Gifted to the nation for the use by a government minister, just outside London can be found a modest mansion that’s also open to the public, but only for a couple of weeks a year.
It’s the sort of place that’s not too easy to get to if you don’t drive, the visits are fairly short, it’s only open occasionally and no photos are allowed, all of which makes it a very interesting place to visit.
To get to Dorneywood is a trip by train to Burnham, and then either a taxi ride or about a 50-minute walk along roads with progressively less and less pavement until it vanishes entirely. If you arrive don’t wait at the main gate, but go around to the field serving as a car park, as there’s a tiny gate in the wall, and that’s where the general public goes in. And it’s where your camera is turned off.
Beyond those walls are for eyes and ears alone.
Dorneywood House is an 18th-century house on private grounds that is today the result of remodelling following a fire in 1910. It was originally a farmhouse, and most of the land around Burnham was once associated with the farm.
The businessman and philanthropist, Lord Courtauld-Thomson bought the estate in 1913 and also added more land around the area over time to prevent the urban sprawl that was already starting to happen.
The house’s main event though was in 1943, when Lord Courtauld-Thomson announced that he would be leaving the house and estate to the nation as a retreat for the Prime Minister or a senior government official. This was at a time when senior politicians were starting to emerge who lacked a grand estate of their own for entertaining, and there was some thinking about how to gift estates to the government for that purpose, hence Chequers and Chevening House.
Unlike the other two houses, Dorneywood is owned by the National Trust, but then a charity, the Dorneywood Trust leases it back and covers the cost of maintaining the building and gardens.
Once you’re through that small gate, visitors can wander around the gardens, or if you’re lucky to have booked a house visit, head inside. The visits are not formal guided tours and you are left to wander around the ground floor rooms, with National Trust volunteers in each to explain the best bits or answer questions.
You can wander around reading all the little cards explaining that this is a Georgian bookcase, or that’s a special mirror. This painting is by someone important, that one isn’t. Do look at the china glass case, and how it mirrors a painted effect on the opposite side.
A fantastic mural on the back of the front door entrance is by Rex Whistler, who lived nearby. A painting of Eton College as seen through a gatehouse in Windsor Castle has a gatehouse so huge it would be the dominant feature of the castle today. Victorian artists took a lot of license at times. A small anteroom has wonderfully decorated wallpaper and the living room is lined with wooden pillars making it look almost classical in style, just in wood instead of stone.
It’s not a grand imposing house and retains very much the quiet homely feel that has endeared it to politicians down the decades.
There’s plenty of history to learn, but really, it’s more a soaking up of an atmosphere of what is clearly still a country manor house that would have belonged to a family and still treated as such even if most of the fireside chats will be of matters of state rather than of the local farm.
Normally sedate, the house has been the scene of political fracas in the past though.
In 1989 when Margaret Thatcher’s reshuffle promoted John Major to Foreign Secretary to replace Sir Geoffrey Howe who was shuffled to the powerless position of Deputy Prime Minister, who got Chevening and Dorneywood became a big problem.
Chevening traditionally goes to the Foreign Secretary, so Howe had to move out and allow John Major to move in. But that left Howe without a country estate, and he had been assured that he was the Prime Minister’s number two in the cabinet. In the end, the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson was persuaded to move out of Dorneywood. It was reported in the news at the time that pretty much all parties involved felt slighted by the affair.
You have to wonder what effect this game of musical-houses had on the attitudes of Howe, Major and Lawson over the following year as they turned on Thatcher and forced her eventual resignation.
In 2006, Dorneywood was occupied by John Prescott, and it was the scene of the notorious paparazzi photograph of him playing croquet on the lawn. Personally, I’ve never really understood why that was a scandal. Man likes sport. Hold the front page!
Dorneywood has had a quiet life since then, with successive Chancellors being offered, and accepting the House. It’s currently occupied by Rishi Sunak, who uses it at weekends.
Although owned by the National Trust, the gardens used to be open for just five afternoons a year, and the house never. Things changed in 2014, when as part of an agreement for the National Trust to top up the funding for the house maintenance, the gardens were opened much more often, and visits inside the House started for the first time.
The gardens are now open in the afternoons twice a week May-June and Aug-Sept. Details here.
The House is open for two weeks in July, and this year is totally sold out. Put a note in your diary for next May as that’s when tickets are released here.
It’s one of those charming afternoons in the countryside, a nice garden to wander around, a pleasant house to visit and all finished with tea and cake in the garden.
Getting to Dorneywood
If driving, then there is parking in the fields next to the house.
If using public transport, then the nearest railway station is Burnham station, and from there, it’s about a 50-minute walk to Dorneywood House. There is also a local taxi service from the railway station.