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Henry VIII is on the throne. A gout-inducing banquet that includes stuffed West Sussex pork and an apple pie fat with the garden’s harvest is laid out before us. The light is dim and in a bid to stave off the chill of a 16th century autumn, we pump the fire-side bellows and gather around smouldering logs.
Eventually, the distant buzz overhead of aircraft en route to nearby Gatwick flings us back to 2013. It is all too easy to partake in a spot of make-believe when you stay in a Landmark Trust property.
Ageing beauty: Sackville House in East Grinstead dates back to the early 16th century
Our family group, spanning three generations, parked in the driveway of Sackville House, a 1520s timber-framed property on East Grinstead’s historical high street, and felt the centuries fall away as we walked through the door.
That this surprisingly substantial former jetty house survives is mainly thanks to one family’s love affair with this ageing beauty…and ensuring it fell into the right hands when the heirs to it ran out. In 1919, local artist Geoffrey Webb painstakingly returned a run-down Sackville House to its former glory. It was eventually bequeathed to the Landmark Trust by his daughter upon her death in 1995.
One of nearly 200 self-catering properties restored by the Landmark Trust across the UK, Sackville House seems to perfectly embody Trust director Anna Keay’s vision for the charity, of giving “new life to important historic buildings and pleasure and inspiration to those who visit them.”
The definition of ‘historical buildings’ is a wide-reaching one; everything from follies to towers and castles to temples can be booked by visitors, the funds from which then go towards further restorations. “There are almost 10,000 Grade I and II* buildings at risk in the UK, so we have our work cut out,” adds Keay.
Creaking comfort: Interconnecting doors make Sackville House a maze of discovery when you first arrive
Once over the threshold, we unwrap Sackville House like a present, pushing through doors and bounding from room to room. Fronting the pack was Belle, our two-year-old, who was captivated by this Tardis-like warren of bedrooms, bathrooms, winding staircases and interconnecting spaces. It feels like someone has packed away the protective corded ropes and given us weekend access to a museum. Ground and first floors conquered, we clamber up to the enormous loft and look at the fragments of stained glass and accompanying sketches that are laid out on a workman’s bench, a homage to Geoffrey Webb’s artistry.
Sackville House gazes out over a thoroughly modern scene. Traffic growls; a steady stream of afternoon drinkers head for the Rose and Crown opposite and curious shoppers occasionally peer in at us on their way to Broadleys, the upmarket clothes store two blocks down. At the property’s rear, the time warp is reinstated. The hum of 21st century life is all but lost to a garden that appears, like the house, to go on forever. It is a 630-foot-long finger of land that could be four or five individual plots bonded together. There are green lawns, a small apple orchard, even a wild nuttery…and it beggars belief that this centuries-old portland (a piece of town land) has evaded exploitation. When we finally reach the garden’s end and nose through the fence, there is disappointment, for we’re greeted by the pedestrian snapshot of a garage and large trampoline.
Deserving of a banquet: The house’s dining room and, right, Jo and daughter Belle outside the property
So who chooses to stay at Sackville House? There are two log books compiled over 16 years that are stuffed to the gills with entries – including sketches, ditties and prints – that will tell you. Lots of families, plenty of groups of friends, societies, book clubs, wedding guests…the list goes on.
The Trust’s director isn’t surprised, for she knows how appealing historical properties are to a variety of audiences: “When people find out about the Landmark Trust they usually need no persuading: when you think of how much time we all spend reading our children stories about knights and princesses, the opportunity to actually stay in a castle or a tower for the same sort of cost as a standard holiday cottage is incredible.”
There is one recurring theme in the Sackville House visitors books though; ghostly encounters. Sometimes playful, sometimes deadly serious, there are plenty of references to mysterious ‘banging’ noises, taps turning on without human touch, the sound of glass being broken. Many claim to have found a secret passage. My father-in-law, a man of significant physical stature, looked more than a little jittery late at night when our imaginations were as fired up as the roaring flames. Our toddler is too young to dwell on the countless personal histories held inside these lime-wash walls but she wasn’t keen on the framed prints and paintings that adorn the property throughout. Second glances to check for rolling eyes or unexpected winks were par for the course.
Here’s looking at you, kid: Were we alone in Sackville House? Some of the paintings might suggest otherwise
Landmark Trust properties cater for pampered, contemporary lives. The nightly ritual of throwing logs on the fire was entirely gratuitous, for hot water courses through radiators in every room. There are three enormous bathrooms and the kitchen is better equipped than your average home. Dogs are welcome too. And should you wish to enjoy a cigarette by the fire, the Landmark Trust won’t stop you, something which feels a little absurd considering how precious this property is.
With its ambient lighting, toasty fireplaces and a cupboard full of parlour games, it is a property made for Christmas, and I envy those who will creak open these doors this yuletide. Even the neighbouring properties have festive credentials – Good King Wenceslas was penned by John Mason Neale, a long-time warden at nearby Sackville College, in 1853.
Plenty to see: Historic Hever Castle is within easy reach of East Grinstead
There is much to see and do around East Grinstead that complements a stay here: the National Trust’s Standen property; Ashdown Forest (the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood) and Hever Castle among them. A Saturday morning two-hour return trip on the Bluebell Railway, from the town centre to Sheffield Park, was a huge hit with everyone although not particularly wallet-friendly at £16 each (although children do go free).
All aboard: The beautifully vintage Bluebell Railway is a fantastic family day out
It feels like a particularly buoyant period in the Landmark Trust’s 48-year history. Astley Castle in Warwickshire recently scooped prestigious architecture award the Stirling Prize, and there are more exciting projects on the horizon, says Keay. “We’ll soon start work restoring Belmont in Lyme Regis, a beautiful Georgian villa where John Fowles put the finishing touches to The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
“We’re also working on an amazing 15th century manor house in the Brecon Beacons near Llanthony Priory.” The building is “incredibly dilapidated”, adds Keay but she’s confident the Trust can “give it back its glory.”
Prize-winning: The Landmark Trust’s Astley Castle in Warwickshire recently scooped the Stirling Prize
On our last day in Sackville House, just after lunch, we stumbled upon the door to the secret passage. News of the discovery was met with yawns and protestations that the fire, the mountain of roast potatoes, the apple pie had rendered everyone somnolent. Absolutely nothing to do with the blacker than black tunnel that stood before us. I swear I saw the man in the painting on the wall roll his eyes.
Travel facts… plan your own Landmark Trust break
A three-night weekend break at Sackville
House in November costs from £34 per person per night, based on eight
people sharing. Visit www.landmarktrust.org.uk.