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SEDGWICK PARK HOUSE: A SPECIAL PLACE

John and Clare Davison at Sedgwick Park House

Published on 7th August 2015

 

In 1981, the BBC aired a six part drama based on John Wyndham's book, The Day of the Triffids.

 Having watched a couple of episodes, it's hard to imagine that these 'mobile carnivorous plants' ever had anyone running for the back of the sofa.

But the series was of interest, as several scenes were filmed at Sedgwick Park House,one of the district's most historically-important buildings. It's had a turbulent life, as a castle, lodge, manor and finally house.

For many years, the house was left vacant, and as a result the grounds became overgrown and the building fell into a state of decay. It's tempting to suggest that this deterioration made it an ideal setting for a television programme in which unruly plants break through windows and devour human victims!

But in truth, it was nearly ten years after the TV series, in 1988, that Sedgwick Park House was left derelict with an unsure future. For much of the 1990s, the estate passed through the hands of several property developers. Ambitious ideas were mooted – including a conversion to a nursing home and the creation of a hotel – but nothing materialised.

Now, the house is returning to its former glory under the guidance of John and Clare Davison, who bought the property in 2001. John concedes that it is Clare who possesses the deeper passion for the estate and who initiatives most of the design ideas for the interior and gardens.

One of her more unusual ideas is insisting that some areas - including the patio area to the rear of the house - grows wild and unkempt. Still though, it's not quite Day of the Triffids!

 In fact, Sedgwick Park House looked altogether more grand when it last appeared on screen as a rural retreat for the Prime Minister in 31 North 62 East, a feature length thriller by local director Tristan Loraine.

How the Davisons Came to Sedgwick

I am admiring the stunning southerly view from the rear of the house, across the 15 acre garden, beyond a lush meadow where 27 wild flowers grow, and out to Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs.

To my left, a pond feeds a sloping stream with 21 small waterfalls, culminating in a small pond with koi carp and goldfish. There's a stump nearby, perhaps 12 feet tall, which Clare hopes will be carved with an Alice in Wonderland theme soon.

Past the pond is The White Sea, a beautiful feature, as highlighted when the gardens were featured in a 1902 edition of Country Life.

It all seems rather idyllic, yet I'm surprised by Clare's interpretation.

"Chanctonbury Ring is a very spiritual place," she says. "You can see that the Ring is aligned centrally to the house and garden. I have created a labyrinth at the bottom of the garden. We found a huge slab of Horsham stone and rolled it down from the top of the garden on wooden posts, placing it up right in the centre of the labyrinth.

"This acts as a focal point and gives the gardens an energy that I like to channel in a positive way."

I notice that John slopes back into the house as Clare starts talking about "fairies" allegedly in a particular part of the garden. Whilst I laughed off Clare's remarks, I was soon to understand the benefit she gains in harnessing these natural energies of her home and garden.

Clare said: "I so wanted a child, but suffered several miscarriages. It was complementary therapy that helped me through the unhappiness of not becoming a mother. I was so distraught at the thought of never having children and it has had a lasting effect on me.

"I realised I had to do something else positive with my life. The way I can do that is to help people and one way of doing that is to share what we have at Sedgwick Park. There is only John and I here and I would dearly like to open up the opportunities here.

"The dream was and still is, to create a place in the country that can act as a retreat, where people can find answers to their emotional questions. I'm not anti-doctors, but I felt so much better when I came off
prescribed medicine and sought out alternative therapies.

"As an experienced complementary therapist, what I would like is for Sedgwick Park House to be a
centre of awareness where people can visit for clinics on reflexology, homeopathy and a range of
alternative therapies. They can also expanding their knowledge of plants and wildlife.

"There is not anywhere that has all of this to offer. I want to bring it all together at Sedgwick."

Coming to Horsham

It's been a long road to Sedgwick Park House for John and Clare, although unknown to Clare, is was a road that brought her close to her childhood roots...

John and Clare met in 1976 when they were both living in London, but did not marry until 1994. Clare had a successful career as an interior designer, refurbishing city properties, whilst John was a broker at Lloyds. This enabled him to take on financially ambitious developments in London.

As a couple, they bought over a dozen houses as investments, with Clare redesigning them, and selling them on for profit. They took a risk on a run-down Victorian house in Wimbledon, and were able to transform their home into a desirable property. But Clare started to feel unhappy in the city, so they began to look for a country home.
John recalls: "I wanted to stay close to London, as I was still working when we moved to Sedgwick Park.

"For Clare, London's appeal was waning. She wanted a new challenge and certainly we both wanted to be more involved in the local community. In London, you might not know your next door neighbour, so the idea of being a part of a wider community was appealing to us both."

The couple sent a rough specification to several estate agents - they were looking for a large house with 10 to 15 bedrooms with good access to London, . Several houses failed to trigger a spark, and then in 2001, the Davisons received details about Sedgwick Park.

The information came with only one poor quality image. Yet Clare immediately knew it was the right home for them.

"I wanted to see the property straight away," she said. "We were heading south to Southampton as we were due to go on a cruise, so I asked for directions and found out that Sedgwick was five minutes away from Horsham.

"This came as a bombshell to me, as my parents lived in Horsham for 25 years and I went to school there! I just hadn't heard of Sedgwick. Even now, I suspect many people in town don't know where it is!

"As soon as I stepped out of the car I knew that we would buy Sedgwick Park House."

Costly Restoration

The Davisons bought the house from John Jackson, who co-founded the live music agency, Helter Skelter.
John and his wife had carried out a good deal of work in restoring the house from the dilapidated estate they
themselves had taken on.

But improvements costing in the region of £1 million still needed doing.

John Davison recalls: "The property was in a poor state, but we knew what we were letting ourselves in for as we've renovated many properties. The second floor wasn't insulated properly and the roof needed careful restoration.It took the best part of two years to complete basic structural work.

"I remember at the time, I said 'We are going to be living in this huge place, but how are we going to meet anyone?'

"As it turned out, the world came to us. Over the years, we've hosted Conservative parties here, about 500 people came when we opened up for the National Gardens Scheme, and we are patrons of Shipley Arts Festival so have held several events here.

"We have also hosted events for St Catherine's Hospice and Nuthurst Church, so we've certainly been a part of the community."

Astonishing History

The Davisons are writing a new chapter in what has been a long and fascinating history. Sedgwick was first a castle, which explains its elevated position, overlooking the South Downs.

A hunting lodge in the grounds dates back to about 1200, but in terms of proper records, the first reference comes from 1248, when Manor at Sedgwick was leased. It was soon fortified with defences including a deep moat, thus becoming a castle.In the 13th Century, this castle fell into the hands of Lord de Braose and for centuries onwards was linked with the manor of Chesworth.

When the Howard family (The Duke of Norfolk) owned Sedgwick from 1498 – 1572, the old manor buildings were largely destroyed, and a new building with a great Tudor Hall was constructed.

Early in the 17th Century, Sir John Caryll demolished the castle to build a new house called Sedgwick Lodge.
Part of this survives as outbuildings west of the present house.

Sir John Bennet then built a new house in 1715, with a long canal some 80 metres long in front of the house.
The gothic north and south lodges were constructed around 1830, at a time when huge amounts of sandstone were quarried on the estate for paving and roofing. There was plenty of arable land on the 900 acre estate too.

But it was also at about this time that much of the stone was removed from the old castle site. All that survives of that castle today are two small stretches of walling.

The Henderson family, who lived at Sedgwick Park from 1862, commissioned a new house adjoining the 18th Century home, completed in 1886. Horsham stone was used for the house, with Horsham slates on the roof.

The architects Sir Ernest George and Harold Peto also designed Italian-inspired garden features. At this time, the Henderson's staff included a cook, nurse, ladies' maid, housekeeper, kitchen maid, nursery maid, butler, footman, groom, three gamekeepers and eight gardeners!

It was also during this period that the girl that inspired the story of Alice in Wonderland honeymooned at Sedgwick. This stay is commemorated by a plaque on Horsham District Council's Heritage Trail.

The White Sea

During the Victorian period, Sedgwick was admired for having one of the best gardens in the south of England and was featured in Country Life. Emma Henderson was pictured in a famous photograph, known as The Lady by the Lake.

One year later, the house was extended westwards, and the asymmetrically placed tower was added to offer a southerly viewpoint.

The Hendersons invented nautical terms for parts of the garden, some of which are still used today, including The White Sea for the ship-themed water garden.

During the First World War, Emma opened up Sedgwick as a convalescent home for overseas officers, but she died in 1931. The estate was swiftly sold by her daughter-in-law to William and Florence Abbey. William, chairman of the Kemp Town Brewery, was a wealthy man. But it was Florence who became better-known locally as a generous benefactor to Nuthurst School.

In 1947, Herbert Robin Cayzer, 1st Baron Rotherwick, moved into Sedgwick Park House. He was a keen gardener and was President of Horsham and District Railwaymen's Chrysanthemum Society. He carried on the good work of the Henderson family, creating the extensive rock and water garden, as Country Life visited for a second time in 1957.

After Lord Rotherwick and his wife Freda had passed away, the estate was broken up into seven farms, houses, parkland and woods, with the auction being held at The Black Horse Hotel in 1959.

The decade that followed saw several new buildings on the estate, including West Sedgwick Park, The Coach House and Park House. The main house and gardens were bought by publisher Michael Bizony, who liked to keep exotic pets.

Michael left the house in 1988, leading to a difficult decade during which the house fell into disrepair, ending when the Jacksons took over.

Clare said: "The estate had passed through the hands of several owners, most of whom were developers with various ideas for using Sedgwick Park House for commercial gain, rather than as a residence.
"That situation stabilised with the Jacksons, who we met and they were very pleasant."

Staying Long Term

Having invested heavily in the property, John and Clare look set to stay at Sedgwick Park. Clare continues to define what happens in the garden, which qualify for support from the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme as they
benefit the natural environment.

The gardens are maintained by Kevin Toms, who runs his own local gardening business. Kevin said: "I spend the best part of the week here and it's a beautiful place to work. There is always so much to do, but I'm proud of my work at Sedgwick.

"We don't use any chemicals or weed killer here, as there are parts of the garden that Clare likes to grow wild, to encourage a variety of wild flowers and wildlife.

"The garden has many historic features and some new ones too, including the labyrinth, and a silver birch feature which won silver gilt at the 2010 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. "We're also developing a rose garden, which is home to an old red telephone box - one of Clare's auction purchases!"

Recently, the Davisons considered selling, having been frustrated by ongoing disputes with the local authorities and neighbours. This has caused frustration, with Clare claiming that it is difficult being the "only estate that is semi-detached!"

Whilst weddings are no longer held at Sedgwick Park House, small alternative therapy workshops have been hosted in the gardens and Clare is keen to expand on these sessions.

She said: "Living here is not quite what people perceive. People say 'How lovely it must be to wake up to that view every morning.' It is, but they don't know what else goes on behind the scenes and the difficulties we've faced in doing what we'd like to.

"However, it's very unlikely that we'll move. We have had some people here running yoga and alternative therapy workshops and they've been great. I might be looking through rose tinted spectacles, but I can
picture a retreat here.

"I love what the house and gardens offers, from a therapeutic point of view. I think it could help others too as it offers absolutely everything you could want. It's just a very special place."

For more information visit www.sedgwickpark.com
WORDS: Ben Morris
PICTURES: Toby Phillips

Some historical content taken from 'The Story of Sedgwick' an informative book by Brian Slyfield and Tony Turner, available at Horsham Museum. Also Jeremy Knight's Volume II of History of Horsham, also available at The Museum

Sedgwick Park House
The White Sea at Sedgwick Park House
Sedgwick Park House
Sedgwick Park House