Next month is the annual open day of the gardens of a large government mansion not far from Sevenoaks that’s mainly used as a home by the Foreign Secretary.
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 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 13th 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.
Entry is £7 for adults, £1 for children and needs to be booked in advance here.
Getting to Chevening House
The two nearest railway stations are both about an hour’s walk from Chevening House — Dunton Green and Sevenoaks.
However, there’s a hourly 401 bus from Sevenoaks to Chipstead Square, and from there it’s only a half-hour walk to Chevening House. If you miss the bus back and have to wait, then Chipstead is postcard pretty and much more important when waiting for a bus, it has pubs.
And Sevenoaks has more to see locally if you fancy a day out.