Polesden Lacey - The Complete Guide

A Glittering Hostess and a Glittering Legacy

Camilla in diamonds
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, wearing some of the Greville diamonds, including the fabulous Boucheron tiara. Pool/Getty Images

Edwardian society hostess Margaret Greville promised to leave her home, Polesden Lacey, to the royal family. She left them her diamonds instead and left the beautiful house to the National Trust so we can all enjoy it.  

The breathtaking Boucheron tiara often worn by Prince Charles's wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (as pictured here), is part of the Greville Bequest, an amazing hoard of diamonds, pearls, emeralds and rubies left to the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, by her close friend and confidante Maggie Greville.

How Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (the Queen Mum) felt about missing out on the house is anybody's guess. The current Queen's parents, Elizabeth and Bertie (later King George VI) had been brought together and courted at Polesden Lacey, their romance encouraged by its owner, social climbing socialite Maggie Greville and Bertie's mother, Queen Mary. They even spent their honeymoon there.

At the time, he was the king's younger son and in need of a nice house and an income generating estate like Polesden. But when his older brother (Edward VIII) abdicated "for the woman I love", Bertie and Elizabeth became King and Queen Consort with a palace, a castle and a couple of country estates to knock around in. They didn't really need Polesden Lacey anymore. Maybe that's why Maggie reneged on her promise.

Who Was Maggie Greville, The Hostess With the Mostest?

How the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish brewer and a lodging house servant rose to become a royal matchmaker and an intimate of maharajahs, the ex-monarchs of Greece and Spain, movie stars and celebrities is a fascinating story that unfolds during your visit to Polesden Lacey.

By the time she entered society, in the late 19th century, her millionaire father had provided a respectable cover story for her birth, had secretly seen to her education, had finally married her mother and had acknowledged her as his heir.

Probably the best thing he did for her was to promote her status as his heiress to attract the well connected Hon.Ronald Greville (heir to a title and in need of cash) for a husband.

Part of a social set that included Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), Greville introduced Maggie into society.  "Mrs. Ronnie", as she came to be known, was clever and ambitious enough to take care of the rest herself.

About Those Diamonds

You can get a close-up view of the Greville tiara (an exact replica of made of crystals and paste actually) when you visit Polesden Lacey, open year round and just a short drive from London.

There's a special resonance in the fact that Camilla is the royal who most often wears the Greville diamonds.

Ronald Greville was part of a gambling and racing set that included his closest childhood friend, George Keppel and the Prince of Wales. Keppel's wife, Alice quickly became Maggie's best friend. When the Prince of Wales became King Edward VII, Alice also became the king's last and favorite mistress (she called him "Kingy). Alice and the King spent many happy getaways at Polesden Lacey in a suite of rooms added to the house especially for him. Alice Keppel was Camilla's great-grandmother. Alice's daughter, Sonia Keppel, was Maggie's goddaughter and Camilla's grandmother. And who was Sonia's real father? Ah, if only the walls of Polesden Lacey could talk.

When Maggie and Ronald Greville bought the early 19th century Surrey estate, Polesden Lacey, in 1906, they set about turning it from a quiet Neoclassical country house and farm estate to a glittering jewel box of a house fit for entertaining royalty. Greville died in 1908 before the renovation works were completed. But Maggie the merry widow, her position in Edwardian society now rock solid, continued on.

She hired architects Mewes and Davis, who designed the Ritz Hotel in London, to renovate the house - once the home of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan - top to bottom, no expense spared. It had 200 rooms and what the British refer to as "all mod cons" and then some in every one.

Polesden was completely electrified. Its many guest bedrooms had telephones and were all en-suite - with their own private bathrooms - something almost unheard of at the time, even in the grandest houses.

Her own bathroom is an exact replica of the marble bathrooms in the Ritz at the time. If you're curious about what that London hotel's bathrooms were like in its grandest, high society heyday, you need only visit Polesden Lacey.

Discretion Above All

When asked to comment current gossip or scandals, Maggie Greville would famously say, "I don't follow people into their bedrooms. It's what they do outside them that's important." And she did whatever she could to protect the privacy of her guests.

Mrs. Greville had one of the first elevators ever installed a private home. It traveled from Mrs. Greville's private tea room up to her bedroom suite so she - or special visitors - could discreetly retire without passing among her houseguests, who might still be partying in the "saloon".  

An extra wing was added to the house just to accommodate the king's suite - built for King Edward VII. The King's Suite - currently used as a meeting room - can be visited on one of the National Trust's "Unseen Spaces" tours (see below).

Managing the comings and goings of her various guests at a house party must have been quite a task for Mrs. Greville and her servants.  King Edward attended her first house party in 1909. His mistress Mrs. Alice Keppel (great-grandmother of Duchess of Cornwall - Camilla Parker-Bowles as was) and her husband were there too. But so was his ex-mistress and her husband!

The Loyal Servants and the Others

In her will, Mrs. Greville left generous bequests to a remarkable army of servants, some of whom had worked for her all their working lives. But not everyone who worked at Polesden Lacey could be counted on to maintain the discretion of the house. Visiting foreign royals, Indian nawaabs and eastern potentates often brought their own cooks and kitchen staffs. To prevent them from spying on and gossiping about the arrivals and departures, the kitchen windows were completely obscured. When you visit, face the front door and look for the ground floor windows on the right end of the house. What looks like a dense covering of ivy in need of cutting back is actually a cultivated screen of it deliberately grown to block the windows. Imagine what it must have been like to work in those unairconditioned kitchens, behind closed windows, in the summer.

The Grounds

Polesden Lacey's interiors can be overwhelming to the point of sensory exhaustion. So before you use up all your capacity for wonder inside the house, spend some time in the extraordinary gardens and grounds. The former kitchen garden was made into a rose garden to the west of the house and there's an extensive walled garden with dramatic herbaceous borders, a corner for egg-laying hens and another for period beehives. The gardens, by the way, are kept interesting year round. In addition, there are 1,400 acres of country estate with mapped, dog-friendly walks of rolling hills and woodlands.

Free garden tours are offered every day at 11:30 am, 12:45 pm, 2 pm and 3:15 pm

The House

Forty-nine of Polesden Lacey's 200 rooms are open to the public and there are plans to eventually restore and open another 26.  From the minute you enter, it's apparent the house was made for entertaining. A spectacular double sweep of red-carpeted stairs leading off the Central Hall was clearly intended for grand entrances. A lit cabinet on the first landing filled with fine porcelains - Meissen, Limoges, Sèvres - is the first sign of the glories to come. In fact, everywhere you look ( except for the bedrooms, which are more peaceful and subdued), the house is stuffed with her collections of porcelain, silver, 17th French and Italian furniture, Flemish and Dutch Old Masters. Before you leave the Central Hall, admire the carved wooden paneling and beams. It includes an altar screen salvaged from a church built by Christopher Wren who designed St. Paul's Cathedral. The giant chandelier is silver plated.

Some of the best paintings are displayed in the Jacobean long gallery with its heavily decorated, barrel-vaulted ceiling. When she left Polesden Lacey to the National Trust, Maggie specified that the best paintings from her home in Mayfair, London, be brought to the Surrey house to be displayed together. 

The Library includes the delicate 19th-century mahogany desk where Mrs. Greville planned her social life - now covered with pictures of the great and good who enjoyed themselves there. 

The Billiard Room with its mahogany framed billiards table was an after dinner retreat for the menfolk. King Edward VII no doubt played billiards on this table and you are welcome to have a go when you visit.

The elegant Dining Room hosted dinners that often included several crowned heads, ambassadors, noted intellectuals and entertainers - Noel Coward sometimes tinkled the ivories for the guests. Check out the guestbook, to see who came to dinner, and the menus - in French - for the 12-course repasts they enjoyed. Among the portraits in this room, look for one of Maggie's father, William McEwan, the Scottish brewing magnate whose millions ultimately financed Maggie's lifestyle.

Mrs. Greville's Tea Room, in contrast to the grandiosity of the rest of the public rooms, is light and feminine, with delicate settees and Aubusson carpets in shades of pink, cream, and pale green. This is where Mrs. Greville entertained her more intimate women friends. Queen Mary was known ring up in the morning and invite herself for tea the very same afternoon. Maggie always kept her favorite blend on hand and her staff were capable of whipping up all the required delicacies at a moment's notice. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. But we've saved the best for last because the most spectacular room by far, where the most glittering parties were held, is the Gold Saloon.

Rooms for The Gilded Age

Though Maggie Greville was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), it was a title she never used. The daughter of a Scottish brewer, she famously said she would "rather be a beeress than a peeress." Nevertheless, she collected kings like charms on a bracelet and she lived in royal splendor herself. If any proof were needed, just take a walk through the Gold Saloon at Polesden Lacey. 

By the time this room was decorated, Mrs. Greville had visited India where she had been the guest of several fabulously wealthy maharajahs, who soon joined her guest lists. In decorating the Gold Saloon, she told her architects she wanted a room "fit to entertain a Maharajah." They obliged by filling the room with gilt paneling from an 18th-century Italian palazzo. Whatever space is not covered with gilding reflects it in mirrors and in sparkling antique chandeliers.

Small glass-topped tables and étagères set around the room display hundreds of precious gifts - jeweled enameled animals by Fabergé and Cartier, tiny boxes of carved jade, ivory, enamel and gold, miniatures encrusted with pearls and precious gems.  Mrs. Greville was fond of showing new guests her favorite objects and (hinting perhaps) declaring the generosity of the guest who had given it to her.

According to the National Trust, the room was designed to "overwhelm and intoxicate." Apparently, some of her contemporaries considered this room vulgar and compared it to a bordello. But most enjoyed its utter fabulousness. Take time to pick up one of the room guides near the doors to the Gold Saloon, to learn more about its astonishing bling.

Unseen Spaces Tours

Hundreds of rooms are not generally open to the public and are used as offices, storage spaces and workrooms. But arrive at 2:15 every day and you can join a behind the scenes tour of these hidden places. They include servants quarters, guest suites, hidden corridors, the servants' hall, William McEwan's bedroom, and Mrs Greville's boudoir.  In 2017, for the first time, the tour will take in the King's Suite - Edward VII's bedroom and parlor.

The tours are free but a donation of £2 per person to the Unlocking Polesden Lacey appeal is suggested. The appeal is raising funds to restore and open about 40 per cent more of the house for visitors.

Visitor Essentials

  • Where: Polesden Lacey, Great Bookham, near Dorking, Surrey, RH5 6BD

  • When: Every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The house is open from 11 am to 4 pm (by guided tour only until 12:30 pm). The gardens, shop, cafe, and restaurant are open from 10 am. 
  • Admission: Adult, child, family and group tickets are available. National Trust Members and holders of National Trust Overseas Touring passes go free.
  • Parking: There is a £5 parking fee for non-members.
  • Visit the Polesden Lacey website for more information.