Just inside the M25 and close to Sevenoaks is a large government mansion house, and it’s open to the general public on one day of the year.
The estate, Chevening House, was built around 400 years ago as the home of the Earls Stanhope, but the last of the line, the 7th Earl gifted the house and estate to the Nation in 1959, to be of use to government ministers (and others). A trust fund was created to cover the cost of maintaining the estate, so it operates at no cost to the taxpayer.
Normally occupied by the Foreign Secretary its proximity to London makes it useful for hosting overseas dignitaries for meetings.
Apart from occasional suitable groups invited in for tours, the estate is private, save for one day a year when the gardens are open to the public.
That was the Sunday just past.
There are three things to see on a day trip to Chevening – the gardens, the church, and if you fancy a decent hike, there’s a wonderful viewing point in the hills at the back of the house.
The keyhole viewing point
Up at the back of the house, right up at the top of a steep hill is the keyhole, a gap in the woods created by the 3rd Earl in around the 1770s, and gives a view of the house from the far side.
From Chevening, it’s footpath territory to get there, and as I took the direct route, it’s exceptionally steep in one place through a wood. I would recommend the meandering route unless you are feeling particularly determined to punish yourself.
Finally though at the very top is the destination, a gap in the trees with a view right down to Chevening House.
A bench, which is probably stood on to get a better view more than its sat on has an inscription, “Rowland Oakely 1909-2011 Author of Walking Guides for the Sevenoaks Society”
You can’t see much, a small gap in the trees gives a clear view of the house, and it’s probably more of a reward to have climbed up here than for any photographic wonders. However, you will be pleased to have done it when in the gardens, as the gap is surprisingly noticeable behind the house, and to those not in the know, a mysterious sight.
It took about half an hour to walk up from Chevening.
The viewing point is also on the North Downs Way, if you fancy a walk in the area on a day when the main gardens are not open to the public.
Right next to the main entrance to Chevening House is the local church, and burial site for the many members of the Earl Stanhope family to have lived next door.
St Botolph’s Chevening is a 12th-century church with a very simple interior, but its main treasure is the space next to the altar, which one chap told me was the chantry, and I spent most of the visit listening to his colleague explain in detail why it’s not a chantry.
A number of grand monuments, but one that struck me was the tomb of Lady Frederica Stanhope, who died in childbirth aged 23 and is shown with her baby.
The church sits near the Pilgrims’ Way, the historical route supposedly taken by pilgrims from Winchester to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
Chevening House gardens
Of course, you’re really here to see the gardens, and to pass through normally locked gates to the hidden space within.
If you arrive on foot, do notice the sign in the wall leading up to the gates recalling the gift by the 7th Earl Stanhope of the house and contents to the nation.
My arrival was a bit early, and you wait by the locked gates, and while the motorists are let in to drive around the long way to the car parking area, pedestrians can go straight in. A sheet of paper with a map is handed out, and then you’re off to roam around anywhere you want.
The maze by the entrance was sealed off, due to you know what, but being the first in, trotted over to the main lawn in front of Chevening House to get that perfect empty lawn photo — albeit a lawn that this year has been badly affected by moles.
A large lake dominates the area, with a huge lawn in front of the house, and then wandering trails around the lake. On one side a number of ornamental hedges are laid out in a fan pattern giving vistas along to distant views. There are some ornamental decorations here as well. The obligatory stone urns and obelisks, one marking the boundary between wildwood and neat gardens.
A most unexpected site is a pile of Roman tombstones piled up underneath a brick canopy. A small sign says they were presented to the 1st Earl Stanhope in 1708 by the Municipality of Tarragona, Spain.
The lake is teeming with dragonflies, and a heron was spotted in the trees doubtless looking for lunch. A water cascade was added recently to mark the 250th anniversary of the current House, and only this year a grove of cherry trees was planted. These look insignificant today, but when your children are adults, they will be wonderful. That’s the demand from large gardens, you’re often planting not for yourself, but for the next generation.
Deep beds of daisies fill the area, with valleys carved into them for walking around. Two deep beds of wildflowers lined with trees frame the main lawn and made for a wonderful contrast with the uniformity of the grassy lawn around.
It’s not a garden you would go to to see a collection of plant species — unlike say Thenford Arboretum — but it is a place to amble around calmly just enjoying the airs of a well maintained general garden.
What really draws so many people here for the open day though is picnics.
The lawn is the official picnic area, and there really aren’t many places where you can sit on a lawn with a grand mansion house as the backdrop. On this year’s exceptionally hot open day though, most people seemed to be deserting the lawns and picnicking anywhere else that had shady spots to sit in. Of which were there many, especially along the hedges.
A solitary ice-cream stall was doing a roaring trade.
I spent maybe 90 minutes wandering around, and if you are just walking around that’s probably about as much as you could. However, a lot of people were picnicking and probably settling down for the afternoon.
It’s a nice garden without being fussy, and the gardens with their long winding paths are probably of considerable use to government ministers and aides going for mind-clearing walks to discuss matters of high diplomacy.
What marks it out as a place to visit is simply that you normally can’t visit it. The gardens are open just one day a year, as a charity fundraiser, so if you fancy a visit, pop a note in your diary for next May to check for tickets going on sale.
Getting to Chevening
Most people it seemed drove here and parked in the fields inside the main gate.
If walking, then the nearest station would be Sevenoaks, which has fast trains to/from London Bridge (25 minutes). There’s an hourly bus that gets you to Chipstead Square, which is halfway to Chevening, but I would suggest walking the whole way as the bus misses most of Chipstead, which is a pity as it has a postcard pretty appearance especially along the very narrow Chipstead Lane.
In Chevening House, ice cream aside, there’s no food or drink offered. Bring a picnic.