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 rother.gov.uk 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.
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.
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.
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