Magnificent but Modest Bijoux buildings in East Sussex

In 1896, the tiny Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex became the first of more than 650 properties cared for by the National Trust. To launch our new series on Britain’s heritage, author and design historian Siân Evans, former press officer for the charity, recommends some of her favourite magnificent but modestly-sized bijoux buildings.

Lower Brockhampton

Medieval manor house with bucolic character

Herefordshire's charming medieval manor house Lower Brockhampton
Herefordshire’s charming medieval manor house Lower Brockhampton

This romantic 14th-century manor house in the Welsh Marches, on the Herefordshire/ Worcestershire borders, was built only a generation after the Black Death decimated Britain. Almost concealed in the depths of a wooded valley, it is one of the most picturesque black-and white half-timbered buildings in Britain, constructed from massive tree trunks taken from the Lower Brockhampton estate. The manor house is modest in size and in style unpretentious, but it was a comfortable and well-appointed home for a reasonably wealthy land-owning family, who relied on the farm and surrounding woodland for their income. The house boasts a great hall, open to the rafters, and there is a delightfully eccentric, slightly crooked, two-storey gatehouse that straddles the moat, its upper floor protruding over the lower one like an illustration from a child’s fairytale. Bequeathed to the National Trust in 1946, the house is described by staff and volunteers as a very happy and welcoming place, with a real personality.

Greenfields, Bringsty, nr Bromyard, Herefordshire WR6 5TB
Open: 1 March-2 November, please enquire for opening days and times
Tel: (01885) 482077;

Alfriston Clergy House

The National Trust’s first acquisition: £10 in 1896

Alfriston Clergy House
Alfriston Clergy House

This timber-framed ‘Wealden’ house in East Sussex was built around 1350, and the fine medieval hall has a floor made of compressed chalk bonded with sour milk. Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, described Alfriston Clergy House as “tiny but beautiful”. She was determined that this derelict wreck, scheduled for demolition, should be saved for future generations. It cost a mere £10 and was lovingly restored by passionate amateurs. It is a feast for the senses; the house is long and low, with a steeply-pitched thatched roof overhanging its cream-coloured walls. The small cottage garden has box trees, and fragrant cosmos, and lavender frames the sundial. An idyllic spot on a sunny day.

The Tye, Alfriston, Polegate, East Sussex BN26 5TL
Open: 1 March-21 december, please enquire for opening days and times
Tel: (01323) 870001;


Fine late-Gothic merchant’s house

Paycocke's - late-gothic merchant's house
Paycocke’s – late-gothic merchant’s house

A 16th-century wool merchant’s house in Essex, and a wonderful example of how the vibrant late-Gothic style of building survived into the Tudor era. The façade incorporates carpentry and carved woodwork of the highest quality. Five oriel windows set into the wall of the projecting upper story make the interior very light: unusual, as glass was expensive at the time. This is a reminder that the house was a place of business as well as a prosperous home. The Paycocke family stored wool in the roof space, and peg holes in the walls indicate that looms were set up here as well. The composer Gustav Holst frequently stayed at Paycocke’s; he admired its small garden and the understated simplicity of the panelled rooms.

West Street, Coggeshall, Colchester, Essex CO6 1NS
Open: 23 March-12 October, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, 2-5pm
Tel: (01376) 561305;


The 1930s ‘semi’ which was home to John Lennon

Mendips - the 1930s 'semi' which was home to John Lennon
Mendips – the 1930s ‘semi’ which was home to John Lennon

There must be tens of thousands of interwar suburban houses on the outskirts of British cities, solidly built, bay-windowed, with modest decorative touches owing a little to William Morris, and the more sedate forms of Art Deco. But Mendips in Liverpool stands out; it was where one of the world’s most influential songwriters of the 20th century was brought up by his Aunt Mimi. Some of the Beatles’ earliest hits were composed and practised here – though Mimi would banish John and his friend Paul to practise in the porch if their music became too loud. The house looks as it did in the early 1960s – infinite care has been taken to replace and restore the interior to the way it was as the Fab Four started to achieve fame. Memorablia including original photographs is on display and don’t miss the chance to spend time in a young John’s bedroom, an incredibly atmospheric place. This is a truly fascinating time capsule, and an indication that genius can often flourish in the most prosaic settings.

Woolton, Liverpool
Open: 1 March-30 November, Wednesday-Sunday.
Admission is by guided tour only and booking is essential
Tel: 0844 800 4791;

Monk’s House

The rural retreat of novelist Virginia Woolf

Monk's House - the rural retreat of novelist Virginia Woolf
Monk’s House – the rural retreat of novelist Virginia Woolf

A 17th-century weather-boarded house with garden and studio, set on the edge of Rodmell village in East Sussex, was the country home of the innovative writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. He lived on there after her death during the Second World War until 1969. “That lovely mind, that lovely spirit” wrote Harold Nicolson of Virginia. The house is full of art and artefacts, testimony to the various talents of the infamous Bloomsbury Group. The simple rooms reflect the life and times of the literary circle in which they moved and are decorated with paintings by the family, such as Virginia’s sister Vanessa, and furniture by Duncan Grant. The best-known literary lions and creative dynamos of their day, from Lytton Strachey to Maynes Keynes and Roger Fry, were entertained at Monk’s House. Extracts from Virginia’s diaries and her photographs are on display, as is the huge, rather battered table where she wrote in the garden house.

Rodmell, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 3HF
Open: 2 April-29 October,
Wednesday and Saturday, 2-5.30pm
Tel: (01323) 870001;


‘The Good Life’, Victorian style

Rosdene National Trust house

A unique survival, this Chartist cottage in Worcestershire is evidence that idealists were looking for ‘green’ alternatives to the rat race as long as 150 years ago. Chartism was a political movement of the late 1840s, a humanitarian attempt to provide better economic and social conditions for working people. One of its radical, practical measures was to provide its ‘settlers’ with rural smallholdings, ready-built and well-equipped, where they could be virtually self-sufficient. The Chartist lifestyle was an attractive alternative to the hellish existence on offer in the newly industrialised cities, but in reality few could earn enough on their smallholdings to sustain large families. When the National Trust acquired the property in 1997 it was restored referring to Chartist literature and the advice of Florence Crane who was born there. Rosedene is a little jewel; rustic and unassuming in appearance, it was first occupied in 1849, and still has most of its period features including a dairy, Rosedene ‘The Good Life’, Victorian style a working range, a water pump and an earth closet. The vegetable garden and orchard have been restored, with varieties dating from the 19th century, and the plots are run on organic lines by a team of dedicated and committed volunteers.

Victoria Road, Dodford, nr Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, B61 9BU
Open: April-September, Sunday, admission by guided tour only and booking is essential
Tel: (01527) 821214;

Photographs: National Trust Photo Library