National Treasures

I mentioned, in my previous blog, that my boyfriend and I were National Trust members, and we certainly take advantage of the benefits!

Sissinghurst Castle Gardens

Out of all the places we have visited, one or two have definitely stood out for one reason or another, and this weekend I found one of my new favourite places: Smallhythe Place - the country retreat of the Victorian actress Ellen Terry.

For obvious reasons this place appealed to me, even from the description in the National Trust guidebook which stated that the house was filled with memorabilia from Terry's long career as one of the leading Shakespearean actresses of her day. And, on one of the first warm days of Spring, Smallhythe Place didn't disappoint!

Smallhythe Place

The early 16th Century cottage slopes alarmingly, and creaks at every breath; the floors are so uneven that you couldn't come home after a few drinks unless you placed your bed at the far end of the house and simply rolled down the building!

But it is stuffed full of pictures and props, costumes and curios from a life lived in the theatre. One of my favourite things there (it took my breath away!) was the dress Terry wore as Lady Macbeth in a production at the Lyceum Theatre; the gown was immortalised by John Singer Sergeant in one of the most iconic paintings of the era.

The jewel-like decorations covering the gown are actually iridescent beetle wings!
Image (R) source:

One of the rooms in the house was designated as Terry's working-library, and with great good fortune, the house's resident archivist and librarian, Richard Brind, was working there as we entered. Naturally I struck up a conversation with him, and he was gracious enough to open the glass cases and flip through some of Terry's books with me, telling me stories of the things he had discovered through his research!

Terry was notorious for writing in all of her books, scribbling notes and aide-memoire into the margins, creasing corners, and even disputing the content of one or two of them! (I do the same, even though other book lovers think I am some sort of heathen for this desecration!) Her notes were sometimes acerbic ('Really, Sidney, you cannot mean what you write!') and sometimes consisted of little anecdotes, many of which have been compiled by Brind into little books - naturally I had to have a copy of one of them, and he kindly signed it for me!

One of Ellen Terry's playscripts, which have been liberally marked ** 'Weird and Wonderful Stories...' by Richard Brind

Mr Brind told me that, when he began documenting all of the books in the library, he had been informed that, surprisingly, there were no works of Charles Dickens in the house. Given the era in which Terry lived, and the extent of her collection, this was considered strange, until he came across a teeny-tiny pocket-book sized copy of A Christmas Carol. Now, I completely understand this: I simply cannot read Dickens. In fact, the only one I've actually read through and enjoyed was A Christmas Carol, so I am definitely on Ellen's side with this aberration too! I feel as though I would have got along very well with Ms. Terry!

I could have spent hours there, but my boyfriend was becoming aware that he was losing me, so we wandered off to explore the rest of the estate.

In the grounds of Smallhythe Place is a thatched barn (above, right) which has been converted into the cutest little theatre! Productions take place there during the Summer, and I hope we can attend on a warm evening, as it would be blissful. At the moment the theatre is given over to an exhibition on the Actresses' Franchise League, a Women's Suffrage campaign group, of which Ellen Terry and her daughter, Edith Craig, were active participants.

The Stage and Dressing Room of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place

I realise that I haven't actually written a blog about an individual National Trust trip before this, so it just goes to show quite how much I fell in love with this beautiful little place.

You don't have to be a member to visit, so if you're ever in the area, I highly recommend popping in and immersing yourself in the private world of one of the world's most famous actresses.


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