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Making History

Lullingstone Castle and its owners the Hart Dyke family have been the subject of several television documentaries and a great deal of press attention in the past decade. Tom Hart Dyke, the son and heir of the present incumbents Guy and Sarah, is famous for his kidnap in 2000 and the remarkable garden that he created following his harrowing experience. These recent events have certainly been dramatic, but a visit to the house offers an interesting opportunity to put them into the context of the family's long history and the story of their home.

Passing through the Tudor gatehouse, the view of the house beyond is stunning. The serenely beautiful, almost symmetrical frontage is perhaps thanks to the Hart Dyke family's devotion to Queen Anne, who was a frequent visitor to the estate and for whom several alterations were made. Entrance to the house is made through the early Victorian porch, where one passes all the accoutrements of the contemporary stately home: tables heaving with neat piles of brochures, leaflets and collecting boxes for charities including the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) from which the family have received long service awards for their famed garden openings.

Fanlights above the door and the huge windows set high in the walls above give the impression of stepping into a giant lantern as one enters the Great Hall. Ebony black lion heads with scarlet tongues and gold crowns are mounted at intervals high on the walls and imposing family portraits seem to scrutinise the visitor, but before a sense of intimidation can set in, Sarah Hart Dyke appears as if by magic from a door concealed within a panel in one wall. She has been arranging flowers in a small housekeeper's room and quickly dries her hands on her linen apron. Her husband Guy then also emerges from his private study to welcome us and conduct an exclusive tour of the house.

The rather fierce looking lions form the Peché crest. Sir John Peché (pronounced peachy' by the family) built the castle at Lullingstone in 1497. His family came to England with William the Conqueror and in typical English fashion, their name was swiftly anglicised. “Jacques Delors came to visit once. You may remember that he was the President of the European Commission,” recalls Guy. “Well he asked me if I knew why these lions had their tongues sticking out, and of course before I could answer, he said, because they are French lions poking their tongues out at the English!' Some of them used to be mounted on the ends of poles in the garden, in true Tudor style,” says Guy, “but my father wasn't happy with that so he brought them in here.”

The cream Queen Anne plasterwork and fine panelling provides an elegant backdrop for the lion heads and the various portraits and paintings. A huge triptych on the south wall shows the first Hart to own the estate, Sir Percyvall, an evidently industrious man who served four monarchs, from Henry VII to Elizabeth I. Painted in 1575, the doughty octogenarian is shown flanked by his sons, George and Francis Hart. On the opposite wall hang the portraits of Sir Thomas Dyke and his son John Dixon Dyke. Dressed in fine Georgian silk frock coats, they were the first of the Dykes to live at Lullingstone. Sir John followed the 18th century fashion for landscaping' when he succeeded to the estate in 1756 and so a second gatehouse that once stood in front of the house was demolished and the moat filled in so that he could open up the vista to the west. Both these portraits are framed in beautifully carved dark wooden frames adorned with tulips, lilies and honeysuckle and match another, on the east wall, that holds a portrait from the studio of Van Dyck of Frances, Countess of Dorset, a close friend of the Hart family who married into the Sackville-Wests at nearby Knole. Above the fireplace, a panoramic painting of the house in a somewhat naïve style, and probably painted by a journeyman artist, shows the manor house, gatehouses, moat and church before the Queen Anne additions and Georgian landscaping. Below it, the copper smoke hood over the fireplace displays the family motto: Prest a faire “Ready to do or to make,” explains Guy. “A useful one in these times I think.”

Treated to a pot of coffee and biscuits, elegantly served in the Great Hall, I know that I am privileged to be sitting on a handsome Victorian sofa that is usually roped off, although Guy and Sarah say that they have difficulty in preventing their son Tom, gardener and famed plant hunter, from flopping down on the same fine damask in his gardening trousers. “People often ask me if we have many staff,” says Guy with a wry smile. “I tell them, well two, and you're looking at one of them. Gone are the days when a house like this had a full complement of people to look after it, but we do our best and we have some fine volunteers.”

The house is very obviously cherished and it is good to see that it is properly lived in'. In fact there are five families occupying various wings of it at present, but although the rooms open to the public are beautifully kept, unlike many stately homes that are seemingly preserved in aspic, these feel as if they are still very much part of a family home. “We didn't really expect to inherit the house,” adds Sarah. “Guy is the second son of a second son.” “Yes, it seems to be something of a family tradition,” Guy confirms. “The baronetcy was inherited by my nephew who lives in Canada, but we have charge of the estate, just as my father took it on unexpectedly too, though he had to cope with double death duties because his parents died very shortly after one another, poor man. At least we haven't had that.” Looking after such a house really is in the rather hackneyed phrase, a labour of love. Of course it is a gorgeous looking thing, but it must require extraordinary amounts of time and energy to keep it going. One can see that old-fashioned' notions of duty are completely up to date here. To keep such a treasure in the family and for the next generation takes real determination and sheer hard work. Flashy cars and holidays are simply not a priority. “We have one car but three dining rooms,” says Guy with a grin, “and surely the dining rooms bring more pleasure than any motorcar.”

Inheriting such an estate, the Hart Dyke family may seem fortunate in many ways, but they have also had more anxiety to deal with than most. When Tom was kidnapped by armed guerrillas while he was plant hunting in Central America, he was held captive for nine months and threatened with execution on several occasions before unexpectedly being released. It may be that his parents are simply tired of being asked about it, but I also suspect that they would rather not dwell on what must have been a terrifying experience, so in true British fashion, the trauma is only briefly acknowledged before the conversation moves on to the World Garden that Tom created here after his return. Tom's ambitious scheme was realised in what had been the walled herb garden, created by his beloved grandmother, who was the original inspiration for his love of plants. It cannot have been easy for her to see the garden that she had designed and nurtured for so many years replaced with something so very different, but again, it's a very tangible sign of the way things change through the generations at a house like Lullingstone.

As we pass into the State Dining Room, a square painting above the doorway that depicts the red and white roses of the Houses of York and Lancaster is inscribed with: The Kentish True Blue means this as a token, So Note what's said here under Roses is spoken'. Under Roses' or Sub Rosa' means secret and probably refers to the fourth and last Percyvall Hart's Jacobite sympathies, and his preference for a Stuart succession rather than the Hanoverian dynasty of George I.

The walls here are panelled in solid English oak that has darkened over the centuries and family portraits look down on the Jacobean-style dining tables and chairs. “Victorian copies, according to Christie's,” says Guy, gesturing towards the intricately carved chairs with barley twist supports. “But good ones nevertheless.” The room has retained a simple dignity, with pairs of pewter sconces ranged around the room and beneath a portrait of James II when he was the Duke of York, a florid Victorian sideboard supports a white china dinner service and cobalt blue glass.

Above the marble fireplace is mounted Sir John Peché's tilting helm. He represented both Henry VII and Henry VIII on the jousting tilt and Guy points to the area of ground beyond the gatehouse where some of these jousting contests took place. Through the next doorway, in the northwest corner of the building, the library holds a collection of 17th and 18th century manuscripts and books. They are currently being catalogued and conserved by Knole and Sevenoaks DFAS (The Decorative & Fine Arts Societies). “Sometimes it's something as simple as straightening out the dog-eared pages,” says Sarah, “but we find all sorts of things in among the leaves and I mix up the organic wheat starch paste that is used for repairs. It's all done terribly carefully and gently, it's very time-consuming, but I'm pleased to say that the Society will be celebrating their 25th Anniversary here and we are very glad to have them.” An oriental carpet echoes the rich reds, greens and golds of the book spines. The room has a warm, inviting feel and although it, too, is panelled, it seems lighter and brighter than the State Dining Room, perhaps in part because of the tall Queen Anne windows that overlook the lawns.

On the long wall of a smaller, more informal dining room, there is a 1998 view of the castle by James Hart Dyke (from another branch of the family) who also has connections with the State having recently spent a year as artist in residence with MI6. The oval dining table has just four Regency chairs around it and the room feels far more intimate even though it is completely open on one side to the hallway that runs alongside the Grand Staircase.

The stairs are exceptionally shallow, having been constructed by the fourth Percyvall Hart for the comfort of Queen Anne, who frequently suffered from ill health. Five lion heads, each bearing a crown, are found at intervals along the balustrade and pausing after a dozen or so treads, one can look back at the portraits of Guy Hart Dyke's grandparents, Sir William and Lady Emily. Sir William served as a minister in Disraeli's government, and when asked what he thought of his fellow MPs, followed his ancestor's habit of candour and replied: “Like a bunch of bananas. They're all bent and they all stick together.”

Further up the staircase, a view through a large 18th century Venetian window allows a glimpse of the courtyard below and parts of the original Tudor house with its mullioned windows on the north wing. At the top of the stairs is a striking oil portrait of Guy Hart Dyke by another talented friend, Charlie Warde. The anteroom to one side holds an eclectic collection of artefacts including a large parish map of 1802 with every field individually named and showing the two proposed railway lines. One was to cut through open countryside, the other, and the one that was thankfully later adopted in the 1860s, required a great deal of tunnelling to preserve the beauty of the Darent Valley. There is a large travelling trunk and a number of items brought back from Africa by another relative as well as a zebra skin that was a recent gift to Tom. The Hart Dyke family tree is displayed and shows that not only is the family related to Edward III, but that Guy and Sarah are cousins. “We married in Nigeria and it rather puzzled the officials when my wife simply changed her name from Miss Hart Dyke to Mrs,” Guy recalls with a smile.

We enter the State Drawing Room, constructed in the reign of Elizabeth I with a fine barrel ceiling and remodelled in Queen Anne's time with panelled walls and carved oak pilaster capitals. A portrait of her commands the visitor's attention and at the far end of the room, one of her travelling trunks bearing the royal cipher holds a doll dressed in silk that is thought to have been commissioned by the monarch for one of her many godchildren. Just as we are remarking upon the doll's tiny waist, the grandfather clock in the corner of the east wall strikes with a peal of exquisitely delicate chimes.

Through the doorway is the State Bedroom of Queen Anne. The intricately carved four-poster bed is a later 18th century one, but is hung with fine pale yellow damask silk and positioned where the Queen would have slept in the early 1700s. To the side of the bed is a pulley system that would have allowed the Queen to open the brass door lever (without leaving her bed) so that her maid could enter from the servants' quarters behind. At the base of the bed is another leather trunk studded with the Queen's cipher on the lid, the inside of which is delicately patterned with silver flowers and remarkably well preserved. On one wall a ruby red and gold altar frontal has been framed. It is made from Lullingstone silk and was originally hung in the estate's church by Lady Zoë Hart Dyke in 1947. Lady Zoë was Guy's mother, and between 1932 and 1956 she founded and ran a silk farm here at Lullingstone and the silk was used for both Queen Elizabeth II's wedding and coronation gowns. There are more fine textiles in another small side room where the walls display crewelwork hangings created by the Hon. Mary Bell, daughter of Sir William and Lady Emily and who was Maid of Honour to Edward VII's Queen Alexandra.

Guy is evidently proud of his family's connections with the royal family, but he also has great respect for his ancestor, Percyvall Hart IV's principled stance on the conferring of honours for money. To this end, Guy shows me to the little flint and brick parish church of St Botolph to the north of the house, where Percyvall is remembered with a memorial wall. The text was probably written by his successor, Sir Thomas Dyke and is unusually strongly worded: …Hart's steady attachment to the Old English Constitution disqualified him from sitting any more in Parliament; Abhorring all Venality, and scorning as much to buy the People's Voices As to sell his own…' The church was built to house the tomb of Sir John Peché and it contains many more family monuments, but the memorial wall with its 46 armorial shields is perhaps the most striking feature. The tribute to Percyvall ends with a plea that rather neatly summarises the hopes of the family then and now: …Contented with a moderate Estate, Not wasted by Luxury, Nor increased by Avarice. May their Posterity, Emulating their Virtues, Long enjoy their Possessions.'

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming