Borde Hill: Family home and tourist attraction

Eleni and Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke (Photo by Jim Holden)

Eleni and Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke (Photo by Jim Holden) - Credit: Jim Holden

Borde Hill was originally bought to house the collection of a Victorian plant hunter but is now both a family home and a tourist attraction, as Duncan Hall discovers

The dining room (Photo by Jim Holden)

The dining room (Photo by Jim Holden) - Credit: Jim Holden

Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke has an interesting juggling act when it comes to looking after Borde Hill – home to his family for four generations.

“Looking after the house is a bit like being a curator of a museum,” he says from the house’s atmospheric trophy room.

“There is the legacy of the collection, but we also have to take that legacy forward to future generations.

“What is different is the garden – which is a natural, growing and evolving legacy.”

The garden was the reason Borde Hill, near Haywards Heath, was purchased by Andrewjohn’s great-grandfather Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke in 1893 to house his plant collection. The house itself dates from 1598, having been built by physician Stephen Borde, the grandson to Henry VIII’s courtier Andrew Borde.

Andrewjohn and his wife Eleni have recently discovered the original advert for Borde Hill’s 1893 auction in among the extensive house papers, which also includes his great-grandfather’s correspondence with various plant hunters over the course of 40 years.

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“When the house was bought in the early 1890s it was an Elizabethan mansion which had been extended, with a fairly modest garden,” says Andrewjohn. “None of the owners in the late 1800s were gardeners.

“We are on an east/west ridge with a lot of geological faults, which creates a variety of micro-climates and soil conditions. We can grow things in one area of the garden which wouldn’t grow in other areas.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Borde Hill’s rose garden – currently home to 500 different species of David Austin roses.

Drawing room at Borde Hill (Photo by Jim Holden)

Drawing room at Borde Hill (Photo by Jim Holden) - Credit: Jim Holden

In the 1980s and 1990s the space was a large and unruly herbaceous boarder which neither Andrewjohn, nor his father Robert Nunn, had any clue how to manage.

The solution came after Robert died in 1987 and Andrewjohn inherited the estate. Eleni discovered a copy of Country Life magazine from 1902 which showed the space being used as a rose garden.

“Our quandary was resolved,” says Andrewjohn. “We researched what roses we liked – generally the ones which looked and smelled traditional. We started with more than 400 different David Austin roses.”

Jay Robin’s Rose Garden, named after Andrewjohn and Eleni’s daughter, now 33, was designed by Royal Horticultural Society gold medallist Robin Williams.

Garden designer and award-winning writer James Alexander-Sinclair will be giving a talk on roses for the Royal Horticultural Society on Thursday 23 June 2016, including a house tour and guided walk around the gardens with head gardener Andy Stevens.

Living in a house which is the subject of pre-booked guided tours creates its own challenges when it comes to living arrangements.

Several of the rooms in Borde Hill are kept in period condition – such as the trophy room, drawing room and dining room which is available for fine dining hire.

The trophy room in particular has a whole host of treasures, from the animal heads which line the walls, to the fireplace made of grey Sussex marble, to the Broadwood piano, which dates back to Beethoven’s time and is frequently used in concert performances.

“We try to keep some rooms so they are representative of their history,” says Andrewjohn.

“We have no television, radio or modern ceiling lights in those rooms.

“Borde Hill is bigger than most people’s houses, but in the way that everyone would we have a room where we watch television, a room where we eat everyday meals and our own bedrooms.

“I use the same study my father used in the corner of the house.”

Each of the older rooms has its own stories to tell. Particularly impressive is the drawing room with its plaster embossed ceiling – containing rare royal standards of the Tudor rose and fleur de lis – and the square of ‘chancellor wallpaper’ behind one bookcase which used to coat the whole room.

Andrewjohn reveals it was similar to the gold-leaf embossed wallpaper that caused a scandal when the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Laing, used it to kit out his apartments in 1998 as part of a £650,000 refit. The Borde Hill version had once covered all the walls in the room, but was found to be too dark.

As is the case with most old houses, Borde Hill has been added to over the years – and the family is keen to keep all that history on show rather than strip everything back to one period.

“When my great-grandfather bought Borde Hill he sold his property Croydon Lodge in Tooting,” says Andrewjohn.

“He knew the house was going to be demolished, so he rescued the Victorian fireplaces and put them in the dining room and drawing room.

“The trophy room was extended by a third in 1912 and a marquetry ceiling was installed using rowan, oak, ash, hornbeam and chestnut timber from the estate. It’s a wonderful addition.”

The family has added to the art collection with modern abstract and figurative works following their own tastes.

There are new additions to the gardens too. A new ‘mystery box’ is being installed in the Long Dell direct from the Hampton Court Flower Show – a mirrored box containing bright, unusual and striking plants.

The Round Dell is being redesigned with Chelsea Flower Show award-winning Sophie Walker.

The site of the peacock house, which was a foxhound kennel in a former life, is now being redeveloped as the Little Ritz tea house, within sight of the rose garden.

For Andrewjohn, who grew up in Hoathly House in West Hoathly, on the edge of the estate, Borde Hill contains childhood memories from visiting his grandparents.

It is these memories he builds on when it comes to planning the various family activities. “I would come here for teas and parties,” he says.

“So many families come here now with their children to have as much fun as I did with my brothers and sisters as young children.

“I remember my uncle decided one Easter it was far better to hide sixpences instead of eggs around the garden. All around the garden are an awful lot of sixpences that we never found.”

The gardens’ first playground was inspired by the needs of their own children Jay and Harry, now 31. The family is now in the planning stages of their third adventure playground.

Supported by a team of four gardeners and a full-time executive manager, Andrewjohn and Eleni are closely involved in the running of Borde Hill, especially after Andrewjohn gave up his job in IT following his period as High Sherrif of West Sussex in 2012/13.

“Eleni does the marketing and PR, and most of the social media,” he says.

“She knows about the plants and went to college to learn about horticulture. I get involved in the business side – I did an MBA at the London Business School.

“My father had no interest in gardening until he inherited Borde Hill, and it was the same with me. My daughter Jay and my son Harry already take an interest though. They are in full-time jobs doing other things, but they get involved in making sure it is all going in the right direction.

“I’m delighted to say they feel owning a family estate is something that needs to be carefully nurtured. If you have a large amount of landscape you have to protect it as best you can so it continues into the future.”

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