Pick of the Month

 
Here is our recommendation for the best place to visit this month.

Penshurst Place, Kent

Penshurst Place in Kent is an ancient place and it feels that way when you visit.
 
Much of the existing house dates to 1341 when Sir Thomas de Pulteney decided to build a hunting lodge within reach of London during the long reign of Edward III. Standing in the Barons’ Hall today you will have no doubt of the ambition of Sir Thomas, one of the rising merchant class of the Middle Ages, who created a centrepiece for his house that has been described as “one of the grandest rooms in the world”. The 8m long trestle tables are a rare survival from 400 years ago and show how the family and their retainers would have sat down to meals together. The private family quarters in the West Solar are also little changed from the 14th century though now hung with family portraits and used as a dining room.
In 1552 the handsome house, by now enlarged for a royal visit by Henry VIII in 1519, was given to Sir William Sidney in recognition of his long career as a successful military and naval commander, diplomat and finally, tutor to the new King, Edward VI. Today, 450 years later, it is the home of his descendant, Philip Sidney, 2nd Viscount De L’Isle and his family.

Elizabethan splendour

Queen Elizabeth I was here several times, the room where she held court in 1599 is named for her, and is part of an earlier Tudor addition to the house. She would also recognise the layout and much of the planting of the formal gardens; this is the oldest private garden in the UK with planting records dating back to 1346.

There are two portraits of Elizabeth at Penshurst. A painting in the West Solar traditionally titled Queen Elizabeth Dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester has been thought to show her swinging in a turn of the popular Italian dance, La Volta. It is an irresistible glimpse into the life of the court of the young Queen, whether it does show Elizabeth herself or is perhaps a satire on the Queen's flirtation with Robert Dudley. The woman is this painting is young and energetic, while in the formal portrait in the Long Gallery, aged around 45, she is the bejewelled propaganda image of her later portraits. Most intriguing is the lead death mask of the Queen, taken from funerary statue that topped her coffin at her funeral, very probably a near likeness of the aged Queen.

Tudor Celeb

Standing by the fireplace in the La Volta painting is Sir Philiip Sidney, the most famous man of his age and the embodiment of Elizabethan virtues, born at Penshurst in 1554. Poet, soldier, diplomat, horseman and full blown Elizabethan hero, Sidney had the sort of celebrity status of a modern Hollywood star, perhaps the George Clooney of his time. He was killed in battle in Flanders in 1587 and given a full state funeral, the first commoner to be afforded this honour, later enjoyed by the likes of Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. About 700 people turned out to watch and the funeral helm used on the day is part of the display of arms and armour in the Nether Hall.

Sir Philip did not live long enough to enjoy a further extension to the old house, the essential Tudor addition of a Long Gallery, which now provides the perfect setting for an exceptional collection of Tudor portraits including all the main characters in the Penshurst story. A run of staterooms also dates from the late Tudor period, don’t miss a small Pages’ Room where the Lord’s attendants would have waited for his summons.

Porcupines 

Sir Philip Sidney’s funeral helmet is topped with a porcupine – the symbol of the Sidney family adopted by Sir Philip’s grandfather. The porcupine crops up elsewhere too.  Spot one above the fireplace in the Queen Elizabeth Room, as a quirky statue by Robert Rattray in the Demi Lune garden, in topiary paired with a bear, in a stone carving outside the Sidney Chapel in the church and of course, your visit must include lunch or tea in The Porcupine Pantry.

Garden highlights

Beyond the neat beds of the formal gardens are herbaceous borders, absolutely at their best for the next month or so. The famous Peony Border comes a little earlier but will tempt you back next year. A rather patriotic Union Jack Garden commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of Sir Philip Sidney, and a Heraldic Garden with carved beasts on brightly coloured poles recalls the jousting lists in which he excelled.

 

Summer holidays

Penshurst is lively this summer and a great way to give children a summer holiday treat. The Toy Museum and Adventure Playground are permanent entertainment but July sees the opening of a maize maze and there are Summer Sundays with falconry displays and storytelling. For the more adventurous, book into Camp Wilderness for overnight camps in traditional tents in the parkland under the spreading canopy of mature trees. Sadly though, the famous Sidney Oak died last year. It was 1000 years old and full grown when Sir Philiip Sidney was a schoolboy, but a new sapling has sprung from one of its acorns and will catch up in a decade or so.  There is plenty of time at Penshurst.