Sunday 20 April 2008

Knole House, Sevenoaks, Kent

A dark brooding beast of a building perched on the crest of one of the rolling hills that make up this vast deer park, Knole House is half-castle, half manor-house. The higgedly-piggedly stone walls of the remarkably-intact five-hundred-year-old building are studded with leaded glass windows and crowned with handsome gables, thousands of battered roof tiles and a series of red-brick chimneys. To enter the house, you pass through a stone gatehouse, a large grass courtyard and a smaller paved courtyard, one wall of which is lined with forbidding deer skulls complete with antlers. Still occupied by the Sackville-West family, owners of Knole for 400 years, most of this great house isn't open to the public, but visitors can admire 13 grand state rooms courtesy of the National Trust (admission £9 for adults).

Snarling leopards
You step into the great hall via an opening in a Jacobean oak screen carved with the Sackville coat of arms. Opposite you is the original manuscript of Virgina Woolf's novel Orlando, inspired by Knole, resting in a glass box at the other end of the hall. There may even be a real fire burning in the huge hearth, adding to the medieval ambiance and providing much-needed warmth. Climbing up the main stairwell, you pass statues of snarling leopards - the symbol of the house. Upstairs, the long corridor of the Brown Gallery is lined with lackluster portraits of Henry VIII, Elizabeth 1st, Cardinal Worsley, James 1st and dozens of their contemporaries. The wood-panelled rooms leading off this corridor are furnished with worn fabrics, ancient armchairs, four poster beds and gold-framed paintings. Through the half-shut curtains, you catch glimpses of the attractive formal gardens (open to the public on Wednesdays) enclosed by a high stone wall.

Exceptionally bling
But the most precious chairs, including one of the first settees, and the most delicate porcelain are protected by glass panels in the Museum Room. Further on is the sumptuous and extraordinarily ostentatious ballroom, awash with ornate furniture, finely-detailed plasterwork, vases, paintings and other antiques. The overall effect is overwhelming and rather disorientating. Easier on the eye are the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, such as an arresting portrait of Wang-y-Tong, a Cantonese lad who worked at Knole as a pageboy. Another feast for the senses is the exceptionally bling bedroom reserved for the king, which is also protected by glass panels. In here is an eyecatching silver desk and matching mirror so elaborately sculptured that they appear to be have been made from finely-crumpled foil.

Dung pellets and decaying wood
Even in April, the house can be dark and chilly and the venerable volunteers watching over the rooms must wish they could press the intricately-carved seventeenth-century charcoal heater in the Leicester Gallery back into service. It is almost a relief to descend the servants' staircase and come blinking out into the daylight. An old barn houses the customary self-service tearoom, but the queues at weekends can be long and some of the deer are tame enough to come wandering down to pose for photos with the diners. The grass of the 1000-acre deer park is littered with dry black dung pellets and decaying wood, dating from the great storm 20years ago, but Knole is still an evocative and picturesque setting for a Sunday afternoon stroll. 8/10