I was fortunate to have the chance to visit West Dean, West Sussex today. My wife, my mother and I went down to West Dean to visit the Apple Affair at West Dean Gardens. West Dean has strong ancestral connections and I am sure that the West Dean Estate has played a huge part in many of my ancestor’s lives.
The gardens are normally open to the public, but the house is not usually accessible (it is now a college), so this weekend was a rare opportunity to have a look around inside just a small part of the house.
Sadly photography is not permitted inside the house, which is a real shame because it contains pretty bizarre mix of furnishings and decorations. The walls are lined with paintings and tapestries, and adorned with stuffed animals and mounted heads (including that of a giraffe!), there were pieces of armour and weapons (more at home in a medieval castle) and many artworks and sculptures.
There were of course the normal features you would associate with a country house, like the old library (with floor to ceiling bookshelves) and the dining room with an incredible table decoration made of apples (presumably made specially for the occasion). Even amongst the more traditional elements there were still surreal touches, but it was still surprising to learn that Salvador Dali had once stayed there.
It is hard to reconcile the bizarre world inside the house with the beautiful surroundings outside. West Dean sits within the rolling slopes of the South Downs, and the views from the front of the house are quite superb, even under grey skies.
To be honest the gardens were probably past their best at this time of the year, but there was still plenty to see, especially in the glasshouses in the walled gardens. I was particularly taken by the glasshouses, with their elegant white paint wood and iron frameworks. I couldn’t help wondering if any of my relatives tended plants in those glasshouses and gardens.
The Apple Affair itself was pretty busy, lots of people trying different food and drink, not just apple based, although obviously there were apples almost everywhere. In the end however the weather beat us, the rain began as light drizzle but became progressively heavier and we ran out of places to shelter.
Of course every time I visit somewhere like this that has ancestral connections it makes me want to find out more, and try and prove some connections. I am not sure what records of the estate survive and where, but it ought to be worth having a look for them, to see if any lists of employees survive or rent books.