We take a peek inside four historic National Trust houses, including the home of Rudyard Kipling and a medieval castle, to see how they make Christmas magical.

Great British Life: Ruth Howard finds decorating NT properties exciting. (c) National TrustRuth Howard finds decorating NT properties exciting. (c) National Trust

Taking a peek inside one of the county’s historic houses is a thrilling experience any time of the year but seeing them at Christmas is truly magical.

From world-famous writer Rudyard Kipling’s 17th century Sussex Weald home, Bateman’s, to royal favourite – and now Bridgerton star – Petworth House, and one of Britain’s most romantic monuments, medieval Bodiam Castle, they will have their halls decked, trees adorned and lights twinkling for the festive season.

Stepping into one of these National Trust houses is like travelling back in time and you’ll be able to see an historic Christmas from the Georgian and Victorian era, along with themes and traditional family settings.

But how exactly does the magic happen – and what does decorating these magnificent houses actually entail?

Sussex Life spoke to Ruth Howard, the National Trust’s House and Collections Manager for Nymans, the 600-acre estate at Handcross, near Haywards Heath, and Standen, the stunning Arts and Crafts home with Morris & Co interiors near Robertsbridge in East Grinstead, to discover her festive decoration secrets and top tips.

What’s your favourite way to decorate a Christmas tree?

Go big or go home is my motto! What we are looking to do is create something that people can’t create at home, because we have the most fabulous spaces, artistic licence and objects to work with.

It’s always daunting but also exciting to think how we will use the same decorations in different ways and to different effects each year. All the shiny baubles have such a sense of promise of good times, don’t they?

What are your tips for a mantelpiece showstopper?

At Nymans we use dried foliage, dried allium heads and candles to great effect on our mantlepieces. We also have [stage designer – and grandson of Ludwig and Annie Messel, who bought Nymans as their summer home in 1890] Oliver Messel’s handmade papier mâché candelabras that were probably made for an opera performance, as he was one of the foremost set designers from the 1920s to the 1960s. Really, anything is possible…I think that is what is so fun working at Standen and Nymans, we have the license to really use anything as long as it is tied to the spirit of the place.

What’s your theme for Nymans this year?

It is the Nutcracker, so we are turning the house into the land of sweets which is great fun! Having a background in the arts, I like to use my creativity to craft something a little different and I am lucky to have very creative colleagues.

And what about Standen?

What makes Standen’s Christmas special is the feeling of a lived-in house, an experience as though you are joining the Christmas party, and a sense of the family just having left the room. I’m not trying to create a showy Christmas, I create a Christmas that people can relate to, by adding humour and fun.

What are your favourite decorations?

One of my favourite Christmas trees was the Coffee Cup Christmas Tree in the dining room at Standen. I have a collection of around 40 or so mix matched coffee cups, mostly china and porcelain, and they looked so pretty with the light shining through them when hung on the tree with pretty ribbon. The overall effect was lovely, and people didn’t realise that they were coffee cups until they get up close.

My other favourite decorations are the old baubles – they have a quality to them that new decorations just can’t match. We also have the original Father Christmas suit complete with papier mache mask that FINDING OUT WHO HE IS Mr Beale wore - it’s more than 100 years old now and the colour has faded. My colleagues think it is a bit creepy, but I love it. How many other properties have an original Father Christmas suit? At Nymans we have the original Giraffe decorations that [Oliver’s sister] Anne Messel had on her Christmas Tree.

Do you make your own decorations?

We do a mixture of both really. We buy baubles and decorations but so many of our themes are so niche that we ask our wonderfully creative volunteers to lend us a hand. We have had people crocheting, paper folding, knitting, cutting, sticking and stitching.

What do you do about real foliage fading before the big day?

This hasn’t really been a problem. Real Christmas trees are watered daily and a lot of the foliage we have at Nymans is dried and brought in from the garden. We also mix real with fake greenery and trees in some of the rooms. This means that we don’t have the problem of foliage scratching our collections.

How does it feel when you’re finished?

A huge relief! So much goes into decorating the houses, it really is a lot of hard work from all the team and our volunteers, too. Sometimes the things that we are creating only come together in the very last minute and have just been an idea in our heads, so it’s a very nerve-racking time until we flip on the lights and say action. Many of our visitors come back to see the houses decorated every year so we always like to delight them with our current decorations. It is so rewarding when we receive positive feedback or we overhear people’s reactions coming into the room.


Great British Life: Nymans has a Nutcracker theme this Christmas. National Trust. (C) Claire HewittNymans has a Nutcracker theme this Christmas. National Trust. (C) Claire Hewitt

A Nutcracker Christmas at Nymans

Costumes from choreographer Matthew Bourne’s production Nutcracker! will be on display in the Gallery. A trail in the garden takes families on a voyage through this magical world. 18 November – 1 January, House open daily 11-3.30pm, (closed 24 & 25 Dec). Usual admission.

Christmas with Mouse and Mole family trail at Sheffield Park and Garden

Based on the story book by Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew, this family fun trail will follow Mouse and Mole's festive adventures around Sheffield Park and Garden. 1 December – 2 January (closed 24 & 25 December), 10am - 4pm, free trail with usual admission.

Great British Life: Laurence Perry Christmas decorations in Standen's dining room. (C) National Trust Laurence Perry Christmas decorations in Standen's dining room. (C) National Trust

All I Want for Christmas at Standen

Step inside this imaginatively decorated Arts and Crafts home at Christmas, be inspired by the centrepiece Christmas tree in the Hall, then gather the family for a festive trail around the garden. Christmas shopping and food on hand. 18 November – 1 January: 11am–3.30pm, usual admission.

Twilight Lates at Standen every weekend from 9 to 23 December, 3pm to 6pm. Plus book ahead for the Christmas Experience at Standen: The Tale of Betwixtmas, by Spun Glass Theatre, with clowning, puppetry and music. Ticket prices apply.

Colours of Christmas at Petworth House and Garden

The Marble Hall has been transformed into an enchanted winter garden, and visit the rooms to see trees decked with colour and sparkle, inspired by Petworth’s magnificent collections. The historic kitchens reveal a tempting dessert display, with playful mice hiding. 25 November – 1 January, house open daily 10.30-4.30pm, usual admission (closed 24 & 25 December). Plus Christmas choirs, festive workshops and Petworth lates on selected dates.

Christmas Makers Market: a wonderful opportunity to snap up handmade artisan gifts on 2 and 3 December.

Great British Life: Traditional Christmas decorations at Bateman's, East SussexTraditional Christmas decorations at Bateman's, East Sussex

The Writer’s Home: Christmas at Bateman’s

See the house dressed for a traditional Christmas with twinkly lights and golden decorations inspired by Rudyard Kipling and his writing. Manuscripts, typewriters, fountain pens, and spectacles are displayed around the house, plus there’s a new garden trail inspired by the Kipling family Christmas. 18 November to 1 January, usual admission plus £2 per trail, includes a small prize).

Christmas at Bodiam Castle

You’ll find Father Christmas’ sleigh in the castle’s courtyard where you can get dressed up in festive costumes. Climb aboard Father Christmas’ sleigh for a family selfie, follow the naughty elf trail and write a letter to Santa. Little ones will be enchanted by tales of dragons, knights, and castles on selected dates in December. 5 November – 1 January, usual admission, £3 per trail.

Find out more at nationaltrust.org.uk/sussex