Thursday, 4 March 2010

Reigate Priory Park Restoration

When our gracious parkland dating back to medieval times was being restored in 2007, Reigate and Banstead Borough Council did well to get a video made for them by local photographers.

There are some beautiful shots and rare footage of the special equipment used for digging up trees and dredging silt from the lake. An archaeologist is shown hard at work, examining the area near the old gatehouse, which was since covered up again. Several council employees are interviewed.

What a shame that Director of Services to the Community, Graham Cook, had failed to grasp the basics about Lady Henry Somerset, whose entire life from 1851-1921 is associated with Reigate Priory.

He speaks to camera: "Lady Somerset", and goes on to say "because she was a society hostess there were many photographs in magazines of the time."

To put the record straight, may I point out that she was never addressed as Lady Somerset - it was, at first, "Lady Isabel" as a girl, and then after her marriage, always "Lady Henry Somerset". It is a misrepresentation to describe her as a society hostess, and by so doing, it trivialises her life and achievements. In fact, soon after the birth of her first child and legal case for custody, severe social limitations were placed on her, caused by the embarrassment over a failed marriage. She had discovered that her husband was homosexual and had many like-minded friends. Society ostracised her for not 'turning a blind eye', so at Reigate Priory with its beautiful parkland, she was able to find peace and serenity again. As well as her heavy responsibilities as a landowner, she devoted the rest of her life to social reform, the temperance movement and Christian charity - hardly the description of a 'society hostess'!

It was the custom to rent out properties of that size - and in the case of Reigate Priory, to notables such as Lord Curzon, Mrs Ronnie Greville - THE society hostess, General Sir Ian Hamilton and Princess Wiazemsky. If you refer to Ernest Scears' history of Reigate Priory, or the visitors books, you would find that their guests included "such outstanding personalities as Edward VII, the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, the Russian Ambassador Count Benckendorff, the Hon. Mrs George Keppel [Alice] and their associates". If you refer to Audrey Ward's book "Discovering Reigate Priory - the place and the people", you would find that those associates included the Churchills, Lord Jack Fisher, Hilaire Belloc ('ex-MP') etc. etc..

Those remarkably high quality photographs of the house and grounds were taken shortly before the whole estate was coming up for auction at the Grand Sale of Reigate in 1921- a sensible course of action, don't you think? The explanation is far more practical and down to earth than the Council Director's version.

Sadly, the Lottery-funded interpretation boards in the park give no indication that there are Augustinian canons buried on the estate, and yet Lady Henry Somerset wished for that fact to be commemorated since it is hallowed ground. Even more ironic is that the pet dog graves get an interpretation board of their own!

Who is kidding whom about "introducing" tennis courts? Here at Reigate Priory, we had "Real Tennis", as at Hampton Court and King Henry VIII. For the 2007 renovations, the existing tennis courts were actually dug up and new ones constructed elsewhere in the park - that is all. A skate park? In Lady Henry Somerset's day there was a 9-hole golf course and top quality horses to admire on the estate. The famous stables, frequented by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, have been left for the vandals. Even the paddock fences, abandoned and ignored, are now a disgrace.

There is another great shame, though. Reigate and Banstead Borough Council failed to take the opportunity to get the magnificent 18th Century Park Lane wrought iron gates restored. They date back to about 1720 and would have stood to welcome all the rich and famous for many generations of society hostesses! The gates and railings in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea were made by the same smith and they are still there to be admired for their excellence, in tip-top condition.

In contrast, the even larger, and of national importance, Reigate Park Lane gates and railings are sitting forlornly, in a parlous state. They are now thoroughly rusted from being left in the undergrowth from WW2 until 1993. Even a box of bits of original ironwork has gone missing, it seems. Where are they located? Well, for 17 years they have been in a Council depot right beside the ratepayers' winter road salt supplies.

It's basic science that salt is corrosive to ironwork.

Towards the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century, Lady Henry Somerset chose the Park Lane Gates and Railings as the main entrance to her beloved Priory - in time for her son's 21st and his wedding. What a wonderful feat of engineering excellence she was honouring, and it was right there that she chose to build her dower house, Makepeace.

So Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, well done on having a lovely video made as a record of the restoration project, but with £6.5 million to play with, it also shows that the history homework hadn't been done properly by a key Council officer. For how long will we ratepayers wait for the beautiful gates and stables to be restored?

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