The Chagall Window, Tudeley Church
Somerhill c 1997
The View from the Paddock
Somerhill House, after years of gentle neglect, was sold, with the gardens and parkland in 1980. Thereafter the property changed hands three times in eight years, during which further neglect, decay, storm damage and vandalism took a large toll. The first new owner, in an act of ignorance bordering on vandalism, removed the carved wooden hall screen and over-stained large areas of panelling in the Entrance Hall and upstairs Salon
What we see today is little short of a miracle. From 1989-91, the house was extensively repaired and restored at great cost, but eventually, with some help from English Heritage, as the house is listed Grade I. Incidentally, some 12 miles of cables were used in the re-wiring!
The main contractors were Durtnells of Brasted, near Sevenoaks – the oldest building firm in Britain. In 1991, as work drew to a close, this family firm celebrated its 400th anniversary with a big party at Somerhill - one of a number of local houses which the firm very likely helped to build in the first place!
Today, the estate covers 152 acres (60 ha). There are three schools on site, comprising a “one-stop” independent school campus, overseen by The Schools at Somerhill Charitable Trust. Restoration and development needs for the schools’ use have to continue to be kept in careful balance: much discussion is required with conservation experts and bureaucracy is inevitably encountered, but the building has proved remarkably well suited to its new role. The huge neo-Jacobean Victorian wing has many rooms adapted as classrooms. These are occupied by Yardley Court School, which celebrated its centenary in 1998, and by Somerhill Pre-Prep. The Old Stable Court contains offices and the main mansion houses Derwent Lodge School. Derwent Lodge was founded by the Hon Helen Gully in 1952 and takes its name from the house in Tunbridge Wells where the school was located until it moved to Somerhill in 1993.
The rooms on the top floor beneath the restored roof of the mansion house the Computer, Art Rooms and classrooms, these having been opened in September 1998.
The former Grain Store at the top of the Victorian wing has been sensitively restored as classrooms for Yardley Court and some of the old Stables are preserved and are now used as a maintenance workshop.
The central span between Old Stable Courtyard and Stable Courtyard was reinstated towards the end of 2000 ready for occupation in the January term 2001. This work under the watchful eye of English Heritage and Tunbridge Wells Planning Department was carried out at a cost of approximately £720,000. This building now provides purpose built accommodation for the Pre-Prep, classrooms for the senior schools and administrative offices.
The formal gardens are, with the approval of English Heritage, based on a low maintenance plan, the formal rose garden at the front of the house being the only one retained.
In 2000, planning permission was obtained for a scheme that enabled Somerhill to build a multi-purpose hall on the top sports’ terrace. Such a facility greatly enhances the educational opportunities available to each child. The total project costing £1.4 million was completed in the summer term 2002. A further addition to the facilities was the completion of the synthetic grass pitch in 2003.
The lake bridge at the southern end of the estate which was listed by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in 1998 as a Monument at Risk was in May 2004 refurbished at a cost of over £170,000 with a grant from the Borough Council of £32,000. It is from this lake that Turner painted Somerhill.
In April 2006 permission was granted to build a dining room and indoor swimming pool in the walled garden. The enabling work to the actual wall of the walled garden commenced in the spring of 2007 with the main project commencing in the summer. The school moved into the purpose built dining hall in October 2008 and the pool in January 2009. The final phase of refurbishment took place in the summer of 2009 when the areas in the mansion used for catering and administration were refurbished in accordance with planning requirements.
The Schools at Somerhill now thrive with around 650 pupils. Yet this fine historic building was nearly lost beyond repair during the 1980’s through crude speculation, bureaucratic wrangling and lack of proper recognition of its heritage and potential. What we see now demonstrates the opportunities for restoring and re-using very large historic houses and their grounds. Many hopes, prayers, team work and sheer hard slog have produced Somerhill as it lives today.