First of the month and time for my eighth trip to obscure yet interesting places for The King’s Ginger. I’ve been wanting to do this one for a while, and with the arrival of both some unseasonably lovely weather, and some almost unreasonably nice new frocks, it was time. West Dean House was my destination!
Now, we’ve established before that our dear friend King Edward VII had something of an eye for the ladies. Beautiful, feisty, witty and Scottish, Alice Keppel was the last in a long line. She was Edward’s favourite mistress from the moment he met her, in 1898, to his death in 1910, and was known to have supported him immensely, both in his personal and political life. While Edward’s mistresses were never kept a secret (royals having taken them for centuries), the couple were nonetheless not welcome to stay in the King’s haunt Goodwood House, and so, an alternative nearby venue was sought, and found, in West Dean House.
West Dean manor has been around at least as far back as the Domesday Book, which was 1086, fact fans. But the flint mansion you see before you was built in 1804 by Sir James Peachy, who was also responsible for planning and planting the arboretum and the earliest incarnation of the amazing gardens. But the period we’re interested in begins in the last days of the 19th Century. William Dodge James made his fortune from American industries, married a wealthy Scottish socialite and settled in West Dean, extending the original house and filling it with treasures from across the world, taxidermy and paintings.
William Dodge James also knew how to throw a hell of a party, all year round; but especially during the partridge and pheasant shooting season. It was these parties which King Edward, who never could resist a good shindig, would regularly attend with Mrs Keppel.
The House itself is now a college, and tours are only rarely given. I was allowed to have a look in the foyer, but no further, and it meant I couldn’t check out the infamous King’s Room, which is now nothing more than a conference room, but which once housed Bertie himself. There’s apparently a small door concealed somewhere, which is where his lady friend would be smuggled in… how I’d loved to have seen it! But imagining it is fun, too.
Outside of the House is the main attraction these days, from the stunning Victorian pleasure gardens, to the walled Kitchen Garden and the arboretum.
Everywhere we turned there was a wonderful ancient orchard tree (wild or trained into a fabulous shape), a lovingly tended bed, or some gorgeous wrought iron from the time when such things were designed for aesthetics as well as function.
This little museum of a gardener’s cottage was full of interesting bits!
There were some beautiful Victorian glass houses and hothouses too, holding vines, orchids and more.
And while I don’t imagine King Edward strolling around the kitchen gardens, there’s one place I can easily picture him: the 300-foot pergola, which absolutely captivated me (besides being the perfect place to pose!).
Willie James’s son, Edward James, was King Edward’s godson. He had something of a troubled relationship with his mother Evelyn Forbes. She was the one who gave the enormous house parties so typical of the Victorian super-rich, attended by King Edward (both as king and as Crown Price); often with a full orchestra playing music for dancing into the night. Evelyn was, by all accounts, something of an unconventional lady for the time – aside from being a complete party animal. I found this fascinating biography, which relates a story of how, in 1896, she was ‘reported to have bicycled through the night with twenty-three of her house guests to watch the sun rise over the Downs. One of the male guests had to offer his jacket to stop her from freezing, as, it was noted, she was wearing “next to no clothes.”‘ The article also tells how, when asked by her maid which of her children she’d like to accompany her to church, she replied, “Whichever goes best with my blue dress”. Not the most loving of mothers then, and no wonder Edward James was not entirely immune to scandal.
He inherited the estate in 1912 at the tender age of five, two years after Edward’s passing, so you might be forgiven for thinking that that is where our quest for knowledge ends. But James Junior apparently later claimed to be our King Bertie’s grandson, born of a dalliance between the former and his grandmother, Lady Helen of Newe. If Evelyn’s mother was anything like her daughter, it’s not too difficult to imagine that she was a high-spirited lady of exactly the type adored by his Majesty.
Anyway, all that promenading was thirsty work, so we retired to the lovely West Dean House cafe for a thirst-quencher. I picked the rather appropriate Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade, and blow me, if it doesn’t contain a hint of ginger. I happened to have just the thing to perk it up a little bit further still…
My day out at West Dean House was interesting, revivifying and just plain wonderful, just like our old friend KGL itself. Do visit the King’s Ginger website if you have a mo, and treat yourself to a bottle to mix up with lemonade this summer. I’ll be giving another bottle away soon, too! How exciting is that? I’ll show you…
Springy, gingery love to you all!
PS. This is indeed the second of the two new Fleur dresses in their classic floral gingham stripe. This time, it’s PINK! I took lots of lovely photos (the backdrops helped), and they will be posted on here and the Heyday site in the next few days. So forgive seeing the same outfits again, twice. You’ll just have to let me off for being so proud! 🙂