Deepdene House, c. 1890: “I might have been gazing upon the Alhambra or the Taj,” said George Smythe (photo courtesy Dorking Museum)
The view from the grotto is much as it was. Call it a bowl, or a cleft between two hillocks, the landscape dips, before spreading gently into a parterre. The Surrey hills rise beyond. We are in the land of Coningsby, Benjamin Disraeli’s novel of 1844, with “groves of huge and vigorous oaks, intersected with those smooth and sunny glades that seem as if they must be cut for dames and knights to saunter on”.
For the last half-century, it has been less a case of sauntering than of wading, burrowing and ploughing with hands and feet through the glades of Deepdene. Concealed behind the Dorking bypass, near Box Hill, this vast estate was left to grow over after the neoclassical palazzo that stood at its heart was demolished in 1969. A major clean-up began in earnest in 2015 after a million-pound boost from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The idea was to create a walking trail, taking in as many of the views and remnants of the estate as it was possible to salvage.
There are references to woodland at “le Depedene” from as early as 1401, and to a cottage and 20 acres at “Dibdene” in the Elizabethan period. This month, Deepdene reopens after a dramatic restoration that takes its landscapes back to how they looked in the 19th century. As Alexander Bagnall, who managed the project explains, “We wanted to gently peel back to the point at which the garden was at its most significant.” These, one may now trill, were the hills that inspired Young England, Disraeli’s decidedly bucolic movement for social change. There, the garden John Aubrey described as the “ingeniously contriv’d long Hope . . . cast into the Form of a Theatre”, first designed for Lord Charles Howard in the 17th century. This, the neoclassical mausoleum of Thomas Hope and his family.
The story of Deepdene may be extraordinary, but it also speaks to a broader history of England. Not even its most colourful episodes — of political ambition and debt, of an American dance-hall singer and a diamond, of illicit sex and a spy — make Deepdene’s downfall atypical. The decline of Deepdene is the story of the decline of the English landed estate between the 19th century and the postwar period. Its rise again offers assurance that regard for English heritage did not die with Deepdene House in 1969.
How the members of Young England achieved anything during their meetings at Deepdene is a mystery. Bear cubs tumbled through the house and one day broke into the dining-room, trampling the china. The estate was so mesmerising that one “might have been gazing upon the Alhambra, or the Taj”. Among “the dusky cedars, the stately palace, the strange fragrance, the far noise of running waters,” George Smythe, son of Viscount Strangford and one of the movement’s leading members, dreamed that Deepdene’s statues had come to life. In Smythe’s descriptions of the estate, his biographer detects the hallucinatory influence of opium.
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