Lamb House's tomorrow

A new door opens?

In writing this opinion piece, I need to declare my interest at the beginning! I worked at Lamb House as a steward for five years, and started at almost the same time as Jacquetta and Patrick Rogers took over from their daughter and her family as the tenants. As this has ended, the National Trust (NT) has decided that Lamb House is now to be changed to a “sui generis [unique] visitor attraction”.
It will no longer be a tenanted house, with a family with literary, poetic or artistic connections living in it as a home, to that of a “resource of delight and inspiration for our members and visitors”. An admirable concept, I am sure, but in truth this means a public museum. These statements will all be found in the application for planning permission by the NT on the planning page, a very thorough and interesting document, raising as these things always do, a number of issues.
Visiting on the open day on February 22, I found it promising, as another visitor described it, in its new life as a house of historic significance in itself and the home of famous writers, though at the moment this seems to be mainly as Henry James’ home. Mention is however made of the other tenants in the planning case and looks encouraging.

Henry James

It is perhaps unfortunate that the NT organisation is not always a good communicator, as a number of the Lamb House volunteers and the previous tenants can testify. Whilst understanding the view from the NT that the recent open day was just for interested parties and a few of the neighbours, some of the volunteers had received no information about what was going on and only knew of the day by word of mouth. This meant that a number of interested parties were unable to visit.
It was also suggested that this was not a day for the population of Rye to come, possibly understandable in view of the early stages of work going on, but publicity about the changes to the use of Lamb House at a much earlier stage might have stopped the rumour mill and some of the opposition locally, “community events” being interpreted as, among other things, weddings. And does Rye really need another coffee shop? Even one that “could give depth to our catering offering” by replicating some of the treats provided in Henry James’ time. Footfall? Some 27,400 visitors in four years’ time? Not sure about parking space in the town and the environmental damage to this part of Rye.
It says in Appendix A of the business case under the heading “Current Problems” that Lamb House is “tired, not to a desired standard . . . the interpretation of Lamb House does not reflect Teach, Inspire, Move”. I am not entirely sure what this means, but we all did our best to tell people about the history and inspiring owners and tenants. Move? Mobility or mood? I leave it up to you.
Patrick Rogers and friends

It must, however good the quality and content of the application, have been painful for Mr and Mrs Rogers to find themselves referred to only in terms of “Current Problems” and described as “limited in . . .  engagement and ability”, not an easily recognisable description! It goes on to state that: “The Trust has faced operational difficulties in opening the area available to the public at Lamb House,” but in my period as a steward, the tenants arranged for it to be opened from one to three days a week. It was after all, their home, upstairs.
To describe in the planning statement that, by changing its use, it will mean Lamb House will “play a more active role in the Rye community” ignores the Lamb House players performing in the garden and the house, with world-class actors, using a variety of texts from the writers with the closest connections; the Easter Egg hunt and other activities over the course of the annual Rye Arts Festival, and seems somewhat disingenuous.
The cast take a bow

Did the Trust miss a trick in its PR strategy, in not engaging and getting to know the neighbours while in the process of their decision making and involving them at an earlier stage? I think so. They certainly didn’t invite many views from the volunteer team, and we will be needed.
Whether the new ideas will have the “authentic  [NT italics] qualities of the house and garden” seems much more debatable, as no one knows the authentic experience of the home that Henry James lived in. I would have said myself that the most authentic experience of the house and garden was possibly that of the last people living there.
This house has been lived in for three centuries, after all, with a long list of owners and  tenants who have occupied and loved it, bringing life and laughter to a lived-in space. I know times move on and the NT must maximise its commercial opportunities. The ideas and background information show how they intend to do this, but I still prefer the idea of a  lived-in space!

Photo: Gillian Roder and Rye News Library


  1. I think its rather mean of the National Trust to describe the previous occupants as part of the problem and limited in engagement and activity. I went to many special events there over the years the Rogers were there – everything from children’s Shakespeare, to a comedy cabaret and readings under the Mulberry tree. They seemed to do an excellent job at providing fun things to do for the community and interacting with us. The National Trust seem already to be putting our backs up.

  2. It will be a pity if the primary focus is on Henry James, given how many other literary figures lived there. E.F. Benson fans visit faithfully and frequently bewail how little attention has been shown him in the past by the National Trust, especially given how big a role the house itself played in his most popular books. And what about Rumer Godden and Sir Brian Batsford? Both were prolific authors. I hope the shop being proposed will carry books from all of the resident authors.

  3. I was a volunteer during Lamb House’s last two seasons as a tenanted house, and admired Patrick and Jacquetta Rogers’ graciousness and style as they handled the tensions of living in a National Trust property while dealing with the needs of three generations of family.
    Yet those tensions were undoubtedly there, and with the advent of online reviews I’m sure the visitors have been quite vocal about the limited access to the house. Tourism has changed; visitors now expect to engage more fully with a space in return for the fairly high cost of visiting it, especially when you take travel into account. They expect to be able to buy refreshments and have access to a toilet.
    And visitor numbers are now far higher than they were a few years ago. I used to visit Lamb House when I came to Rye, long before I moved here, and would maybe encounter two or three other visitors wandering the gardens. The two seasons I worked there, we had days when the visitors never stopped arriving. Patrick Rogers was run off his feet on sunny days, supplying tea and cake to the many visitors who lingered in the garden. The carpet in the hall became liberally smeared with mulberry juice and the wear and tear on the more fragile parts of this very old house was evident. I can only imagine the wear and tear on the tenants’ nerves.
    So while I sympathize with the wish to retain Lamb House as a “lived-in space”, I can see why the Trust feels the necessity to make changes. Reading the Heritage Statement in the planning application suggests that the Trust is approaching its task with considerable respect for the feelings of Rye residents as well as visitors. I’ve seen other literary houses that have done an excellent job of preserving both the atmosphere of a lived-in space and offering an engaging experience to visitors–the Dickens house in London and the Darwin house in Downe, for example. The proposed use of the upper bedrooms as writer studios for very-short-term residential stays is something I’ve seen done in the US, where I lived for 20 years.
    All in all, I think you’ll get your life and laughter–but it’ll be the life and laughter of the many, not the few. And wasn’t that the original donor’s intention? Yes, Lamb House will be a museum, but a museum in the 21st-century sense of a vibrant resource for visitors and residents alike. I look forward to being a part of it.
    PS: I wonder if the reason why some volunteers were not informed of the open day was because they either don’t have email or don’t check their email. I received my invitation months before the event–and if I remember rightly there were also posters up in the town.

  4. Each time I have visited Lamb House in recent years, I have had delightful times and enjoyed my home-made scone and freshly prepared coffee whilst sitting in the beautiful garden, enjoying the peace and tranquility, and chatting to the knowledgable tenants, whilst learning more about some of my favourite writers. I fear for the future of Lamb House. The National Trust seems to adopt a formula when it comes to running the many properties bequeathed to them, which involves a gift shop selling irrelevant items, and a cafe, selling inedible food, with queues of people, and hard-pushed volunteers, some of whom seem not to have not been adequately trained, attempting to marshal coach loads of people from pillar to post. If this is the future for this beautiful and special place, then I worry for lovely Rye. Parking, footfall, noise, litter, numbers? These are the negatives; one should hope for positive engagement with the community, neighbours and National Trust visitors, as well as groups with a real commitment to keeping alive the spirit of those wonderful writers and artists who lived at Lamb House in years gone by. But that will take vision, commitment and an open mind.

  5. Whilst I share many of the concerns about the future of Lamb House, from discussion with the Trust, I have been assured that E.F.Benson will definitely be a major part of the interpretation of the house, together with, of course, Henry James. I like the idea of the upstairs rooms being opened up, because before visitors were rather disappointed that they saw so little. I too have been a volunteer at the house since about 1999, though not as much recently. I was also pleased to see that the Trust’s plans included the Lamb family and their importance to Rye, something that has been overlooked in the past. The post war tenants should also receive recognition, including Montgomery Hyde, who no-one seems to have mentioned as yet. There is also to be a display about the potential re-building of the garden Room, something Benson supporters would be delighted to see, and there are funds still held by the Trust for this purpose raised by Sir Brian Batsford, a former tenant. The latter was the first to try and get Benson a mention in the house. To have the King’s bedroom and the Green Parlour open to visitors is a great improvement.
    I do appreciate that longer opening hours mean greater footfall in West Street, and I feel five days should be adequate. Similarly any events should end by a reasonable time. I too am concerned about the increasing corporate nature of the Trust, but perhaps we can all work with them and try and ensure Lamb House increases its attractiveness for visitors, but retains its individuality. To have tickets bought in the Annexe is excellent, because the log jam of visitors in the hall on busy days detracted from the enjoyment of the house. In the future you will enter, present your ticket and proceed. There appears to only limited opportunity for selling, books and guides only I imagine. I am hoping for a positive outcome and a better interpretation of the house: that is the aim and we must ensure it comes about.


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