Challenging woodland walks are what spring to mind when Leith Hill is mentioned. Until recently the house at the heart of the Leith Hill Estate was occupied by the Hurtwood School but now that tenancy has ended and the National Trust has decided to open it up to the public. Leith Hill Place was home to the Wedgwoods of china fame, Charles Darwin was Mrs Wedgwood’s brother and often came to visit. Two generations later one of the Wedgwood girls married a Mr Vaughan Williams and it was here the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams grew up.
Stout shoes or wellington boots are recommended for a visit as parking 400 metres away across unmade paths. When I went on a Sunday afternoon the Rhododendron Wood car park was so full that I had to reverse out and finally abandoned the car some distance away, I then navigated along footpaths with the aid of the Surrey A-Z. Bounding over the greensward Leith Hill Place rears up in front of you quite grey and austere, the views south down to the coast steal the show.
Once inside the house bears the strong stamp of having been used as a school and is very much a work in progress, rather than the highly polished interiors usual in National Trust properties – so much so that well behaved dogs are welcome in the house! Information boards tell the story of the house, the Wedgwoods, Charles Darwins visits and most of all Ralph Vaughan Williams. When I visited the Surrey Yeomanry Band were playing a selection of his work which was audible throughout the house.
The attic floor have been given over to a “soundscape” on the hour every hour a small group are led through a series of four rooms that have been furnished in in different periods of RVW’s life. Meanwhile a commentary plays featuring his Nanny, his cousin and finally extracts from his letters and music. It is a theatrical and strangely moving experience.
Highlight of the visit for my 10 year children was the information that, when naughty RVW was made to walk along the long kitchen corridor with a pile of books on his head. They also declared the cup of tea and slice of lemon cake very good. A jaunt south of Dorking is probably not worth it for the house alone but it is easily combined with a stroll round the Rhododendron wood in the garden, leaflets with a map are available in the car park or a brisk walk up Leigh Hill Tower.
Open Friday – Monday 11-5 until November 2. Will open again in March 2014.
Entrance Adults £3, children £1.50, National Trust members free.