Next month is the annual open day of the gardens of a large government mansion not far from Sevenoaks that’s used by the Foreign Secretary as a grace and favour residence, currently Liz Truss MP.
The building, Chevening House was built around 400 years ago to a design reputed to be by Inigo Jones as the main seat of the Earls Stanhope. It would probably still be a private house, but the last Earl Stanhope, childless and with his brother killed in WW1, effectively gifted it to the nation. A trust was set up in 1959 that allows a government minister nominated by the Prime Minister to use the house as a private residence. Although any Cabinet minister can be nominated, by tradition, it’s usually been the Foreign Secretary.
There’s a unique clause in the trust though.
The Prime Minister can nominate any Cabinet Minister, including themselves to occupy the house, or a lineal descendant of King George VI or the spouse, widow or widower of such a descendant. That’s why between 1974-1980, Prince Charles was offered the residency of the house, although he never actually used it. If no one wants it, then it cascades down through the Canadian high commissioner, the American ambassador and finally the National Trust. In theory, the National Trust could one day open the house to the public, but it’s highly unlikely to happen.
In the meantime though, the gardens are open to the general public one day a year — and this year it’s Sunday 12th June between 2pm and 5pm.
The gardens are impressive, a mix of woodlands and formal lawns surrounding a lake, and all facing the mansion house. First laid out between 1690 and 1720 in the French formal style, in the 1770s a more informal English design was introduced. In the early C19 lawns, parterres and a maze were established, a lake was created from the ornamental canal and basin, and many specimen trees were planted to shade woodland walks.
My review from 2021 is here.
Entry is £8 for adults, £1 for children. You don’t need to book in advance, but it will save a bit of time when you arrive if you have booked tickets — which can be requested from here.
Take a picnic. Most people turn up with picnics and happily settle on the lawn in front of the house, or around the lakes for a pleasant lunch. There’s a small stall selling ice cream and some gifts. A map is handed out when you arrive to help find all the best bits of the garden. The church by the main entrance will be open to visitors.
Depending on how fit you’re feeling, if you arrive an hour or so before the doors open, take a hike up a very steep hill behind the house to the “viewing point” on the North Downs Way, for an unusual view of the House.
Getting to Chevening House
If you drive, then you can park next to the gardens. Otherwise, the nearest railway station, at Sevenoaks is about an hour’s walk from Chevening House. However, there’s an hourly 401 bus from Sevenoaks to Chipstead Square, and from there it’s only a half-hour walk to Chevening House. The bus does miss out on the main part of the village, which is pretty, so personally, I’d walk the full way, at least on the way there, if not necessarily on the way back. If you miss the bus back and have to wait, then usefully, Chipstead has pubs.