Parham House has been teasing me for a while. I first saw it whilst cycling along the South Downs Way, far below and resplendent. On a later occasion, I found myself walking the West Sussex Literary Trail, which takes you through the grounds. The house was shut at the time due to Covid, but there was something rather captivating about the parklands, with the house, sitting in a state of quiet magnificence in the distance. And course, any drive along the Pulborough to Storrington road takes you rather intriguingly past the estate boundary wall and you can’t help but wonder what lies within. So, it was with no small sense of expectation, that I finally managed a visit in early September.
The first stone of the current house was laid in 1577 by one Thomas Palmer, although there is evidence of both an abbey and private house being on the site long before then. Thomas, who was 2 ½ years at the time, went on to become an adventurer with Sir Francis Drake. The house, meanwhile, is Elizabethan and centres around the Great Hall. It has tall mullioned windows that look out on a croquet lawn and is made of Pulborough sandstone, Caen and Bath stone and has Horsham stone roofing.
In 1601, Parham was sold to the Bisshopp family for what must have been the huge sum of £4,500. It was to stay in the ownership of various descendants of Thomas Bisshopp until it was sold to the Hon. Clive Pearson for £200,000 in 1922 whose great-granddaughter, Lady Emma Barnard, still lives at Parham today. Pearson’s father was Weetman Dickinson, the first Viscount Cowdray and he helped with the purchase of what was then a property that was in a sorry state. Clive Pearson and his wife Alicia duly set about substantial renovation works, including restoring many of the original features and enthusiastically collecting furniture and antiques that had an association with the house. Despite being been requisitioned during WWII, the house finally opened to the public in 1948 and these days is a monument to all the hard work of the Pearsons and to all the many people that have crossed paths with Parham over the last 450 years.
A visit to the house and gardens demands at least an afternoon of your time. As soon as you enter the parklands some distance from the house, you’re met with a sense of awe and once in the quadrant at the north side of the house where the entrance is, you’re struck by what a mighty impression it must have created when arriving at an Elizabethan country house in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Great Hall and the Great Parlour
From the entrance, you mount a modest flight of stairs and make your way to the Great Hall, as the first of the main rooms that you visit. The hall is stunning, feels regal and takes you quite by surprise. Facing the South Downs with ceiling height windows and full of light, it has a huge and original fireplace and is surrounded by carved oak Tudor screens bedecked in portraits. 17th century buckets, 18th century riding boots and a beautiful long case clock mingle with long benches, Jacobean chairs, Tudor chests, a carved chandelier and works depicting James I, Edward VI, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (painted in 1611) amongst others. This gives you the first full indication of the depth of this collection and is a room that simply echoes with its own sense of history.
From the Great Hall, a tour of the house takes you through a series of deliciously opulent but elegant rooms. The Great Parlour, another panelled room, also drips with portraits, coats of arms and crests from families connected to the house as well as beautiful tapestry work, carpets and lacquer chests. The portraits here are all 17th century and many have a connection to Charles I. For those with an interest in the fashions of the day, the details and colours of the portraits remain striking and for more robust interests, you’ll also find paintings of a 17th century warship, Charles I on horseback and King Louis XIII riding with his wife. With more views south across the Downs, there’s an 18th-century Chinese cistern in the window filled with potpourri, and a welcoming feel to this room. It’s grand, it’s ornate but it also somehow feels warm and intimate.
Ming vases, harps and ancestors
The West Room is intriguing. It’s where you’ll find 16th century Italian wool wall hangings, a rare Armenian carpet, an unusual shaped 18th century games tables, a period barometer and longcase clock, a Ming vase and more portraits. The portraits include Parham’s own ancestors as well as one of Henry Bisshopp who is famed for hiding from Parliamentary troops during the civil war with his dog. I was particularly taken by the 18th century walnut tallboy and the intriguing and beautiful box of games on the table. The Ante Room continues this outpouring of historical splendour with one of the earliest examples of a needlework carpet, Hungarian Point needlework curtains, 17th century armchairs and more portraits including one of Charles II.
The Salon has to be one of my favourite rooms for its sheer elegance and quiet sense of style. With light streaming in from the side windows that overlook the parklands, it shows off a gilded dinner service, a harp, beautiful furniture and a Queen Anne walnut window seat. One can quite imagine some genteel entertaining here, with ladies gathered around the fire and the gentleman enjoying a recital as they stand by the bookcase.
Every room has an enormous sense of history, as well as a sense of the adventurous and dramatic spirits of times gone by. And whilst the Green Room is primarily about the great botanist Sir Joseph Banks, I was particularly captivated by portraits of Omiahm, an Otaheitan chief who came to England with Captain Cook. You really don’t have to be a connoisseur of the great masters to be utterly captivated by the many intriguing stories that are woven into the vast selection of different works of art on display.
The Long Gallery
Forgive me if I glide past some of the other rooms, such as the Great Chamber, the staircase, landing and lobby. They are all worth a linger, but I’m excited about showing you the Long Gallery. It’s surely Parham’s pièce de resistance and at 48 metres long (yes 48 metres), it is the third-longest room in a private house in England, and it is divine.
I was not expecting the spectacular ceiling, designed by Oliver Messel (The Messel family owned Nymans) which complements the oak floorboards and waxed Jacobean panelling. The room just oozes interesting detail and includes everything from antique toys, ceramics, tapestries, lacquered Chinese chests and more. You just have to work your way carefully down one long side and back the other, pausing only to visit some of the alcoves and rooms that open from it such as the White Room with its 17th century needlework and stumpwork pictures. And again, you can’t but help imagine a giddy group of young men and women promenading and dancing here as you pause to reflect on all the stolen whispers and glances that may have floated around this room.
St Peter’s Church
If the house is opulent and magnificent, then the extensive grounds are evocative and nostalgic. I’ll return to the gardens next week, but you cannot leave Parham without bustling over to the church. With evidence suggesting parts of this may date back to the mid 12th century, it affords amazing views back towards the house, croquet lawn and Ha Ha, as well as stunning views of the South Downs. With a small private graveyard and rows of beautiful and enclosed family pews, it’s a poignant reminder of the lost 18th century village of Parham.
Apart from the magnificent house and church, there are also 875 acres of estate land which include the parklands (part of which is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest), a deer park, seven acres of Pleasure Grounds and four acres of Walled Garden.
Sussex is blessed with a number of spectacular and precious properties, and Parham has to be right up there as one of the best. You can find out more and plan your visit at: www.parhaminsussex.co.uk