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The Story of Parham House and Gardens

Lady Emma Barnard at Parham House


Published on 3rd August 2016

It is claimed that the golden pippin apple originated at Parham Park.

Such a claim to fame could shape the legacy of many an English country home. Yet for Parham House, near Storrington, it is little more than a footnote; an obscure piece of trivia for a home of fascinating treasures and a garden of beauty and colour.

All of which is made all the more interesting by the fact that Parham has, since 1948, been open to the public. 

We met the Châtelaine of Parham, Lady Emma Barnard, to discover the unique story of one of the district’s most historic estates, and tour the walled garden with head gardener, Tom Brown. 

A Historic South Downs Home Robert Palmer (no, not the Addicted to Love singer!) was granted the manor of Parham by Henry VIII in 1540. However, he didn’t do a great deal with the land. It was his grandson, William, who chose to build a house at Parham. William gave his young son, Thomas, the honour of laying the foundation stone in 1577. 

Much of Parham’s history is dominated by the Bishhopp family, who moved there in 1598 and stayed for 321 years. The estate – which once extended to 3,733 acres – was then bought by the Pearsons.

Lady Emma’s great grandparents, Clive and Alicia Pearson, carried out extensive repairs. “My grandparents were amazing people,” says Lady Emma. “They were the ones who made the decision to open Parham to the public, which at the time was very forward thinking.

“During the Second World War, Parham was requisitioned, as there were fears that Hitler could invade from the south. A Canadian infantry of engineers was stationed here, which was fantastic as they could mend everything that they broke!

“When the war ended, my great grandparents were debating whether to move back into the whole of the house or just part of it. A friend of theirs suggested opening to the public. They genuinely thought that people would not be interested in coming here, as Parham was not like Blenheim or Buckingham Palace where you could see so many fascinating things.

“So when they opened the doors to the public on 22 July 1948, they did so with hearts in mouths. They didn’t think anybody would come, but of course, they did.” 


Finding Parham’s Past Treasures

If they were initially surprised by the popularity of the house and gardens, Clive and Alicia Pearson soon got stuck in!

To create a better experience for visitors, they began a second wave of collecting items for Parham.

Lady Emma said: “They had contacts in most of the London auction rooms, so if something came up that had been sold by previous owners at Parham, my great grandparents would buy it back. They were fortunate as they had the money to do it.

“They would also buy things they thought visitors would appreciate, including art and furnishings that was in-keeping with the building’s history.”

Thanks primarily to their efforts, Parham has arguably the most important collection of 17th century embroidery in the country. It also boasts a wonderful collection of Tudor and Stuart portrait paintings. One of these portraits is of Queen Elizabeth I, which prompts the question: Did she ever visit Parham?

“Legend has it that she did dine here in 1593, although scholars get frightfully cross about it,” says Lady Emma. “They claim that she never came to Parham. We’ll ever know for sure!” 


Tragic Secrets of a Special Painting

The Great Hall - along with The Long Gallery - commands the most attention from visitors.

During renovation, five fireplaces had to be removed before the original 16th century Elizabethan fireplace was revealed! But stealing the limelight is a magnificent portrait by Robert Peake, of a young Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales and the first son of James I, riding a white horse.

As heir to the throne, The Prince was a popular figure, and his death in 1612 at the age of 18 was a national tragedy. The original painting, however, was only uncovered relatively recently.

Lady Emma explains: “The Prince of Wales was seen as the great Protestant hope of Britain at the time, and that’s reflected in the painting’s symbolism. However, for a very long time, it was a different image that hung on the wall at Parham.

“My great aunt was asked to lend the painting to an exhibition in the 1980’s, where an X-Ray revealed an extraordinary hidden painting. 

“Following the Prince’s death, the highly symbolic meaning of the original had been shattered. So as England went into mourning, the painting was altered. Nobody knew that this secret original painting existed. So they rang up my great aunt and asked ‘What do you want to do?’

“Wisely, she asked for the original painting to be restored. It remains the most interesting in our collection and was shown in the National Portrait Gallery.”


Both an Honour and a Burden

Lady Emma Barnard lives at Parham House with husband James and their two sons. Benjamin hopes to read History at Oxford, whilst Arthur is targeting a place at Cambridge.

After her great aunt, Veronica Tritton (daughter of the Pearsons) died in 1993, Lady Emma moved into Parham. For 22 years, the Barnard family have lived in one half of Parham House, whilst the other half is open to the public.

Parham is owned by a Charitable Trust, and was left in perpetuity by Clive and Alicia Pearson, so that it would always be open to the public.

“It was the dearest wish of my great grandparents, and indeed my great aunt, that Parham should be open to visitors,” says Lady Emma.“They felt strongly that it should be shared by people, which I consider to be a very selfless act which has to continue. 

“Living at Parham is both an honour and a burden. I love it when we open and I love it when we close, and that’s the truth of it. But the thought of closing Parham to visitors would break my heart, because it would go against absolutely everything that my family held dear.

“As it is, I believe that my great-grandparents and my great aunt would be over the moon if they could see the garden today.”


The Imaginative Walled Gardens

The Parham Estate today stretches to about 875 acres. Visitors can enjoy the house and walled garden, as well as the pleasure gardens, which includes Veronica’s Maze. Named after Emma’s great aunt, it was built in 1991 as part of the celebrations for The Year of the Maze.

Much of the estate, however, has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The presence of two rare beetles, as well as one of the largest heronries in Sussex, means that much of the estate is effectively off limits.

However, visitors may spot fallow deer, residents of Parham since 1628, as they make their way along the drive. 

One of the reasons the public has been drawn to Parham since it was first opened in 1948, is the dramatic walled gardens, featuring herbaceous borders, glasshouse, vegetable garden, orchard and a 1920s Wendy House. Lanning Roper, a celebrated landscape architect, was a close friend of the Pearsons and instigated much of its design. 

Lady Emma said: “I think the garden, if I may say so, is now one of the great gardens in the south of England. One of the reasons for that is that, as (head gardener) Tom has said, we don’t have to chase that pot of gold by being a commercial garden. We can afford to be lush and imaginative with our planting here.

“The challenge is to find that delicate balance between educating and delighting our visitors, whilst also keeping the garden private and special for the family. That marriage between the garden and house is very important.” 


Eavesdropping from The Tapestry 

Parham’s successful Garden Weekend, now in its 22nd year, was held in July. Still to come later in the year is the Harvest Fair and Halloween Fun.

Several other major events, including the Sussex Game and Country Fair held on the grounds, are organised outside of Parham.

Living on site, Lady Emma and her family have a unique insight into public opinion of all of the events held there. As a child, she would hide in the bushes and eavesdrop. Since living at Parham, she has occasionally listened in on conversations from behind a tapestry!

“It is fascinating to hear what people say,” she says. “You can learn a lot from the public, and actually find good tips, as criticism can be useful. However, I’m happy with where we are at the moment.

“It is my responsibility to hand on Parham to the next generation in preferably a better state than what I inherited. Once you rip things out, you can never get them back, so the most important thing is to maintain what we have here.

“In a world where everything is changing and being jazzed up, I want to avoid that and keep Parham in its own skin, which it’s been comfortable with for centuries. Places like Parham are becoming increasingly rare because they haven’t been souped-up with modern lighting or hosts of big jazz nights.

“It’s an old-fashioned break from a commercialised world and gives a sense of an England that is disappearing. I know that there are people who have been coming here for years because in many ways the place is unchanged, and it is good for the soul. 

“Parham has always been loved and lived in, and it still is, which I think is a great thing.”


You can find out more about Parham’s house and gardens on the Parham website