The best part of returning to England recently was seeing friends and family after nearly three years. However, I also wanted to do some very “English” things while I was there to reconnect with my roots, and one of the most British things to do is visit one of its spectacular stately homes and gardens.
During our trip we stayed with some dear friends in their beautiful home in Surrey about an hour southwest of London. Surrey is one of the four ‘home counties’, that is a county surrounding London which is popular with people who want to be close to the center of the metropolis via rail or road but also want to live outside of the busy city center. On a beautiful sunny, but very cold Saturday, our friends took us to nearby Polesden Lacey for the day, a grand and stately home and grounds previously owned by the extremely wealthy socialite Dame Margaret Greville.
Dame Margaret was an interesting character. She was the daughter of William McEwan, a wealthy brewer and Member of Parliament. Her father was keen to make a good match for his daughter and, as was often the case during these times, successful businessmen sought out impoverished nobility for their daughters to marry. Both families benefitted since the daughters brought significant family money to the financially stretched “gentlemen classes” of England. The newly joined families acquired a higher social status through the combination of nobility and money and if any love did blossom between the couple that was an additional benefit rather than a necessity for the marriage to proceed. So, in 1891, Margaret married Captain Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Greville, heir to a baronetcy and a member of the “Marlborough house set”, the social circle surrounding the future King Edward VII.
The couple lived in London and, when Ronnie retired in 1906, they bought 1400 acres in the Surrey countryside and commissioned architects famous for designing the Ritz Hotel in London to entirely renovate the huge but old house on the estate. Sadly, Ronnie died in 1908, a year before renovations were completed, but the result was fabulous. Margaret hosted her first house party at Polesden in June 1909, marking the end of her mourning and her return to society. The guest of honor was none other than King Edward VII. This impressive estate was her weekend retreat and the place where she entertained royalty, politicians and celebrities at lavish weekend parties for over 30 more years until 1942, including Winston Churchill, Beverly Nichols and Queen Ena of Spain.
So how does such a wonderful stately home wind up being preserved so beautifully and stay open for the public to enjoy into the next century? It is all due to Dame Margaret’s generous donation of Polesden Lacey house and gardens to a wonderful British organization called The National Trust. This is by far the largest charitable organization for heritage conservation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own National Trust organization which is run on similar lines and there are now other heritage organizations around the world.
Founded in 1895, the founders pledged to preserve historical and natural places and buildings of beauty or historic interest. Set up by an attorney, social reformer and a member of the clergy, this non-profit organization was given statutory powers, starting with the National Trust Act 1907 which gave the Trust the power to declare its land inalienable, meaning that it could not be sold without parliamentary approval.
In the early days, it was concerned primarily with the acquisition (by gift or purchase) of open spaces and a variety of threatened buildings. Today The National Trust has nearly six million members and revenue equivalent to almost a billion dollars. It is funded by membership subscriptions (starting at about $50 per year), donations and legacies, direct property income, grants, profits from its shops and restaurants, and investments.
The National Trust has grown to become Europe’s largest conservation charity and focuses on preserving nature, beauty and history. It owns and manages over 780 miles of coastline, over 500 historic houses, castles, parks, and gardens, and nearly one million works of art! It is a wonderful British institution unlike anything else in the world, and Brits are extremely proud of it and its achievements. There is much more information at www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
So back to our weekend visit to this lovely property. As every British person knows, no visit to a National Trust property is complete without visiting the gift shop and getting a cup of hot tea and lemon drizzle cake in the tearoom. I bought some traditional souvenirs including a dish towel, key ring and bookmark featuring images of Polesden Lacey, reasoning that all the profits go towards supporting the work of the National Trust.
Following my UK trip, this quote from author and journalist Earle Hitchner really resonates with me. “The difference between America and England is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way.”
God Bless America and the UK’s National Trust!
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