THE HIGH ELMS ESTATE

 
High Elms Country Park at Farnborough is a magnet for dog walkers, ramblers, anyone with an interest in the countryside and golfers. What is not so well known is that it is the site of one of the great “lost” houses of Bromley. The house purned down in 1967.  These two photos show the former house in situ, contrasted with the site as it is today.

This article was written by Christine Hellicar in 2012, before the death of Eric Lubbock, and appeared in the monthly magazine of the Bromley Borough Local History Society.

It is reproduced here by permission.


The house was home to several generations of the Lubbock family. The most famous were the Liberal MP John Lubbock, 1st Lord Avebury (1834-1913) a banker and archaeologist whose interests covered entomology, botany, biology, archaeology and ethnography, and Eric Lubbock, the current Lord Avebury, a conservationist who won the famous Liberal victory in Orpington 50 years ago.

Today in the park, which lies off the A21 just beyond Farnborough Village, there is only a greensward where once there was a 60-room mansion. However, that will have changed by the autumn when, with the aid of Lottery funding, for a project entitled The Lubbock Landscape, Nick Hopkins, the ranger at High Elms will have installed an interpretation board above the site of the house and marked out the layout with bricks on the ground. Dotted around the site of the house are a few peripheral garden buildings which survived the fire that destroyed High Elms mansion in 1967. These often puzzle visitors and these too will get proper information boards. As part of the Lottery project Nick, with the help of volunteers, has researched the history of the house and the estate. Armed with the wealth of information he has collected, Nick was our very enthusiastic guide at High Elms on a wet, windy and cold June day for the second of this summer’s BBLHS walks.

As he took us around the formal part of the park Nick put the beautiful landscape and remaining buildings into a fascinating historical context. The first John William Lubbock (1773-1840) to set up a country home in Farnborough was a London banker with wealth from the City and through marriage. He bought the agricultural estate of 276 acres for £5000 in 1808 as a country retreat and an investment. In 1816, following the death of his uncle, he inheritied a baronetcy. His uncle is believed to have acquired the title in a “cash-for-honours” arrangement, giving money to the King to help fund the Napoleonic wars.

The current High Elms Country Park of landscaped grounds, woodlands and golf course is not the full 276 acres and Nick is still trying to identify some of the outlying farms that made up the original estate. Sir John spent much of his fortune developing the property —even though the family spent only the weekends there —with a programme of building and landscape work, but he continued to live in the original farmhouse which was situated on High Elms Road. However, by the time the old farmhouse was demolished it had been considerably extended to include 14 bedrooms, so no longer a mere farmhouse! Nothing remains of this building whose stones were used in the building of the new High Elms mansion in 1842.

It was Sir John’s only son, also John William Lubbock (1803-1865), the 3rd Baronet, banker, barrister, mathematician and astronomer, who decided to have a new house built away from the road with a sweeping drive guarded by a Lodge House on Shire Lane. The Lodge House, now called Flint Cottage, was where we started our walk. Nick pointed out that the drive used to continue on the far side of Shire Lane, cutting through woodland to Church Road. Beside this section of the drive, just beneath St Giles’ Church, there was once a private Lubbock burial ground (not consecrated). But, in 1979, because vandals had almost destroyed the stones the big Avebury memorial was moved to Farnborough Churchyard, where it can be seen today. The stone aeroplane memorial to Eric Fox Pitt Lubbock disappeared but was later found and installed elsewhere in the park in 2010.

Although the burial ground is below Farnborough Church, which was little more than half a mile from the new house, until the 1870s the Lubbock family worshiped at Keston. This was partly because High Elms was actually in the parish of Keston and partly, Nick believes, there was a falling-out with the vicar at Farnborough Church.

The drive and the landscaped gardens with magnificent cedar trees and even a redwood tree, led to a mansion designed by Philip Hardwick in the classical Italian style. It was completely screened from the main roads, service road and outbuildings and had a view straight across the valley to another grand house, Holwood at Keston. It was all about status, a “statement of grandeur”, said Nick. Visitors including Prime Minister William Gladstone, women’s suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell and neighbour Charles Darwin were among those who could not fail to be impressed.

The main drive to the house is now grassed over, and the road winding into the country park from the car park is, in fact, the old service road. Along here there remain some very interesting reminders of a privileged and wealthy lifestyle. The most important of these is the ice well. Built in 1850 of chalk and flint, it is one of the biggest and best preserved in the country.

The tunnel, which stays at a constant 3-4 degrees, is a slightly slippery business. The huge 30-feet well was filled with two-foot blocks of ice which were emptied into it through an opening at the top. This was used to chill foods and make ice cream and sorbets. Later, a second chamber was built where meat and fish were packed between ice to preserve it.

Once electricity came to High Elms, early in the 20th century, the ice well was used for storing apples. Today it is home to bats, who have their own nesting boxes along the walls of the corridor that winds down to the well. (Part of the Lottery funding is for conservation).

The biggest buildings to remain are the coach house and stable block and these are not usually accessible to the public. We were taken, by Nick, into the courtyard but not into the buildings, which, with the advent of the motor car, were  converted to garages and accommodation. Attractive buildings of flint with slate roofs today they are offices for the park staff.

Just outside the entrance to the stable block is a structure that puzzles many visitors. It is a fives court — a game not unlike squash but played with a gloved hand —which was invented at Eton.
Needless to say, all the Lubbock sons went to Eton.

From here we walked up onto the greensward where the house once stood. Nothing remains.

The Lubbock family fortune declined and, as with so many of the grand estates after the First World War, there were no longer the servants to keep it running properly. Lady Alice —The 1st Lord Avebury’s second wife —sold the property in 1938 to a conglomerate of Kent councils. It was managed by Orpington Urban District Council and subsequently passed into the hands of Bromley Council.

Lady Alice stayed on at the house until her death in 1947, retaining rights to the woodland which had been planted mainly as forest for income. This explained another of the mysteries of the country park, why the routes through the woods are so wide and gravelled. They were laid out as forestry extraction routes. Today Nick is gradually taking out the conifers that are in the woods and replacing them with deciduous trees.

The final years of High Elms House were first as a home for nurses at King’s College Hospital and then as student accommodation for Ravensbourne College.

On the August bank holiday of 1967 when all the students were away a fire, probably electrical, broke out during the night. Fire brigades from as far away as Biggin Hill attended but the nearest hydrant was nearly three-quarters of a mile away on Old Hill and by the time the fire was out the building was a shell. It was not a time when there was money for rebuilding. The walls were pushed into the cellars and the whole thing grassed over. But the memories still live on, and Nick and his volunteer history team have been recording those of the nurses, students and even some of the staff and family, including the current Lord Avebury, from the grand days of High Elms.

Around the periphery of the house site some of the garden landscape remains. Of particular interest is a flint grotto, Grade II listed despite having been partly demolished by a tree falling on it, and a garden shelter or summer house. This was a birthday present to Lord Avebury from Lady Alice in 1913 just before his death. Unfortunately, now it has been restored, this has to be fenced off with barbed wire on the top to stop vandals and thieves taking the roof tiles.

The house has vanished but the landscape still tells the Lubbock story. Every generation spent great sums of money on turning it from predominantly agricultural land into a country estate. The 3rd Lord Lubbock had a passion for horse racing and had a race course in the grounds. The last meeting was held in 1864 when a report in the Bromley Times recorded there were over 30,000 visitors.

The sport of the 4th Baronet, later to become the First Lord Avebury, was golf and he closed the race course and had a golf course instead. This remains as a public course run by Bromley Council.

The interpretation boards will be in place by the autumn and it is hoped a history of the house will appear in due course. It is a beautiful country park which will be enhanced by the preservation of its history and I would recommend anyone to visit, but preferably on a proper June day, not one that is having an identity crisis and thinks it is October.

Christine Hellicar





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