Several years ago at a party, someone mentioned they had visited a charming National Trust property called Stoneacre not far from our village. Despite my extensive childhood visits to National Trust properties, I'd never heard of it, so looked it up online. The NT website shows a stunning Medieval Hall House with garden, it's described as small, and being tenanted is only open on Saturdays and Bank Holiday Mondays between April and the end of September.
What with one thing and another, it's been a long time since Mr PB and I have been out for a proper jaunt, and this May Bank Holiday weekend we took the opportunity to drive over to Stoneacre, in the village of Otham, near Maidstone, Kent, an absolutely beautiful area of the county.
The journey to Stoneacre
Otham is off Junction 8 of the M20 motorway, then travelling along the A20 Ashford Road towards Bearsted and Maidstone. The turning (Otham Lane) is marked with a brown tourist sign for Stoneacre.
Otham Lane becomes Green Hill and both are very narrow and twisty. There are lots of passing places, but oncoming traffic comes up on you very quickly, so do take care.
Turn left down Stoneacre Lane. Again this is narrow and twisty, but also drops very steeply. Concentrating too hard on oncoming traffic and the ford at the bottom of the hill, I completely missed the NT car park sign tucked in the hedge on the right hand side**
The car park is a small field below the house and gardens, but you have to walk back to the road and turn right out of the gate, over the wooden bridge crossing the ford, and on up the steep hill. There is no footpath.
There are disabled car parking spaces in a tiny stable yard immediately opposite the black iron gates of the house, but probably only fits 2 or 3 very well parked cars.
I had to just catch my breath for a moment before drawing level with the gates, only to have it taken away again by...
|The front facade of Stoneacre NT|
I'm a huge fan of half timbered, Medieval/Tudor buildings and this one is really special. This is the view from the iron gates on the roadside, so anyone could enjoy this view on any day.
Walk down the path to the archway, turn right, MIND THE STEP! and you are inside the building where you pay your entrance fee. Compared to other NT properties, entry to Stoneacre's house and gardens is very reasonable, and in keeping with the size of the property. When we visited it was £5.50 per adult and £2.60 per child (inc optional gift aid, so a little less without).
Most of the house is kept private for the tenants, but visitors can access the main hall, parlour, ante-room, library (tea room), the spiral staircase and tower (a 1920's addition), plus a bedroom (see 1st floor windows in the front gable, on far left of photo above).
Once you've paid you can either cross through to the other wing of the house, or go out into the garden. The whole house has undergone a lot of modification and restoration during its lifetime, mostly during the 1920's when a building historian and restorer bought it, and began removing the smooth plaster covering all the frame timbers, inside and out - can you imagine! He also added the little stair tower, spiral staircase, fireplaces and more. He bought and demolished a similarly aged building in Chiddingstone, and used much of it for the renovations on Stoneacre, including the oak spiral staircase. This feels like a very mercenary, almost vandalistic (I think I made that word up!) way of 'restoring' a house, but it's almost a century too late to cry over spilt milk. Much of the decorative paneling, the paintings and furniture appears to be from other properties as well, bought in byAymer Vallance during his 1920's restoration. Whilst it all looks sympathetic to the house, some of it doesn't quite look like it belongs there, more like stage props.
|The rear courtyard with the 1920's brick built stair tower, contrasting the mellow half timber of the original medieval hall.|
We may not have picked a perfect time of year to see the garden, but you could see how it was gently easing itself from early to late Spring. The first flush of tulips and hellebores were making way for late season tulips, aqueligia and euphorbia.
|Hellebores, tulips and aqueligia|
Some flower beds were a subtle blend of deep purples, mauves and pinks, but other beds, such as those at the front of the property, were an exuberant riot of colour, a precursor to the blousier summer planting inspired by Great Dixter and Christopher Lloyd. The garden planting of tenanted National Trust properties is in the hands of the tenant. Physical structures,trees or important plants must remain, but herbaceous plants, bulbs and annuals are bought, paid for and tended by the tenants, so the garden is free to evolve and develop with time .
A beautiful collection of trees provided a canopy over much of the garden, the polished red bark of the Prunus serrula was a definite highlight, as was the stunning white-blossomed tree along the front wall of the garden with a welcoming bench underneath. Sadly I can't remember what the tree was called, even though the lovely volunteer gardener did tell me. He was a delight to talk to, and clearly relished being able to garden in this amazing place.
|Prunus serrula forms a canopy over purple and white tulips at the tower end of the house.|
In contrast to the vibrant Spring flowers was the lush Kelly Green growth of the Shuttlecock ferns, planted in a huge swathe next to a moss-clad stone wall.
The scent of this Chocolate Vine (Akebia quinata)in full flower over an archway, was rich but not overbearing.
|Akebia quinata aka Chocolate Vine|
The house is never out of view as you wander round the many twisting garden paths, and your eye is always drawn back to it's mellow solidity.
|Stoneacre Hall House viewed from a high woodland path|
|Stoneacre is a collection of additions on a classic Wealden Hall House|
I am almost guaranteed to find a small fluffy creature wherever I go, and Stoneacre was no exception.
This little chap must belong to the tenants but is clearly very used to strangers in his garden.
|Cute dog! :)|
Unfortunately there are quite a few areas of the house and garden that can't be accessed by wheelchair, but it is still possible to enjoy some of it.
Stoneacre visit in summary
I thought Stoneacre was beautiful, and very well worth the visit. It is on the smaller side, so 2-3 hours is more than enough time to look round everything thoroughly, as well as speak to the guides and gardeners.
You don't need walking boots, as everything is very close by, but I wouldn't recommend wearing heels either.
The car park is a field in the bottom of a valley, sited next to a pond and stream, so probably gets rather soft in wet weather.
Would I go back? Probably not to see inside the house, but I'd definitely like to go back and see the garden at other times of year.
Have you been to Stoneacre? Let me know in the comments.
Pumpkin Becki xx
**If you should miss the turning for the car park like I did, you will drive over the ford at the bottom of the hill, follow the road sharply right and upwards again. A few moments later you might glimpse the black iron gates of Stoneacre, set into a stone wall which runs along the right of the roadside, with a tiny yard of four stables opposite (Disabled parking). Immediately beyond these is a farm yard, with the road continuing through it. The road narrows to single file and becomes a horrible, bumpy, rutted, stone-laden dirt track. This track is soul and car destroying, but does eventually bring you on to Honey Lane.
Clearly I do not recommend contact with this section of 'road', so if you overshoot the car park, drive up to the farmyard, turn your vehicle round in it, and try again.
I have emailed the National Trust asking them to review the car park signage for the sanity of their visitors and the farmer, but I am yet to hear from them. Personally I did not find that a disagreement with a stressed out MrPB was conducive to an enjoyable visit to this rather lovely property.