West Horsley Place credit Francesco Guidicini

Delving into the past of West Horsley Place

Delving into the past of West Horsley Place

A tale of Henry VIII, beautiful muses, executions, and evacuees…

West Horsley Place (c) Francesco Guidicini

West Horsley Place has shot to fame thanks to the BBC’s hit comedy Ghosts. It has also had a starring role in Enola Holmes, Vanity Fair, My Cousin Rachel, and Howard’s End. But its own story is just as compelling as any you might watch on screen.

Henry VIII and Elizabeth I once wandered its rooms. Sir Walter Raleigh’s mummified head was kept under its stairs, a Tudor ceiling bears the initials of a young muse whose beauty inspired a literary legend. And it’s also possible that Guy Fawkes once worked here.

It is a house of many surprises. The first of which is that behind the 17th century red brick exterior is a Medieval core. The façade was merely tacked on to the outside by the then owner who was embarrassed by owning such an old pile but didn’t have funds to rebuild it all.

I’m given a tour by Chrissie Paver, marketing manager for West Horsley Place. We pass a large group who are here for the hugely popular film tours. Most are Ghosts’ fans paying homage to ‘Button House’, as the estate is known in the series.

She tells me that the tours are booked out for the rest of the year – there are plans to put on more, but the house is in popular demand for other things too – more film location requests, open days, and crucially, it is busy with its plans to fulfil its role as a charity at the heart of the community.

It is this ethos that is a key part of its future – and was the intention of Bamber Gascoigne, the TV personality and author who unexpectedly inherited the property from his aunt, Mary Duchess of Roxburghe, in 2015. Bamber, who died in 2022, wanted it to be very much a space that could be used by people and not become some preserved relic. He sold off some of the house’s more valuable paintings and artefacts, raising £5m in the process to start a charity that would ensure the property’s future.

Chrissie adds that he never wanted it to be one of those places that can only be admired from behind a red velvet rope. The tours, open days and events that the house holds ensure the house can be enjoyed by all while also bringing in much needed funds. The manor house is on the Heritage At Risk Register and will require a huge amount of cash to maintain it. A team of 250 volunteers also help out but more are needed.

There has been a building on the estate since Saxon times and until 2015, it had always been in private hands. It is only since it has become a charity, that the full extent of its fascinating history has been revealed.

The Blue Bedroom, The Red Drawing Room

Its links with Henry VIII will be celebrated this summer. Henry seized the house and gifted it to his cousin Henry Courtenay. The king was invited to a lavish party there in 1533 and West Horsley Place is working with Historic Royal Palaces and Exeter University to recreate dishes, clothing and pastimes from the event for a Tudor festival this summer, which will offer jousting, dancing and birds of prey displays.

The unpredictable king later had Henry Courtenay’s head chopped off for being a traitor but that’s another story. This turn of events saw the house regifted to Sir Anthony Browne. You can see his initials in the ceiling of the Geraldine Room. It dates back to 1547/1548 and is thought to be the oldest decorative plaster ceiling in England. It also bears the initials of his 15-year-old wife Lady Elizabeth FitzGerald. Her beauty was such that it inspired Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, to write what would become a famous sonnet, earning her a place in English literary history as the Fair Geraldine.

The room really brings home why the house is on the At Risk Register – currently, there are iron props and big cushions protecting the dilapidating ceiling from further damage. A grant has just been awarded to restore the area.

Slowly but surely, West Horsley Place is being protected for generations to come. But it is a difficult balance. A lot of its character comes from seeing all its layers of history. The Red Drawing Room was a later addition to the house above what was a double height Medieval entrance hall. The scarlet fabric walls are faded, the paintings that line the walls are not a curated collection but have built up over time. It is all part of its charm.

It would be difficult to know what period to restore the house to as there are so many eras represented. The Tudor kitchen has a 1930s fridge. The library is predominantly from the 1920s. Then there’s the World War II graffiti in the attic – Canadian troops were stationed in the house, as were evacuees. The Marquess and Marchioness of Crewe held a Christmas party for them – there was a beautifully decorated tree, pheasant for dinner and gifts including a sewing machine and a watch.

One example of clever conservation while ensuring it is very much a usable house is in the award-winning loos. A modern line of sinks runs down the middle while the walls show all the elements of the Medieval structure laid bare.

You can feel the history seeping into your bones as you wander the house. It is one of the most atmospheric historic homes I’ve visited. I walk down an old wooden staircase. Chrissie tells me I’m following in the footsteps of Elizabeth I, who’d been a visitor on more than one occasion. The stairs take us past a stairwell that leads to the basement of plague victims in Ghosts (although that was filmed not in a basement but an adjoining room blacked out for the purpose). Another staircase takes us past the stuffed bear from the show. The bedrooms are from different periods, with one recently decorated for the filming of Enola Holmes.


Ghosts, BBC, Alex Gill

The mysteries of the house are being pieced together. One such puzzle is the origin of a red velvet bag. West Horsley Place was once home to Carew Raleigh, son of Sir Walter Raleigh. It is possible that the bag contained the mummified head of Sir Walter – his devoted wife is said to have carried his head around with her after his execution. After her death 29 years later, it was stored under the stairs here.

Out in the grounds, there is an old green Peugeot parked up by the grand entrance. It looks rather incongruous. But it’s a much-loved prop from Ghosts. Apparently, it doesn’t even start and has to be pushed around the corner when the film tour has finished.

We follow the building around to the gardens. You can see the top of Grange Park Opera next door: this impressive project saw the development of a new opera house based on La Scala in Milan. It’s popular and in the summer months, picnics are taken in the grounds before the performance with guests all in evening dress. It is a separate charity to West Horsley Place but they do team up.

Also in the grounds is a courtyard – home to an electric milk float that serves coffee and cakes. There’s a small outbuilding set aside for the winter months to have refreshments or you can go in to the barn when it’s not in use – the old building has been made into a lovely events space.

Two women out walking their dogs have popped in for a coffee. My friends who live nearby tell me how they have enjoyed watching their child in a school play that took place in the building. In summer, West Horsley Place also hosts open-air theatre. There are nature walks and wellness days. It’s clearly become a hub for the local area.

When all the frenzy for Ghosts finally dissipates (although that is some way off given the popularity of the tours), West Horsley Place’s future is on course to be one of our most loved – and intriguing –  spots in Surrey. But it does need funds – the trust announced in January it will need £7m for repairs and launched an appeal for Ghosts’ fans to become ‘buttoneers’ – donations can get them anything from a love letter from ghost Thomas to the chance to get a miniature of themselves put inside the dolls’ house used in the credits sequence, which is on display at the house…


Check the website for tours and open days:

Hosting Henry VIII: the Tudor festival takes place on 27 and 28 July.