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Whilst frivolously frolicking at home idling away my week off work I decided during one of the first real days of glorious sunshine in 2013 that had fortuitously coincided with my break (my lack of prescience sadly means they could also be the last given our current climate trends) that I should get some much needed culture. I decided upon the nearby historical house of Dorney Court in Windsor which was a simple drive along the M4 to Junction 7 and then a short 10 minute drive to the house all neatly signposted so even a directionless buffoon like me could find it without need of a map of GPS assistance. The parking was not so good however, as following what were frankly simple signs I failed to spot the fact that the giant green grassy area (with cars already parked) was in fact the parking area and drove on too far to some private property. A pitchfork in the face and a U-turn took me too far the other way on to the Dorney Court Kitchen Garden Centre at which point I realised that the giant green grassy area complete with cars was in fact the car park. Common Sense 0 - Brainlessness 1. Still the lovely looking house loomed right in front of the car park so even I couldn’t miss it and I was then greeted by a rather bubbly tour guide who cheerfully took my entrance fee and immediately led me and some other waiting patrons in to the house to begin the tour. So really, my parking shenanigans in fact saved me a wait.
A quick history of the house
Dorney itself means “Island of Bumble Bees” and unsurprisingly with a name like that is still famous for its honey and is fortunate enough to lie on a slight rise on the Thames flood plain, or as the experts dramatically proclaim, it probably would have been washed away during times of flooding. Marshy meadows that separate the village from the River Thames contain damp peat that have preserved prehistoric life so it is a place already surrounded by history. Where the current manor stands, according to the Domesday Book records from 1086 this land and a manor was held by Aldred a man of Earl Morcar before the Norman Conquest of 1066. By 1086 it was in possession of Milo Crispin, but the next record of the manor is in 1430, believed to be the house that stands today, and from here we get a daisy chain of swaps from the Kestwolds to the Carboneths (1430) to the Lyttons in 1504, then to the Hills in 1513 and then finally on to Lord Mayor of London William Garrard in 1537. One of the daughters of these wealthy grocers, Martha, married a Sir James Palmer of Wingham and thus thirteen generations of Palmers have inhabited this manor since.
The tour itself takes roughly 50 minutes to complete and is localised to just a small part of the house since there are a lot of private rooms for the family’s own use, and you will make your way up and down some rickety stairs across creaky floorboards
Pictures of Dorney Court, Berkshire
The exterior of the house looking all Tudory!
in this Tudor house so unfortunately those with mobility problems may be forced to only receive the tour of the downstairs portion of the house which is a shame, but due to the untainted nature of the house sadly unavoidable. The tour begins in the parlour with a quick introduction of what to expect (which is mainly that all the history of the place will be related almost solely to the Palmer family) and a first glimpse at some fascinating artefacts with accompanying anecdotes. Look out for a priest hole hidden from plain sight (well that is kind of the point) hinting at the political intrigue this house has witnessed in the past as well the recent addition of a coffee table made from Dorney Court’s own parkland with a seemingly random homage paid to the pineapple. More to follow on that bombshell.Moving on you will be met with the sight of a poor deceased white tiger on display where wealthy nobility still today seem to find pride in this senseless and despicable loss of life as well as a range of fairly tasteful to utterly horrendous porcelain and pottery including one plate that came from none other than…I’ll pause to build up the tension…Wills and Kate. Guess which end of the tastefulness spectrum their gift fell into. The tour then progresses upstairs where you will be treated to an array of period treasures from tapestries, portraits, cabinets, beds, carvings, stained glass windows and learn how they’ve all played a part in the Palmer family history over the last 450 or so years that they have resided at Dorney Court. Along the way you will also learn at great length how the house has been used as a filming location throughout the years with such films and TV shows as Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, some Jane Austen classics, Pocahontas to name but a few, and there are even a few remnants left behind from the film production that the family felt suited their décor. Also interestingly, one of the more quirky Palmers decided to totally reinvent the front façade of the house and replace the elegant Tudor style with a rather dull 18th Century Georgian style, but thankfully Colonel Charles Palmer restored it back to its former glory in the late 19th Century, so even though it looks authentic it is actually much more modern in its architecture.
There are a few really memorable rooms, firstly the rather modern but disgustingly decorated bathroom all kitted out in salmon pink and the so called “ghost room” which is supposedly haunted by an unknown lady where guests reported strange creaky noises and wailing at night. Funny how these things only happen at night in old houses with questionable architectural stability when all the hubbub of the day has disappeared…apparently some hair was found in the walls and this is believed to be the source of the ghost’s distress…hmmm the heebie-jeebies were somewhat absent for me. The best room by far though is the penultimate room on the tour, the Great Hall which easily lives up to its name and is exquisitely decorated. Here you will spot a lovely rocking horse, learn a great deal more about the occasional scandalous incident in the Palmer family history and discover why the pineapple of all things is such a feature in this house. I do like being left to my own devices in exploring historical houses at my own pace, but I can appreciate why the family would only allow people in as part of a guided tour and as long as you don’t mind being kept to a schedule I think there is a lot to get out of this tour.
The Gardens, Old Brewery & Church
Once the tour concluded I was able to spring out into the gardens and explore at my own leisure, but obviously you could do this before the tour depending on your arrival time. Whilst the gardens are not overly extensive they are quite beautiful and really add to the charm of the Tudor style of the house. There is a huge open expanse of grass to one side of the house surrounded by pretty flower borders and a copse of trees and in to the other side of the house is a small but very attractive garden with an elephant water feature as the centrepiece paying tribute to the family connection with India. There are also plenty of statues and a sundial to hunt for round the immediate vicinity of the house if you fancy a bit of a treasure hunt.
Past the smaller garden, a mere 50 yards or so, is the old brewery which is a case of look but don’t touch, and then a rather small but charming Norman Church of St James the Less. It is believed this church has stood there for more than a thousand years in one form or another as there is evidence of pre-conquest stonework, but the most modern renovations have left behind a Tudor tower with six good bells. There is also a slightly weird mortuary monument to look out for if you venture inside the church with a slightly gothic edge which I enjoyed. For those that enjoy looking at old churches, or even just enjoy architecture this church is well worth a look at with some pretty stained glass windows and a plaque in honour of a Wenna Palmer who received an RSPCA award for rescuing a drowning horse (all those against tragic animal accidents say neigh), and there is a very small little graveyard outside, and for those that are a touch morbid can take the chance to look at the headstones to see how far back the history of the church goes, and even do a bit of Palmer spotting.
The Kitchen Garden Centre & Café
If you finish your visit, or wish to break up your visit during lunchtime there is the Dorney Court Café available within walking distance attached to the Garden Centre. There is an outdoors eating area with benches and a children’s play area, plus plenty of indoor seating available. The menu is set up for breakfasts with the usual combinations of sausages, eggs & bacon, eggs Benedict, scrambled eggs, sausage or bacon baps at no more than £7.50; light lunches with sandwiches, toasted teacakes and crumpets, soups, quiches, omelettes, a Ploughmans, lots of side dishes like chips, garlic bread, onion rings and salads also at no more than £7.95 plus a Specials board with whatever has been harvested from the Walled Garden that day, and finally a children’s menu with such meals as spaghetti bolognaise, fish fingers, peas & chips, and a lunch pack made up of sandwiches, biscuits, fromage frais and juicy water. The drinks menu consists of a large array of hot drinks (tea and the usual coffee suspects) for no more than £2.35, cold drinks including water, orange juice, smoothies, ginger beer, lemonade, elderflower presse for no more than £2.60 and some naughty alcoholic beverages of beer (£3.50) and a glass / bottle of red or white wine (£3.50 / £15.95).
The garden centre itself, and I am by no means an expert so could be way off, looks pretty expansive, with flowers and plants stretching out as far as they eye can see and an obvious stockpile of essential garden equipment and growth aids so this seems like a fine centre for horticulturists to visit. In fact, back at the house, you can purchase asparagus grown on the estate as well if asparagus floats your boat. There is also a (albeit very small) gift shop attached to the café which includes estate grown produce like preserves, honey, cakes, apple juice etc. which for those that like things organic could also be a nice purchase. Thankfully there is a free car park right outside this centre so any large purchases can easily be dragged to your transportation. All in all, this garden centre is probably a worthy site to visit with or without the inclusion of the house (as long as you are actually interested in gardens) but if you are visiting solely for the garden centre, if you have the time and the house is open I’d recommend giving it a whirl.
Facilities & Other Information
There are toilets available at both the house and the garden centre including disabled toilets
Ramps are available to gain access to the lower level of the house
Free onsite parking, including disabled parking
Guide dogs are permitted
Smoking areas are available
Children of all ages are welcome at the garden centre, but must be 10+ to enter the house
If arranging a private function, Dorney Court is licensed for alcohol and has space for a marquee
Due to yearly corporate events, the house is actually only open from the 1st of May to the 30th June in 2013, and I’d imagine a similar timeframe for all future years, so the window of opportunity is small to enjoy a visit to this house. During this period, the house is open from 9am-5pm Monday to Friday during May, as well as any Bank Holidays that occur, and 1:30pm-4pm in June.
Adult (House and Garden) - £8 Child aged 10+ (House and Garden) - £5 Senior Citizen (House and Garden) - £7.50 Group rate (10 people or more)- £7.50 per ticket Private party (20 people or more getting exclusive access) - £9 per ticket plus £18 for each guide required