We discover how the beautiful Penshurst Place maintains its charm.
Built in 1341, Penshurst Place was commissioned by Sir John de Pulteney, already the owner of two large town houses, who wanted a country estate where he could hunt. In 1521 it became the property of King Henry VIII, and after his death in 1547 it was left to Henry’s son, King Edward VI. In 1552 Edward gifted the property to Sir William Sidney, and so began the Sidney family’s ownership, which still stands today.
Now, as well as the private family home, where Viscount De L’Isle and his wife Isobel have lived for more than 20 years, the grand house and beautiful gardens are open for the public to explore. We speak to Alison Davies, head housekeeper at Penshurst Place about what goes in to maintaining this historic family home.
Have you worked at any similar properties in the past?
I’ve certainly worked in housekeeping before but Penshurst Place is the only heritage property I’ve ever worked in. I’ve been here now for 24 years – when I started I worked solely in the private house, whereas now my work includes looking after the public state rooms as well.
How have you been preparing for the autumn/winter season?
The later seasons really do absorb into the house – its thick stone walls aren’t the best insulators, and so we like to get started as soon as we close to the public. This means we get the most amount of time to start and finish our work, and fingers crossed, means it won’t be too cold by the time we finish! Right now, we’re just evaluating what work needs to be done more urgently so we can tackle that first.
What tasks will you be undertaking around the house this month?
We’ll be polishing the panelling throughout the house to start with, which all keen visitors will know, there’s an awful lot of! We do our general dusting every day, but some rooms and furniture do require a further deep clean around this time of year. The plates in the solar room especially need a lot of attention as the cold can easily make them fragile and brittle, so we put a lot of care into that room.
What is your approach to the house, in terms of both preserving its heritage and moving forward?
The unique thing about Penshurst Place is its combination of both a private family home, and beautiful public staterooms. Our only goal really is to keep both these elements as in keeping as we can. The private house needs to continue to be homely for the family, and the staterooms must reflect the history and heritage of the Sidneys, and their history.
What is the biggest challenge at Penshurst?
We’re quite a small team, and so with the end of the season looming it can seem like quite a daunting task to get it all done, whilst we keep up our work in the private house. But we’re a dedicated few, the work doesn’t ever pile up too much, and you really can’t replace the satisfaction of seeing some of our most beautiful rooms looking their best!
What’s your favourite area or element of the house?
The entireties of the staterooms really are beautiful, and I never tire of walking through them. Some of the furniture is particularly old and so you can easily end up feeling attached to it, because you see it so often.
Is there anything in particular that visitors should look out for next season?
We always welcome visitors to learn as much as the history of the house as they can. Our guides are overwhelmingly knowledgeable about the house and all who have lived here and so I would say visitors next year should just anticipate leaving with a far greater knowledge of Penshurst Place, and the Sidney family, than when they arrived!
What is the most commonly asked question from visitors?
We’re often asked just how many staff it takes to look after a building so large and people are usually surprised to hear there are only three of us! But as I said, we’re a dedicated team and seeing the end result makes all of the hard work more than worth it.
What are your day to day tasks?
Cleaning through all of the staterooms, dusting the surfaces, dusting the chandeliers, setting up for private events. Just generally ensuring it looks its best, every day.
Are there any original features, or anything in keeping with the heritage?
Parts of the house were built in different time periods, and so I’d recommend keeping a look out for the change in architectural style and decoration. It’s a wonderful insight into our decorative history.
Do you have a favourite room?
I’d have to say The Queen Elizabeth room. It contains furniture from the original Leicester House, which was built in 1636 on the site of what is now London’s Leicester Square. Leicester House was twice the size of Penshurst but was eventually knocked down to make way for new developments.
Bringing the furniture back I feel is a fantastic way of keeping the memory of Leicester House alive, as imagery of it is limited, we also have a square named after it in the village which is home to some beautiful listed cottages.