Stately home Firle Place reopens to the public after two years of refurbishments

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After two years of major refurbishments, Firle Place has at last reopened to the public.

It now boasts a new roof, refreshed interiors and a refurbished tea room with a view to swoon over.

Firle Place reopens to the public

Firle Place reopens to the public

Samantha Clark went to find out what the country house has to offer its visitors after a two year break.

As you drive up towards Firle Place along a narrow single track, sheep and miniature ponies wander nonchalantly across your path.

Sun dappled lawns are peppered with oak trees hundreds of years old, while the elegant Georgian house promises a treasure trove of historical delights.

We are met by Lord Nicholas Gage, who takes us up to meet his wife Lady Alexandra Gage.

Firle Place reopens to the public

Firle Place reopens to the public

She is in the middle of having her portrait painted by up and coming Brighton artist Tim Patrick.

A gang of three friendly cream clumber spaniels follow us everywhere, shooting in and out of doors ahead of us and snuffling around in the undergrowth.

Nicholas takes us into the private gardens to see the work that has been done on the house.

For around two years the country home has been swathed in scaffolding, while builders and craftsmen went to work on the roof.

Inside the Long Gallery and Great Hall have been revamped, with new coats of paint for the walls selected to be the perfect backdrop for some beautiful paintings and furniture.

Amongst the highlights is a monumental painting by baroque artist and old master Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) in the Great Hall.

During the redecorating the work, Van Dyck’s painting went temporarily to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

It is also here in the Great Hall where the villagers are invited to sing carols, have canapes and drinks every Christmas. Children from Firle School are due to visit soon too.

Another painting upstairs in the Long Gallery by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) catches the eye. He was a German painter whose work today features in the Tate and the Royal Collection.

According to Alex, who is a senior lecturer in fine art at Brighton University, the painter was the “Damien Hirst of his day” while Nicholas describes it as “a swagger portrait” – it depicts Earl Cowper III who gathered a large part of the collection that we see at Firle.

We are then whisked down into the newly refurbished tea rooms which are in the old kitchen and the meat hanging area.

Look down at the floor and you can see a channel where the blood would have drained.

Of course the pheasants and grouse, their feet trussed up and hanging from the ceiling, are nowhere to be seen these days.

Instead there’s a cosy feel to the tea rooms, with traditional cakes and tea on offer and some lovely views of the gardens at the front of the house.

You can even pop in for a cuppa on house opening days if you’re a non visitor.

You’ll be delighted to know there’s a veranda adjacent to the tea rooms, looking out on to an idyllic view that includes a fountain, troops of ambling sheep, the docile mini ponies and rolling grassland studded with oak trees.

It really does take your breath away. And it’s so quiet. No cars, hardly any people, just the hum of insects, the chatter of sheep and the odd aeroplane humming in the skies.

There’s a shop here too, selling arts and crafts items made locally.

Next Alex and Nicholas show us the herb garden she has been working on together with gardener William Vincent.

It’s still a work in progress, she admits, but things are gradually taking shape, in what used to be a pony paddock two years ago. Before that it was a walled garden dating back to the 18th century.

In one section greengage trees have been planted, with the hope that they will eventually be able to make their own greengage jam.

The greengage was introduced to Britain by Sir Thomas Gage (1781-1820).

Into the next walled garden and Alex explains the borders will begin with purples and blues, sweeping through to pink and green then into reds and browns.

At the moment it’s a riot of colour with purple aliums attracting bees in their droves, which the couple’s three year old son Valentine is endlessly fascinated by, although he soon becomes even more intent on being taken out for a bicycle ride by his Mum.

The hope is to use the herb garden to create herbal teas and Alex has already created a range of products from the herbs in partnership with Lewes cosmetics company Wellgreen which she is selling in the shop and online.

As we get ready to leave I ask Alex what it’s like to live in such a big house when all the staff have gone home.

She admits that some rooms are especially atmospheric.

Nicholas agrees, pointing out the staircase near the billiard room is supposed to be haunted.

“It’s a very beautiful house, I completely appreciate living here amongst great beauty of the downs and the architecture,” she adds.

The couple try to keep the feeling of Firle Place still being a family home, as opposed to feeling like a museum. Valentine’s toy tiger sits above the fireplace in the Great Hall for example.

As a result it is only open for some of the week so the family can enjoy their home in peace and quiet.

Nicholas said: “Part of the reason people like coming here is it’s not like a National Trust House.”

Alex adds: “It’s a balance between keeping it as a family home and keeping it open to the public.”

And being an old house it creaks – apparently one evening Alex heard a wardrobe creak when she was trying to get to sleep, adding: “It’s been ten years since I have been here and I still don’t think I would want to spend a night here on my own!”

The family is descended from a Norman Baron who arrived in 1066 and came to prominence under Sir John Gage (1479-1556), who was Governor of Calais, Vice-Chamberlain to King Henry VIII, Knight of the Garter and Constable of the Tower of London. The family’s 500 year history at Firle started when Sir John Gage built a Tudor house in 1473. His son, Sir Edward, had the duty of supervising the burning of the Lewes Martyrs.

Visit Firle Place

The house will be open to the public from June - September, Sunday to Thursday, 2pm - 4.30pm.

The new licensed tearoom serves tea, coffee, light lunches and cakes, is open to visitors and non-visitors alike from 12 noon - 4.30pm on house opening days only.

Coach parties and large groups (over 20) will be welcome by prior arrangement during the opening season.

Prices: adults: £8, OAP and concessions: £7, children: £4 or a family ticket: £20.

The private part of the gardens are open to the public twice a year in spring and autumn under the National Gardens Scheme, while the rest of the grounds are open during house opening times.

The herb garden is open Wednesday and Sunday from 1pm to 4pm.

To find out more about the Firle Herb Garden products visit www.firelplaceherbgarden.co.uk

A video of Firle Place can be seen at www.sussexpress.co.uk The house will be open to the public from June - September, Sunday to Thursday, 2pm - 4.30pm.

The new licensed tearoom serves tea, coffee, light lunches and cakes, is open to visitors and non-visitors alike from 12 noon - 4.30pm on house opening days only.

Coach parties and large groups (over 20) will be welcome by prior arrangement during the opening season.

Prices: adults: £8, OAP and concessions: £7, children: £4 or a family ticket: £20.

The private part of the gardens are open to the public twice a year in spring and autumn under the National Gardens Scheme, while the rest of the grounds are open during house opening times. The herb garden is open Wednesday and Sunday from 1pm to 4pm. To find out more about the Firle Herb Garden products visit www.firelplaceherbgarden.co.uk