A Tudor manor house built around a hall that dates from the Doomsday Book and is only occasionally open to the public — is open this month.
This is Dorney Court, which looks proper Tudor, but looks can be deceiving, and with a bit of shuffling around, has been in the same family for 399 years.
Dorney Court first appears in the Doomsday Book in 1086 as a hall, possibly on land offered to one of William the Conquerer’s fellow conquerors, and passed through many owners being occasionally enlarged until the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Garrad bought it in 1542. His granddaughter married James Palmer and they moved into the house in 1624, and it’s been in the Palmer family ever since.
As a house, it’s been extended several times, and thanks to family deaths, sometimes not quite in a direct line from eldest son to eldest son, but it’s still largely a family house, although these days the family live in the more modern servants quarters instead of the early Tudor rooms.
The current generation took on custodianship in the 1970s, at which point the house was in a very poor state, and they are the generation who went commercial, opening the house for filming, weddings, and occasionally, to the public.
Film crews often change the decoration in the house to suit, and sometimes they keep it, and sometimes are rather pleased to see the back of what’s been done. The hallway had been repainted just a few weeks ago to get rid of a film set change.
Something else that’s deceptive is the front of the building. It looks Tudor, but is actually late Victorian. In fact, the entrance used to be around the other side, but in the 18th century, a former Palmer decided to add a fashionable stone facade to the building with a new entrance. That, in turn, fell out of favour, and it was removed and an enlarged Tudor front and entrance created.
Occasionally, the general public are also allowed to go through that newish Tudor entrance for a look around.
Visits are by guided tour, and in modest-sized groups, a guide talks you through the history of the house, the far too many former Palmer family members with the same names, which is not at all confusing, and shows you around the house and the grand hall.
Sadly, photography inside the house is banned, which I would presume is more due to groups in smallish rooms slowing the tour down than to any privacy reasons, as the rooms are often appearing in films – and there are plenty of photos online.
A chair in the parlour looked remarkably familiar — and yes, the house was used as Francis Urquart’s country retreat in the original (and best) House of Cards.
A tapestry has a story that’s told in the tour involving the English Civil War and a 1920s country magazine, and there are loads of paintings and stained glass to admire — plus the entrance to a suspected tunnel to the nearby church.
The rest of the older part of the house is shown off, and it’s here that you can see how the restoration hasn’t quite reached some of the rooms yet, although maybe that adds a slight decaying charm to the place.
The great hall is great and impressive and all you would want in a hall that’s probably around 950 years old, and apparently still used as the site of the annual Commoners’ meeting. A lot of the rest of the house is full of walls that aren’t quite straight or upright, and at one point they thought a tree was holding up much of one side of the house. Fortunately not.
As a tour, it’s a lot of family history and a good chance to peer around lots of half-used rooms that you’ll be able to spot for years to come in historic dramas or TV shows – and point out “I’ve been there!”
Next to the house is also the church of St James the Less, which is a charming small 12th-century church, with later additions. The church organ was donated on request from Queen Elizabeth II from a bombed-out church in London, and there’s a large monument to Sir William Garrad next to the altar which is unusual in still being painted rather than washed clean of decorations as so many were by the puritans.
There’s a garden centre with cafe next to Dorney Court.
Tours of Dorney Court
Public tours vary each year, and are usually a scattered few weekends in the summer months. This year (2023) is different as they are opening every afternoon throughout June from 12:30pm to 4pm.
Tours take place roughly hourly on the hour, so my suggestion is to arrive about half an hour or so before the tour so you have time to take in the church, look around the gardens and relax – then an hour(ish) tour.
The tours cost £12 per person, and payment by card is preferred.
Getting to Dorney Court
If driving, you can park next to the house.
If coming by train, then the house is a 20-30 minute walk from Taplow station on the Elizabeth line. Note, leave the station by the modern glass exit on the south side, and then it’s a walk to Dorney Court. Unusually for rural roads, there are pavements almost the entire way.
Alternatively, it’s about an hour’s walk from Windsor town centre along the Thames.
There is a very occasional bus, on Tues and Fri and just once per day — so the route 68 if you fancy that.
When arriving, my tip is when you spy the graveyard and the sign to the church, go down there, and a door in the wall opposite the church will take you into Dorney Court. Or you can walk around to the main entrance, but there’s no pavement and it’s quite a bit longer to get to the house.
For me, I arrived via Taplow, and walked along the river to Windsor, to take in a church along the way back home.