In an age of noise, spectacle and rolling news, Dorneywood House – tucked away off a country lane in the depths of Buckinghamshire – seems like a throwback. The estate on which the house stands has a history of ownership dating back to the days of Edward the Confessor. The house itself was converted from a farmhouse into a manor house in the 1890s by Charles Palmer, the latest of his family to have owned the land for three centuries (the Palmers still own nearby Dorney Court). Dorneywood’s significance today derives directly from its purchase in 1919 by Sir Courtald Thomson, a businessman and philanthropist, and his later donation of it to the nation, for use as a retreat and for entertaining on a “moderate” scale by Prime Ministers or senior ministers whom the Prime Minister of the day would nominate.
Lord Courtald-Thomson, as he became, died in 1954. The first senior minister to use Dorneywood as their country residence, conveniently close to London, was Sir Anthony Eden in his final days as Foreign Secretary the following year (the image above, with Eden in the centre, shows Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth meeting in London in 1956 by which time Eden had succeeded Winston Churchill as PM). Dorneywood has hosted various Foreign Secretaries – until they began to use Chevening in Kent instead – as well as Home Secretaries and the occasional Deputy PM. Who can forget the sight of John Prescott playing croquet on the lawn (however hard we might wish to…) Most recently, Chancellors of the Exchequer have been the lucky nominees for residence, though an informed source tells me that the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond, barely visits at all. In this restful and welcoming environment, ministers can reflect and think, away from the Westminster hurly-burly.
Visitor access by pre-booking, on selected afternoons between April and September, is regulated by the Dorneywood Trust, who lease Dorneywood from the National Trust. No photography is allowed in house or gardens for security reasons. Nonetheless it’s an agreeable place, reflecting the sense of hospitality which Courtald Thomson and his sister Winifred used to offer when they were there. Unlike some of the grander sites of power in the Chilterns and Thames Valley, Dorneywood is on a human scale. You can – just about – imagine living there, and enjoying the exquisite trappings such as the free-standing double-sided bookcases, the Flemish tapestries and the Bechstein piano. The bagatelle board in the conference room gives one clue as to how eminent residents and guests used to relax; if you scored over 1,000 points, that merited a special entry in a ‘golden book’. Churchill scored 1,015 on one occasion in 1942. The exterior is worth a look, too: don’t miss the white door marked TOAD HALL, as a tribute to Thomson’s brother-in-law Kenneth Grahame, and the cart-shed containing various stained glass windows relating to institutions with which Thomson had links. The gardens, too, are full of interest and well-tended without being intimidatingly perfect. At present, there’s an apologetic notice explaining that one section is fallow due to an infestation of ground elder, a complaint with which many owners of smaller gardens can empathise.