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to View
Invitation to View (ITV) is a unique scheme allowing access to old,
interesting or unusual buildings. The old Sun Inn at Saffron
Walden (see page 45), owned by SPAB technical and research
director Douglas Kent, can be visited under the scheme and there
are plans for SPAB’s Georgian HQ to join next year. Kate Griffin
found out more when she visited Invitation to View chairman
Sheila Charrington (pictured) at her home, Layer Marney Tower
to View
ou know you’ve hit the big time when the
catering van arrives!” Sheila Charrington
grins ruefully across her kitchen table as
she tells me how her home, Layer Marney
Tower, near Colchester in Essex, narrowly
missed out on being Whitehall Palace in the
BBC’s acclaimed dramatisation of Wolf Hall,
Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning re-imagining of
the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell.
“The production team made four visits and we
were getting quite excited,” she says. “On screen
the Thames would have flowed past the steps at
the end of our garden.”
She shrugs and takes a sip of tea. “Sadly they
decided to film at locations closer to the
production base in Bristol. East Anglia is packed
with wonderful Tudor properties, but it lost out to
the fact that the crew wanted to sleep in their own
beds at the end of a day of filming.”
Ironically, Layer Marney Tower would have
been the ideal substitute for Whitehall Palace.
Built by Henry 1st Lord Marney – one of the most
powerful men in the court of Henry VIII – the
magnificent red-brick building, featuring the tallest
of all Tudor gatehouses topped with lavish
terracotta work, perfectly illustrates the king’s
belief that the more important you were, the
grander the house you built for yourself. Certainly,
Henry VIII made a visit to the home of his loyal
namesake in the summer of 1522 to see the latest
advancements in the increasingly elaborate
architecture of Tudor England.
He would not have been disappointed.
Sheila admits that she was a little disappointed
when her home didn’t make it to the screen in Wolf
Hall, but she is philosophical. In 2011 parts of
Layer Marney Tower were used as a location for
spooky blockbuster The Woman in Black – hence
the happy sight of a film catering van turning into
the drive.
The house has been the property of the
Charringtons since 1959 when it was bought by
the parents of Sheila’s husband, Nicholas. Today it
is home to Sheila, Nicholas, their four children –
and two dogs, Myrtle and Bonnie. Outside on the
estate there are sheep, pigs, chickens and a small
herd of deer.
Like most beautiful, old and intensely
atmospheric houses, Layer Marney Tower is itself
a creature that needs constant attention.
“It’s a labour of love – you have to find ways
to keep them going,” Sheila says. “Layer Marney
Tower was built as a palace to accommodate 80
people, although it was never finished, and now it
is a family home. The running and maintenance
costs are amazing. There are two options for
houses like ours to survive. One: the owners are
stonkingly rich and they can simply afford to pull
up the drawbridge. Two: you work incredibly hard
SPAB Spring 2015
Left and above:
Layer Marney
Tower, in Essex,
built for Henry 1st
Lord Marney, one
of the most
powerful men at
the court of King
Henry VIII. The
magnificent Tudor
brick gatehouse is
topped with
terracotta work
SPAB Spring 2015
to make the house viable – ideally to make it
support itself.”
That’s exactly what the Charringtons have
done. Put simply, Layer Marney Tower is now
their business, operating as a location, compact
farm, tourist attraction and as a thriving wedding
and event venue. It is also open to visitors as part
of Invitation to View (ITV), a national scheme that
allows the public to step across the threshold of
interesting, mostly privately owned buildings.
Properties of all ages, sizes and types are part
of the scheme – elsewhere in this feature SPAB’s
technical and research director Douglas Kent
writes about his own historic property, the old Sun
Inn, in Saffron Walden.
Sheila has been chairman of ITV for around
five years, but the scheme itself has been
established for two decades, firstly in East Anglia
and now with almost 90 eclectic properties located
from the tip of Cornwall to Merseyside and Wales.
ITV is run by building owners as a selfsupporting co-operative. It is unique in that people
can buy tickets (rather like booking for the theatre)
to visit a property of their choice by appointment
on dates offered in the ITV calendar. Visitors do
not need to be members or part of a group.
Sheila explains: “The luxury of the scheme is
that it is not limited or homogenised by any
society or organisation. Every visit is different.
Many properties do not open for anyone else and
frequently the owner takes the tour, so you really
do get an individual, highly personal and
sometimes eccentric insight. We like to say that
our visitors ‘get something extra’ – they really do
go behind closed doors!”
Many properties open through ITV are family
homes. Some, like Kelly House in Devon, have
been handed down in the same family for 900
years. Others are owned by charities, museums,
commercial concerns and, in one instance, an
auction house.
The properties are so diverse that Sheila finds
it impossible to pick a favourite.
“I really couldn’t choose between them. There
are enormous stately houses like Knowsley Hall
near Liverpool to more intimate, but wonderfully
unusual, places like the recently-built Belle Grove
in Suffolk which, I think, is very like the Weasley’s
house in the Harry Potter films. Hintlesham Hall –
a hotel near Ipswich – with its priest holes and
unused sections, is completely fascinating.
“Sometimes the property is the attraction, at
others it’s a specific collection, the garden or a
theme. As long as an owner can offer an
interesting one and a half-hour tour or talk – and,
of course, really good refreshments – we’ll take
them on.”
Sheila’s tours of Layer Marney Tower
generally begin with tea and homemade flapjacks.
Not surprisingly, they book up quickly.
“Most visitors – and owners too – come to ITV
through word of mouth,” she says, adding: “We
see really passionate, academic purists and people
who just love the idea of a snoop. Speaking as an
owner, I enjoy opening through ITV because I
never know who is going to walk through the door.
I could be welcoming someone from America with
historic family connections, a small group from
U3A (The University of the Third Age) or perhaps
a SPAB member who will want to know all about
the construction and the lime plaster.”
Ultimately, the buildings are at the heart of
what ITV does. Most of the properties are not big
enough to operate as tourist attractions in their
own right, but the scheme is one of the ways that
can help to keep a house alive in the modern
“Houses survive through the good will of
people who run them,” Sheila says. “Anyone who
joins the scheme does so because they love their
building and want to show it off. They are proud of
what they are doing. These buildings are very
definitely not cash cows. It takes so much – in
every sense – to keep a house like this going and
you have to find a variety of ways to do that.”
She glances affectionately at Myrtle and
Bonnie who have been keeping us company in the
Aga-warmed kitchen. The dogs are now waiting
expectantly by the door. The boisterous pair are
blissfully unaware of the architectural splendour of
their home, or the effort that goes into running it.
They simply want to dash around the gardens
Rising to release them, Sheila continues: “You
have to take it in your stride. When I married the
man I took on the house. I had no idea what I was
letting myself in for. I think I might have had a
romantic idea about owning a country house –
little did I know!”
She smiles broadly and adds: “But the thing is,
if you own a house like this it captures your
imagination. Actually, I think it captures you.”
l For a brochure and more information about
Invitation to View, and the range of buildings that
can be visited as part of the scheme, go to:
Invitation to View
SPAB technical and research
director Douglas Kent writes
about his own property, open
as part of Invitation to View
t is said that there are three key ingredients to
successfully opening an old building to the
public: “A view, a brew and a loo.” I bore this
in mind, therefore, when opening my house,
25-27 Church Street (part of the old Sun Inn) in
Saffron Walden, Essex, under Invitation to View.
Joining the scheme was an ideal way of managing
frequent requests for visits, whilst also promoting
the SPAB approach that undergirds the ongoing
renovation of my property – once, coincidentally,
owned by the Society.
The “view” offered in my case is the chance
for visitors to see behind the widely admired
façade of a privately owned, Grade I-listed, 14thcentury building. The house is renowned for its
pargeting (decorative external render) and features
on a whole array of postcards, in guidebooks and
on other souvenirs – there’s even a Lilliput Lane
model with illuminations! Much historic fabric
survives internally. The work in progress to repair,
update and alter the building is something I know
from organising SPAB Regional Group visits is an
added draw.
The “brew” presented to my visitors is a cup
of tea or coffee with biscuits and cake. Despite
once forming part of a commercial inn, my
current facilities are basic. The unmodernised
kitchen, with a sink and little else, often resembles
the inside of a builder’s site hut. This precludes
the more substantial culinary delights conjured up
at some other Invitation to View properties. I do,
though, enjoy the benefit of a speciallySPAB Spring 2015
Above: Step
inside to find out
Right: The fine
pargetting over
the gateway of
the old Sun Inn
features in many
postcards and
photographs of
Saffron Walden
purchased urn and the help of my family with
My “loo” facilities, like the kitchen, are
equally as rudimentary. They take the form of
two non-historic outside WCs. One required
attention to rectify a defect that developed
suddenly before I could admit Invitation to View
visitors. On pulling the chain, unsuspecting users
failing to retreat quickly enough would emerge
soaked by water, much to the amusement of my
youngest niece, Annabel.
This will be my third year hosting Invitation
to View visits. About 200 visitors have come in
total. So far, I’ve given 17 tours under the
scheme (in addition to dozens for a range of
other groups, from local history societies and
post-graduate courses to a London livery
company and local hairdressers). Until now,
Invitation to View
The loo facilities, like the kitchen, are what could best be described as rudimentary, as Douglas Kent’s nieces discover
certain of my Invitation to View visits were
scheduled to coincide with those at another
Grade I-listed Saffron Walden property with
past SPAB links, 1 Myddylton Place. These
proved particularly successful but stopped when
the owners of this other house moved.
Tours last approximately an hour and a half.
Each begins or ends with refreshments,
depending on whether it is before or after lunch.
The size of my rooms and nature of the tours
restricts numbers to about 15 at a time. Visitors,
therefore, receive an introductory talk whilst
assembled in the sitting room, and hear about
the SPAB’s approach of “conservative repair”,
history discovered so far about the house and
renovation work underway or undertaken, such
as the award-winning pargeting conservation by
McNeilage Conservation. They can then spread
out to explore freely with the aid of some
handouts and have the opportunity to ask me
All principal parts of the house can be
viewed, including the chalk-floored cellars. The
visitor handouts highlight particular features.
Some are historical, for instance, superstitious
scorch marks discovered in 2012, a cast iron
stove with gas mantle and wallpaper spanning
over 100 years from about 1840 onwards in up
to 21 layers. Others relate to recent or proposed
work, for example, the conservation of a
moulded brick overmantel with remnants of
early painted decoration, funded with financial
assistance from the National Trust (which,
through the SPAB, also has longstanding
connections with the old Sun Inn). The
processes involved are explained too, such as
paint research, wallpaper investigations,
environmental monitoring and air-tightness
Questions from visitors typically relate to
costs and timescales for the work, technical
aspects or historical details. Inevitably, I’m
asked whether the house is haunted. If a recent
online video is to be believed, the ghost of a
Cromwellian solider is responsible for “eerie
banging noises” that leave guests at the old Sun
Inn feeling “uneasy”. The only noises perturbing
me have been the late-night tapping of
deathwatch beetle! During the Civil War, Oliver
Cromwell purportedly stayed in what became
Sun Inn but this is, to date, unproven.
The interest in my house shown by Invitation
to View visitors has been gratifying. I hope that
those visiting derive not only enjoyment but
understand, value and care for our heritage more
as a result. Opening a building to members of
the public always impacts upon it but this
increases when work is in hand, necessitating
extra co-ordination to ensure the safety of
visitors without hampering the project schedule.
The flexibility of Invitation to View has enabled
me to strike the right balance between
accommodating visitors and advancing work on
site – though I really do need to replace those
outside loos!
Douglas Kent
SPAB Spring 2015
Invitation to View is not limited
to the South East. Here, three
owners around the country
describe their properties
hrumpton Hall is a beautiful red-brick
house dating back to the time when the
Babington Plot was concocted there in the
1580s. (Anthony Babington’s family lived
in the next-door village.) Later, it became, for a
hundred years, the principal seat of the Byron
family, and was visited by Byron’s celebrated
daughter Ada, the computer pioneer who died
tragically young, in 1851. The house is still in the
same family’s possession.
We came to Invitation to View through the
recommendation of the owners of Knebworth,
who told us what a terrific job it was doing in
promoting tours across the country. And they
were right.
What I love about the Invitation to View
visitors is that they take immense trouble – some
of them travel across the country to find us – and
bring with them a remarkable fund of fascinating
information. Just in the past year, I learned how
to identify the different woods used in our
Commonwealth carved staircase, and where to
get a beautiful Japanese cabinet re-lacquered. I
love the fact that the groups are small,
knowledgeable and immensely friendly. We
always start with coffee by the fireplace in the
Hall, while I tell them the history and they tell me
what has brought them there.
And – if I am fortunate and the tour interests
them, which it seems to do – they end by buying
copies of In My Father’s House, the book I wrote
about my father’s grand obsession for the house
to which he gave his life.
Another thing I like about Invitation to View
is that it encourages houseowners to bond and
work together, helping to promote each other’s
homes in a time when these lovely old houses
need all the friendly help that they can get.
Miranda Seymour
SPAB Spring 2015
his is primarily a family home, completely
renovated over a period of two years to
make it work for the 21st century. Since
then much more of the history of the house
has been discovered and it appears that major
improvements have taken place on a regular basis,
carried out particularly in the 1820s and in the
1900s by the Brereton family who owned the
house, surrounding farmland and village houses
for almost three hundred years (with a break of
fifty years due to bankruptcy). At one stage the
house was a county bank and the ornate key to the
original wall safe can still be seen.
The main features are the fine oak wainscot
staircase which has been traced back to Admiral
Lord Nelson's last residence, Merton Place, and a
portrait of Anna Margaretta Brereton, whose fame
rests on the Brereton bed hangings which she
created after retiring from public life due to the
untimely death of her eldest son in 1800.
Archaeologically there is a display of Stone
Age hand tools found in Brinton, and Roman
artefacts that reveal elements of a Roman villa.
Before agreeing to join the ITV scheme, we
visited several different properties to get an idea
of what was expected. We were in awe of every
one we visited even though they were all
completely individual and different from each
other. We joined in 2008 and enjoy both being in
the scheme and visiting other ITV properties.
Being a member of the scheme has provided
an opportunity to share the trials and tribulations
of owning a historic property with fellow owners
and visitors.
We get a wide range of visitors, ranging from
Brereton descendants to intrepid snowdrop
enthusiasts. People take delight in the house, its
surroundings, and the refreshments at the end!
One of the most rewarding aspects of showing
the house has been learning more about the
history of the Breretons, particularly as we knew
nothing about how much they had developed and
improved the village during their time here.
There are no negatives! (Apart from tidying
up inside and out and occasionally losing the
Esme and Jeremy Bagnall-Oakeley
Invitation to View
oombe Trenchard is an Edwardian country
house, built in 1906 for Henry Maitland
Sperling and his wife, Mary Louisa. Built
at the height of the “Arts & Crafts” design
period, special consideration was given to not only
using local craftsmen and materials, but also to
showcasing their design skills.
When we came here in 2007, the house was
largely unchanged since the death of the Sperlings.
A wealth of original features were present and
intact, with most in need of just a little attention.
After living in the house for a few months, we
discovered, by chance, that it concealed a
“disappearing wall”. The knowledge of its
presence appears to have been lost at the time of
the Sperlings’ death in the early 1950s.
A large panelled wall, together with a heavy
carved oak door, divides the main hall into two
rooms. This wall can be lowered into a brick lined
void in the ground below the oak floorboards,
creating a larger hallway. We were delighted to
find this. To our knowledge, it appears to be the
only one like it in the country.
The first time I heard about Invitation to View
was in 2011, when I was contacted by another
house owner in Devon who told me about the
successful scheme already running in East Anglia.
The intention was to branch out into the West
Country. A meeting was held and house owners
heard Sheila Charrington speak about how ITV
could flourish in the south west. And so in the
summer of 2012 we opened our doors to our first
ITV visitors.
Over the past two years we have had a great
deal of interest. Not only have we had visitors with
a keen interest in “Arts & Crafts”, but also history
societies, NADFAS and U3A groups.
The restoration of the original gardens has
been very popular and we have found that
horticultural enthusiasts, artists and photographers
enjoy returning year on year to view the changes.
It has been interesting to see the popularity of
ITV grow in the south west. In the first year
visitors came largely from the local area, and for
most, it was their first visit to an ITV property.
Last year most people came from further afield,
and had often visited a number of properties
around the country. Through ITV I have met many
wonderful people who are keen to share their
knowledge and enthusiasm. When we first came to
Coombe Trenchard we had little information about
its past residents or history. There were many areas
of the house and its design that were a mystery. I
love talking about these features, asking guests
their opinions – and I always get some fascinating,
informative suggestions.
Coombe Trenchard will be open for ITV on
May 14, June 11 and July 2 and we look forward
to welcoming visitors.
Sara Marsh
SPAB Spring 2015