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Lord Sackville of Knole

PUBLISHED: 09:48 20 December 2011 | UPDATED: 03:42 10 February 2013

Lord Sackville of Knole

Lord Sackville of Knole

Lord Sackville talks about famous ancestors, becoming an author, Sevenoaks and restoring the family home with the help of the National Trust

The History Man

Lord Sackville talks about famous ancestors, becoming an author, Sevenoaks and restoring the family home with the help of the National Trust

These are exciting times at Knole, the grand Sevenoaks calendar house that has been home to Sackvilles, Dorsets and Sackville-Wests since an Elizabethan Sackville drew up an elaborate will to devise its descent, throughout the centuries, from heir male to heir male.

No amount of tomboyish behaviour by Vita Sackville-West, who adored the house, could shake Knole free of that masculine grip, and indeed it is the nephew of Lionel Bertrand Sackville-West, the sixth Baron Sackville - who had five daughters - that I have come to visit.

Robert Bertrand Sackville-West, 53, inherited the title of Baron Sackville in March 2004 on the death of his uncle, and three and a half years ago moved into the south wing with his second wife Jane and their three young children.

But Robert is no stranger to Knole: When I was nine my parents moved into the north wing (where his mother still lives), so from nine until I went to university, Knole was home.

One of the advantages of spending my childhood in another part of the house is that when we moved into this part I had no emotional attachment to any particular rooms, so it allowed us carte blanche to do what we wanted - within the restrictions of our ownership.

Therein lies the rub. This is no ordinary house since 1946 it has been in the care of the National Trust, which owns the house and about 43 acres of the park. But considerably more than half the house (plus the gardens and the rest of the surrounding estate) is still home to the Sackville-Wests.

So is it a harmonious arrangement? It is harmonious, but I think its changed a lot over the past five years, Robert says. The family handed the house over to the National Trust at a time when many country houses were being demolished, so the Trust really saved it.

We have now been looking at how we can work more closely together and in particular how we can make more space available. The show rooms are important and magnificent, but they give a very one-dimensional view of Knole of in its most glorious era, the early 17th century.

Change has already begun, with the opening of the magnificent Orangery and adjoining visitor centre in August 2010. Within the next few years visitors will be able to see twice the area they can today, including The Retainers Gallery in the attic and a rare surviving example of a trompe loeil Jacobean staircase.

A total of 15m is needed for the work, with the first phase due to begin in April/May when over the course of two years the whole of the south and east front, the roofs above, the stonework and windows will be conserved.

Robert says: At some point every single bit of the house will be covered in scaffolding and we will be here living with all this, but we know it has to be done a watertight ship has to be created first so that when all the wonderful textiles and furniture have been conserved and can go back in, they stay conserved. You need the cladding to preserve the treasures within.

Its very exciting and also very necessary, because if it doesnt happen the place will gradually crumble.

But how does he go about preserving his familys privacy, with ever-increasing access by the outside world, building works and regular takeovers by film companies (The Other Boleyn Girl, 2008, Burke and Hare, 2010 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 2011 all have used Knole to great dramatic effect).

Robert admits: You can rarely completely shut the front door and feel you are just in your own home. Its something you just have to get used to and while there are times when it is a bit irritating, in fact its outweighed by all the other wonderful things about living at Knole.

The family feel most at home in their Aga-warmed, spacious kitchen and the private courtyard just outside. On the rare occasions when you feel you are being overlooked in your own house, thats difficult but I love to see people out there enjoying the estate.

Robert has bucked the family trend by having a son as well as two daughters, but as Arthur is the middle child, might succession eventually pass to his eldest daughter?

The worst thing would be if you felt any obligation you have to want it and fortunately both my father and my uncle lived to a ripe old age and therefore there was no immediate need to think about it properly until I was in my forties so it didnt dominate, says Robert.

If any child of mine felt that they were constrained in the way they live their life, that would be quite wrong. In the longer term its not reasonable for it to inevitably go to a boy.

Wouldnt Vita turn in her grave? Vita would indeed have loved the role, but had it not been for what she saw as her disinheritance, we certainly wouldnt have had Sissinghurst, which she created really as a response to not getting Knole.

The comparisons with his illustrious ancestor are inevitable. In 2010 Robert, who read history at Oxford and has his own publishing business, won critical acclaim for his book Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles.

Now he is halfway through a second, The Disinheritance, about the five illegitimate children of a former Lord Sackville, the result of the latters affair with a Spanish dancer.

Vita wrote Knole and the Sackvilles, which was published in 1922 and was in print until 2000-ish and there was nothing else, no other book on Knole. So obviously there needed to be one and since there was a need, I wanted to be the one who did it. Also, we were making a decision to move into Knole, so the whole thing had a rightness about it, he says.

Books cover literally every surface of the house and both Robert and his wife are big readers: Its our real hobby.

So hes not inherited his uncles love of trees, then? Robert laughs: I am grateful he took such an interest and we have all benefited from that, but I am much more interested in the history and the people of this place than the trees.

He does have strong memories of the The Great Storm of 1987. I was living in London and only heard the next day what had happened at Knole when I rang up my parents who had slept through the storm, because they were so insulated by the thickness of the walls.

It was only when they looked out of the window across into the park and saw a landscape that had completely changed that they realised the extent of what had happened overnight. I came down that weekend and it was literally amazing yet now, you wouldnt realise what had taken place.

My uncle had spent a lot of his retirement, every day, three hours a day, in the plantations tending these trees and some of them were destroyed overnight. It was a massive blow, but he personally rose to the challenge despite then being 74 and carried on tending those trees until his death aged 90.

Does having a young family (all under 14) mean that the present Lord Sackville is strongly engaged with the local community? Thats a really good question! he says. I think probably we live here, our children go to school here, we enjoy eating out in Sevenoaks, the children are always doing activities locally, so as a family we are integrated into the local community as much as anyone else.

Robert is being modest. He was chairman of governors at Sevenoaks School and is now a governor of Knole Academy. Every December for the past eight years he has delivered a Christmas lecture at Knole on a different aspect of the house and its history. He averages 20-30 talks a year around Kent and also lectures in America.

And not only is the magnificent deer park in which Knole sits open all year to the general public, it also hosts the annual schools cross-country race, the Knole Run, every January, a big Rotary Club run in March and many other events.

And while admiring Kents coast, especially Broadstairs, Roberts heart is here in Sevenoaks. Our favourite walk is from Knole to Ightham Mote via One Tree Hill with Ightham Mote as its destination, he tells me with a big smile.

Vita would definitely approve.

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