Projects

Leith Hill Estate Conservation Management Plan and Masterplan

A complex landscape with many options for its future high potential

Leith Hill Place at the centre of the estate is famous as the childhood home of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and for the frequent visits of Charles Darwin. But the mansion and the surrounding fragments of designed landscapes sit lightly on a pattern of ancient woodland, coppice, heathland, clearings and pasture. This pattern began in the 1720s when General John Folliot bought the house and its surrounding estate. He developed extensive pleasure grounds, a farm and a walled garden. For the 200 years after his death, speculators and retirees came and went, but the bones of the general’s landscape have always shown through.

The National Trust received the mansion and estate in 1945. By 2010 the building was empty and unfurnished. The surrounding woodlands and spectacular views were very popular, but the potential for access, new visitor experiences and interpretation was unfulfilled.

The project

Our work, begun in 2019, addressed six main issues:

a.     The future of the mansion - Was it to be a traditional National Trust visitor attraction focusing on famous residents and visitors; should it be converted to residential use; or should there be new uses, such as a conference centre? Each option required a substantially different approach to the design and management of the surrounding landscape.

b.     The right approach to interpretation and visitor management - National Trust properties usually have a consistent narrative of development of a designed landscape by several generations of a gentry family. Leith Hill is a landscape of unexplained earthworks, avenues that go nowhere and abandoned projects. Could this be brought together as and informative and entertaining part of the visitor experience?

c.     Safe and easy access and circulation - How can there be safe and Equalities Act compliant access and circulation in a network of twisting, overgrown lanes and tracks?

d.     Use of redundant buildings - Are there sustainable purposes for the under-used and empty estate buildings in a remote place with poor access?

e.     What is the best long-term use for the farmland? - The income from camping and a farm shop is greater than from conventional farming: large former dairying buildings stand empty.

f.     Traditional woodland management - How can traditional management practices like coppicing be sustained at a level that has a significant influence on habitat quality?

Images

1. The core of the estate has traces of many different phases of planting including an eighteenth-century hilltop eyecatcher and what may be one of the first American tulip trees introduced to England

2. The terraces below the mansion have a military look and may be the work of General John Folliot, although their history is obscure

3. The history of woodland and parkland management before the National Trust took possession in 1945 is obscure. The high quality post war aerial photographs are therefore particularly valuable

4. Many of the beech on the estate were cut down at the end of the First World War and have been left alone since. The result is a strange picturesque landscape

American tulip tree at Leith Hill

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The terraces below the mansion Leith Hill

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Aerial photograph of Leith Hill

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Beech on the Leith Hill estate

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