pre-restoration limbo long gone for the Glyndebournes of this world. In the Library, she absent-mindedly lifted the corner of a wooden crate in the window embrasure and dropped it again, dust motes twirling into the sunbeams. ‘Saddles,’ she said succinctly. ‘Now, let’s go see the opera house.’

I managed to delay a minute. This was not just any library. West Horsley Place has been owned by a glittering roster of names, including Walter Raleigh’s son, but in 1931 was bought by the Duchess’s father, the 1stMarquess of Crewe. His own father, a Liberal politician, poet and bibliophile, knew Tennyson, Thackeray, Swinburne, Dickens, Trollope, Mrs Gaskell and many others, and was an avid collector of Keats.

The Duchess left the cream of the collection, 7,500 volumes, to the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, alma mater of both father and son, including a small blue suitcase she called the ‘Holy of Holies’ containing signed first editions, many with letters of dedication pasted into them, whose existence was never suspected.

Wasfi Kani in the orchard

We stepped out of the Stone Parlour into what is, in the opera season, the tented White Wisteria Champagne Bar, trotting over to the Crinkle Crankle Garden, named after its east-west serpentine wall. The curves provide stability (so fewer bricks are needed) and its south-facing surfaces are perfect for fruit growing – and picnics.

Visible over its scalloped edge was the benign, rounded end of the Theatre in the Woods, brick-built, speckled like a blushing digestive biscuit, with criss-cross diaper work (new this year) and a loggia going up as we watched, supported by larch columns with a glass roof to let in the light and, all-importantly, to thwart the rain.

Opera goers from the first season must remember the smell of new timber and the hastily-improvised details, which, slowly but surely, are being replaced by the real thing. There’s a new Lavatorium Rotundum, echoing the curves of the auditorium and gleefully named after a famous communal latrine in Ostia Antica, Rome: we had to shut ourselves in a ladies’ cubicle to admire the galvanised wire shelves and loo roll holders and the little red flags that flip down when each cubicle is occupied.

Outside are trees that Kani planted (‘Oh, he’slooking a bit distressed!’) and sweet-pea wires on a hazel frame she built, and inside the opera house are golden leaves that she pasted on the walls between the sponsors’ names – the more you gave, the bigger the letters – and the pianola she bought, and the plush seats retired by the Royal Opera House that she had reupholstered and embroidered by a man in Kahn Market, Delhi, and brought with her from Hampshire.

Theatre in the Woods opera house

By the time you read this, the resin will have set on the different floors, pink for the Balcony, ruby for the Grand Tier, off-white for the Stalls Circle, and under the clear surface will bestrewn, as if by a pre-decimal sprite, a glitter of half-crowns, florins, sixpences, threepenny bits and mint halfpennies, donated after a newsletter request.

On June 8, with a blast from the Fanfare Balcony, the opera begins. One suspects that the Duchess, whose ashes are under the orchestra pit, would be delighted.

How to go

  • Grange Park Opera (01962 737373; season runs June 6 to July 13. Tickets from £75 to £220, dining from £77, Fortnum’s picnic hampers from £70 for two, and vintage car transfers from £100 for four.

Where to sit

  • Money no object? Get a box in the Grand Tier, with 10 seats at £195-£220 each. Watching the pennies? Balcony Bus Seats nearest the stage are gloriously solitary and have views of the orchestra pit, £75-85.

Where to eat

  • Hire an Indian pavilion (£135) at the east end of the Crinkle Crankle Garden, or pitch your rug next just over the hedges nearest the White Wisteria Champagne Bar, for maximum sun exposure in the late afternoon.

How to get there

  • Walk the 20 minutes from Horsley station by crossing the road and following Kingston Avenue past the village hall, following the railway until you see a path on your left, diagonally crossing a field. Follow your nose through the woods, bearing right through a gate saying ‘Private’ to reach the opera house.

What to see

  • The Church of St Mary the Virgin, near the bottom of the drive, was Grade I-listed with the house in 1967, and is partly 12th-century, with rare wall paintings and rood screen.


Get in Touch

Contact Sophie or check availability via the links or see Guild of Registered Tourist Guides or Association of Professional Tourist Guides.

  • Institute of Tourist Guiding
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Sophie Campbell

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