The manor of Parham was once owned by the Monastery of Westminster and the foundation stone of the current house was laid on 28 January 1577 by little Thomas Palmer, whose great-grandfather Robert had bought the manor of Parham in 1540 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The custom of getting a small child to lay the stone was considered to be good luck. The house took around six years to build, and after Thomas Palmer grew up and inherited it, he sold Parham to Thomas Bishopp of Henfield in 1601, whose descendants were to live at Parham until 1922, when Lady Emma’s great-grandfather, the Honourable Clive Pearson, bought the house and estate in 1922.
He and his wife, Alicia, restored it with great sensitivity and care and opened the doors to visitors in 1948 – a shrewd, forward thinking move that would ensure the house and grounds survived well into the 21st century. Their hard work was continued under the watchful eye of Lady Emma’s great-aunt Veronica Tritton, who inherited Parham and lived at the house until her death in 1993. It was in that year Lady Emma was selected to become chatelaine of Parham and continue the upkeep of the House and estate. Parham House and Gardens is now owned by a charitable trust, of which she is chairman.
“I have known Parham well since I was a child,” says Lady Emma. “I came here a lot when I was at boarding school nearby and then when I was at Oxford.
I absolutely adored my great-aunt Veronica. She was like a second grandmother to me and made everything magic. Clive and Alicia opened the house to visitors in 1948, having saved it, restored it and completely furnished it. It was one of the first of what I call the smaller large houses to be opened to the public. They wanted to share it with as many people as possible and were way ahead of their time.”
The sprawling Parham estate comprises a total of 875 acres of working agricultural and forestry land, and includes an area of parkland of about 338 acres, designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest with ancient oak trees, rare insects and lichens and a deer park home to around 350 deer. The gardens, open to the public between Easter and the end of October, boast landscaped Pleasure Grounds, Veronica’s Maze, Wendy House, and a Walled Garden originating from the 18th century. A team of staff helps the family look after Parham on a daily basis: there are 14 permanent staff, over 80 seasonal staff and a large group of volunteers who help maintain the beautiful gardens that Parham is so famous for.
Lady Emma also has a small team of ladies who help her look after the private side of the house and her family. No mean feat considering the amount of rooms in the private residence. “People often ask me how many rooms there are, and I am never quite sure whether to include various large lobbies, walk-in cupboards and other hidey-holes!” she says. “The answer is about 75 – but you could stretch that a bit further, I think.
The Great Hall and Long Gallery do take up a lot of room, which is why that number seems rather small given the house’s size.”
Family Home Meets Visitor Attraction
Lady Emma shares the house with her husband, James, and two sons, Benjamin and Arthur, and has always strived to keep the house as a family home first and a tourist attraction second. “We live in the east half of the house. Visitors have access to the west half and the Long Gallery runs across the whole length of the house at the top. The family side is not open to the public and never has been,” says Lady Emma. The house and gardens welcomed over 21,690 people in 2014 and that number is set to rise in 2015, with a brand new programme of events planned for next year.
“The house has always primarily been a family home, and it is important to me that it doesn’t feel like a museum,” explains Lady Emma. “We have fresh flowers in every room, all grown here in our gardens, and I’m always flinging open the windows to let in the fresh air. I resist anything that makes the house look corporate or institutional. Of course, there are many requirements that we have to fulfill living here, but we try to do everything as sensitively as possible.
“When my boys were growing up they used to love riding their plastic tractors around the Great Hall table – it was a real treat for them. I’m not sure what their favourite part of the house is now – to them it’s home, and when their friends come over (they are now 18 and nearly 17) I know they feel very proud and enjoy showing them around.”
So what is the best part of living at Parham? “There are so many best parts,” says Lady Emma. “It’s a huge privilege to live somewhere so beautiful, so old and so peaceful. Sometimes I still can’t believe it, even after 20 years. It still makes me catch my breath. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t notice something new or discover something I haven’t noticed before. It’s like living in the middle of a jigsaw puzzle that keeps on growing.
“I know it’s a cliché, but I love the Long Gallery and the Great Hall. The light streams in from the Downs, and both rooms sing to me,” she enthuses.
“On our side of the house, my favourite room is the South Library, which is our main sitting room. It holds a huge collection of old books – the best decoration ever. The house looks very much the same as it did when I was a child – I haven’t changed anything much.”
And the worst part of living at Parham? “It’s very hard to find privacy sometimes, particularly during the open season. I don’t much enjoy being the centre of attention, especially when I’m unloading the car after a visit to the supermarket, or being stared at leaving for a party all dressed up,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard when you have to make an effort but don’t really feel like it. And people often seem to know what we are doing before we even know! But that’s all part of the territory, and we’re fairly used to it now after all these years.
I certainly wouldn’t have come to live here if I’d been too worried about that. Parham needs to be shared, and we love sharing it with people who come back time and time again. That’s why my great-grandparents opened it to visitors in the first place – it wasn’t because they needed the money to mend the roof – they were way before their time.”
Historic Heirlooms and Prized Possessions
As you make your way around the house, family heirlooms and treasures fill every room, shelf, wall, nook and cranny. The stunning collection encompasses well-loved paintings, furniture, needlework and tapestries from all over the world that have been passed down through generations and are now on show for the public to enjoy. The extraordinary Robert Peake portrait of Prince Henry Frederick in the Great Hall is truly striking, as is the narwhal’s tusk and needlework cushion in the Great Chamber depicting the Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moses in the bulrushes. But it is the quirky, family-owned items that hold most sentimental value for Lady Emma and are amongst her most prized possessions in the house. “On my side of the house, there are so many little things that remind me of my great-aunt Veronica. Like the tiny teddy bear she tied to the flex of the lamp next to her bed, where I now sleep. That brings back so many happy memories for me. I feel incredibly lucky to be living amongst all these beautiful things,” says Lady Emma.
So what does the future hold for Lady Emma and her family? Will they always live at Parham and ensure that the house stays in the family? “We won’t always live here – James and I would like to move out before we get too old, and that moment will probably come when we are in our mid-sixties. I was 30 when I moved in, and one of the best things about living here has been to be able to bring up our children in this house.
“Great houses die when there is nobody living in them. It’s been so much fun to have people over, have little children around making a mess, the odd party, all the while with everyday life going on around us. That’s what it has always been about. Our visitors love the fact that Parham is lived in by a real family,” she says. “If one of my sons lives here after me, I will be very happy, but of course one can never legislate for one’s children. I’m just very glad that I was given the opportunity to come here and take this on. I’ve never regretted a moment of it – although there are moments of difficulty and it’s a huge responsibility – it’s the greatest privilege ever.”
Speaking to Lady Emma, you get the impression that leaving Parham House would be a huge wrench at any stage of her life. Her passion for her home, the people who visit, its priceless treasures, historic past and exciting future are palpable. The house is an integral part of her and her family and a legacy that will be hard to leave behind. “When I leave, I will miss Parham’s quiet tranquility and its great beauty. And little moments like seeing the barn owl fly across the courtyard at dusk, hearing the old clock chime, listening to the deer in the autumn, seeing the house bathed in gold in the low light of a setting sun. And the gardens, which bring so much joy,” she says. It’s clearly not going to be easy to leave, but luckily for her and the people who visit this stunning home, that isn’t going to happen for a while yet.