Barely an hour from central London is one of the UK’s most important palaces, which is curiously not that well known. Considering its proximity to London, it hardly ever appears on lists of things to do, which is odd as it’s a very impressive building to visit. I’ve travelled for hours to visit interesting places, and there’s a palace practically on my doorstep. Whoops!
This is the huge Knole House, a former archbishop’s palace, royal palace, and now aristocratic home, and partially open to the public as part of the National Trust.
I say partially, as you only get to see inside a very small portion of the building, as the rest is still occupied by the former owners, the Sackville family, but fortunately, the bit you get to see is pretty good.
Knole sits on the edge of Sevenoaks, and yet the moment you’re through the gates into the estate you’re dropped right into the middle of the rolling countryside with deep valleys and ancient woods, and at the top of the hills, sits the vast palace complex itself.
The current house dates back to the mid-15th century, with major additions in the 16th and, particularly, the early 17th centuries, and is huge, ranking in the top five of England’s largest houses, under any measure used, with the house alone occupying a total of four acres.
There’s been a mansion house of some sort here for at least 700 years, although the early details are hazy. The current building dates from the 1450s-80s, when Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury bought the estate and had a palace built for himself. Passing down through the Archbishops, it became a royal palace in 1537 when King Henry VIII persuaded the ill-fated Thomas Cramner to give it to him. It remained in royal hands, but leased out, until The Sackvilles were able to buy out the leases and they owned the house until it was donated to the National Trust in 1947.
Now, it’s open to the public.
What makes a visit now better than in the past is that they now run semi-regular tours of the attic space, which is a remarkable hidden space that’s not at all like the attic you’re expecting.
Attic tours start in a very shabby room that was a former servants quarters, and a bit of a talk, and a chance to peer down into the private former kitchen which is a huge hall space that would be a feature in its own right anywhere else, but here is a storage room — and no photos of it — and a talk about the archaeological discoveries made in recent years.
But what you really want is upstairs, and what an attic this is.
It’s a long gallery space and was once used by the owners of the building, so not a mere storage space, and what you see today has been partially restored. The sagging floor is dramatic and caused by someone putting a very heavy clock on the roof that caused the walls to bow outwards and the floor to sink. The clock, shorn of its heavy decoration is still here, on top of the entry tower.
If the room looks vaguely familiar, it’s a common style used in grand houses for a long gallery — and is almost identical to the one at Hever Castle. There’s also a chance to see a less-restored section of the attic that’s around the corner, and various “witches marks” that were discovered in the floorboards.
One nice additional treat is downstairs, where you get to stand in the concealed minstrels gallery above the main hall, and peer down at the other visitors who are probably unaware that they are being spied upon.
The attic tours take about an hour.
That leaves you the rest of the house to explore.
The tower over the main entrance was lived in for a number of years by the last of the Sackville-Wests to own Knole, and the restored rooms are open about his private life, as a gay man at a time when being gay was illegal. While informative, and mournful at how depressed he was about his situation, the tower’s glory is the roof, with amazing views in three directions over the house and estate. The fourth direction faces the car park, which is shockingly close to the front of the house.
Now, something that confused me, as entry tickets include the “showrooms”, which I presumed might be something to do with local trades showing off their wares and was a bit irked to have to pay for that. Shops shouldn’t charge to visit them.
I was an idiot – these are showrooms in that they are showy and for showing off how rich and fashionable the owners are.
So here’s another long gallery, loads of tudor-esque rooms, a royal bedroom (never used), several other grand bedrooms (often used), and enough art and furniture to fill several galleries. This is a grand mansion house writ large, and exactly the sort of thing any visitor wants to see.
The showrooms are a bit of a maze to find your way around, with a few dead ends and corners to explore, and if you’ve spent less than an hour in there, you’ve missed something.
The opening hours are a bit odd, in that the orangery, shops and cafe open at 10am, but the tower and house don’t open until 11am. As the attic tours are at 11:20am, a tip that was suggested to me by a guide is to visit the tower first and go right up to the roof to get views of the estate, and then visit the rooms later.
So I arrived early, wandered around the estate a bit, did the tower, the attic and then the showrooms.
I had planned to walk around the rest of the wooded estate, but it was the sort of cold day that reaches deep into the bones, so I scurried off to get some hot food.
As a day trip to a grand house though, Knole ticks all the boxes, large grounds to wander around, a huge impressive house, a secret space in the roof and a tower to climb up.
Tickets can be a tad confusing, as you can visit just the ground and tower, or the grounds, tower and showrooms. And attic tours need to be booked separately on top of that, and naturally, you need to make sure there are tickets to both on the same day.
Lord Sackville’s private garden is also open on select dates each year, so you might want to align a visit with those dates. So that’s three sets of tickets to buy!
The attic tours are £7.50 on top of entry to Knole, which is either free for National Trust members, or £15 for adults/£7.50 for children if not members.
Getting to Knole
Knole is in Sevenoaks, which is just over 20 minutes from London Bridge station on a fast train, and then a 20-30 minute walk through the town centre, and turn left at the church.
So about an hour for the train and walk, which is pretty decent for a day trip to see a very impressive building.