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The Owl House, Tunbridge Wells


The Owl House has 6.5 hectares (16 acres) of gardens planted in 1952 divided into four separate areas. There is a pavilion garden, a woodland garden, a water garden and a walled garden.

This site has an extensive informal woodland-style garden with attractive ponds and planted glades and a contrasting formal well-planted garden around the 16th-century house.

The setting is in the fruit and hop growing area of the Weald, very like that of Crittenden House and Ladham House, which lie not far away to the north-east. The soils are acidic Wealden Tunbridge Wells sandy loams, as at Scotney Castle. The gardens lie on a south-west facing ridge over 320 feet above sea level. From the house there are fine views across the wooded Weald to the west and south-west.

There are two distinct styles and areas to this garden. Around the house are flagged paths, terraces and planted borders as a setting to the attractive old house.

Away from the house to the north-east and east across an expanse of lawn one can find the woodland and wilderness garden, the acidic heathland soils being ideal for the collections of rhododendrons and azaleas and other shrubs that have been planted in the glades and walks. The woods are of oak and birch and vistas have been created to great effect. Daffodils are naturalised in here and one can also explore a series of former hammer ponds. The October 1987 storm caused some damage to the woodland areas with scattered loss of trees. Slow clearance work is in progress.

The following text is taken from the Kent Compendium of Historic Parks and Gardens for Tunbridge Wells Borough:

A formal garden around a C16 house set in extensive, informal water and woodland gardens, which were laid out from 1954 to the designs of James Russell of Sunningdale Nurseries.



The Owl House site lies on a south-facing ridge some 100m above sea-level with fine views across the wooded Weald to the west and south-west. The surrounding landscape is one of undulating ridges and gentle valleys with orchards, hop gardens and woodland. The c.18.5ha site is 1km north-west of Lamberhurst, 6.5km south-west of Goudhurst and 8.5km south-east of Royal Tunbridge Wells, with the A21 (London to Hastings road) 1km to its north. The site is bordered to its south-west by Owl House Fruit Farm (in separate ownership), while the fields, pastures and woods of the surrounding farms form the setting to its remaining boundaries.


The Owl House is approached from the north side of Mount Pleasant road along a narrow tarmacadam-surfaced drive and curves gently for some 350m in a south-westerly direction passing the orchards and C20 buildings of Owl House Fruit Farm to arrive at a five-bar wooden gate flanked on each side by a c.0.6m high, brown-painted, concrete, owl. The drive, from this point on with a consolidated gravel surface, continues for a further 100m before running alongside a 100m long red brick wall (on its east side) which forms the west wall of The Owl House garden. A gap in the wall at its northern end leads into a small courtyard and the west, entrance front of the house.

Eighteenth-century maps show the approach to The Owl House from the south along the drive, but continuing across the site of the present formal garden, to a roughly oval-shaped forecourt (Austen, Saxby and Playfoot). By 1843 the garden was enclosed on its south and west sides by a hedge and the former entrance is recorded as ‘Old Lane' (Tithe Map). It is unclear whether subsequent owners used the present entrance on the west front, but in 1955 reference is made to a main entrance on the south side and additional planting to an existing island bed, possibly forming a turning circle (Borthwick Institute).


The Owl House is a C16, timber-framed house of two-storeys standing on a sandstone plinth (listed grade II). It is constructed of red brick with tile hanging to the first floor and a tiled, hipped and pitched roof. There is a late C20, single-storey extension on its north end. A few metres to the west of the house is a C19 oast house which in 1960 was converted to a pool house and a rendered, white-painted extension built on its west side. It has brick elevations and a tiled roof. Steps descend from it to a terrace on which there is an informally shaped swimming pool.


On the south front of the house is a formal garden (c.20m x 40m) enclosed by 2m high brick walls on its south and west sides but open to informal lawns and shrub beds to its east. The south front opens onto a broad, York stone, paved terrace enclosed by 0.5m high stone walling. At the south-west and south-east corners of the terrace three stone steps ascend to a paved walk that extends southwards for some 60m to terminate at a pair of 1m high wrought iron gates attached to brick piers set in the south garden wall. The walk which has a circular pool and a stone fountain approximately halfway along its length, is flanked by narrow herbaceous borders and wrought iron rose arches and trelliswork, the whole layout set within formal lawns. James Russell's 1950s plans for the formal garden were largely implemented, although he specified a set of central steps ascending from the terrace to the walk (Borthwick Institute). His recommendations also indicated that a gate, path and pool in the formal garden already existed but that the path should be aligned on the [south] front door, there should be a ‘slightly more important' gate and the ‘small' pool ‘would need to be enlarged considerably'. The brick walls on the west and south sides of the formal garden were constructed in 1960 to replace hedges, which at that time enclosed the garden on three sides. Russell's layout for the formal garden remains (2009), although rose arches have replaced his white, ‘square trelliswork pillars'.

Forty-five metres to the south-east of the house, set at the eastern end of the formal garden's south wall is a C16 single-storey brick coach house with an attic. It has partly weather-boarded elevations under a slate and tiled roof. By 1938, a greenhouse had been built on its west wall. This was still in place in the 1950s when Russell made suggestions to screen it ‘by a bold group of evergreens consisting of many sorts of roses and sweet-scented plants'. The greenhouse was demolished by the early 1960s and the coach house converted to guest accommodation and named Butterfly Cottage (Borthwick Institute). It is now in separate private ownership. One hundred metres further south, are two late C20 semi-detached cottages (Daffodil and Primrose Cottages) in the same architectural style. These are now also in separate private ownership.

The gardens to the north of the house are laid out as informal lawns some mature trees, island shrub beds and old fruit trees, probably remnants of Russell's planting of shrubberies and ‘cherries underplanted with all sorts of azaleas' (Borthwick Institute). Approximately 20m to the east of the house, and at the foot of a grass bank, is a white, wooden summerhouse with trellised side panels and a tiled roof. It stands on a York stone base and sheltered by a stand of beech and conifer trees. Some 30m north-east of the house a rectangular grassed area (possibly the site of a former 1950s tennis lawn) is separated from the lawns by a white wooden fence and has regularly spaced, wrought iron, lamp standards along both sides of its length. A York stone paved pathway leads from it to the summerhouse. From 1955 to the early 1960s correspondence between Lady Dufferin and James Russell included the plans and plant lists containing his proposals for these informal lawns on the north and east of the house, which in addition showed heather and rose gardens, a swimming pool and a tennis court (Borthwick Institute). Also proposed was a second summerhouse, octagonal in shape and sited on a high point some 250m to the north-east of the house. There is no surviving evidence of any of these built features having been implemented.

Approximately 100m south-east from the house, two urns mark the entrance to a 300m long woodland walk (Lady Dufferin's Temple Avenue) which runs through Cooksbroom Wood, its mature trees including beech, oak and horse chestnut, underplanted with rhododendrons. The walk is intercepted two-thirds of the way along by a circular glade (the Rhododendron Circle), in which stone seats and a central owl statue was placed during Lady Dufferin's ownership (Brochure), but which were removed in the late 1990s. At the end of the walk a wisteria-covered, C20, circular, six-columned, stone temple forms a focal point (the Temple Garden). It stands within a triangular-shaped, grassed area surrounded by Lombardy poplars which also mark the garden's boundary with the surrounding pasture.

Running through Crooksbroom Wood is a spring-fed stream crossed by simple wooden bridges (mostly in poor condition). Some 200m from the house, the path across one of the bridges continues as a York stone path with its entrance flanked by statues of a brown owl to reach an informally-shaped pool (Willow Pond). The pool is crossed by two wooden bridges and is surrounded by banks with overgrown planting that contains remnants of Russell's rhododendrons, azaleas, acers and a weeping willow (Borthwick Institute). The path, from this point forward as a narrow track, winds along the pond banks through multi-stemmed beeches to a cascade and a fountain, now lost under plant growth. There is a second pond 90m east of Butterfly Cottage, in which Lady Dufferin kept ornamental breeds of ducks. Both ponds (shown on 1796 map) are thought to have been C18 hammer ponds. Descriptions of these woodland and water gardens provide evidence of the lush planting they contained (Brochure; Young) and that they were well maintained after Lady Dufferin's death in 1998 (Bradley-Hole).


Books and articles

Edward Hasted, ‘Parishes: Lamberhurst, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 5 (1798), pp. 294-310.

‘The Estate Market', The Times (18 October 1924).

Kelly's Directory for Lamberhurst 1934

Tom Wright, The Gardens of Britain. Kent, East and West Sussex and Surrey (1978).

Michael Young, ‘Garden to visit. Smugglers' blossom', The Times (12 May1984).

Kathryn Bradley-Hole, ‘Woodlands with the Wit To Woo', Country Life (11 April 2002), pp. 118-121.


A plan and description of the situation and content of several pieces of woodland in Lamberhurst, the property of Elizabeth Wilson gentlewoman and sisters 1770. CKS reference U200P2.

Austen, Saxby & Playfoot Map of Kent (1796). CKS ref U200P3.

Charles Greenwood, Map of the County of Kent 1821.

Tithe map 1843 and apportionment.

OS maps 1st edn 6" 1862

2nd edn 6" 1897

3rd edn 6" 1907

4th edn 6" 1929

OS maps 1st edn 25" 1867 Sheet 69/3

2nd edn 25" 1898 Sheet 69/3

3rd edn 25 1906 Sheet 69/3

Revised edn 25" 1938 Sheet 69/3

Modern Mastermap 2007 1:10,000.

Map showing listed buildings within Owl House boundaries.


Photograph of the Owl House 1907 reproduced in Owl House Brochure (private collection).

Aerial photograph 2003.

Archival items

Census data 1841 -1891.

Electoral Registers 1902-1915.

Plans and correspondence relating to the garden at the Owl House, Lamberhurst, Kent 1954-1968. Borthwick Institute Ref JR 1/126 (1 file, 1 roll)

English Heritage Listed Buildings entries: undated.

Kent Compendium entry and notes 1996.

The Owl House Gardens Brochure (private collection).

Conservation Areas Appraisal. Lamberhurst and the Down.Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in partnership with Lamberhurst Parish Council, Lamberhurst Society, Lamberhurst Local History Society and other local representatives (July 2002)

Sales Particulars, Knight Frank 2005.

Research by Jane Davidson

Description written by Barbara Simms

Edited by Virginia Hinze, April 2009

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

Access contact details

The gardens are no longer open, following a change in ownership.This is worng ...


The site is 1 mile north-west of Lamberhurst, 8 miles south-east of Tunbridge Wells.


Maureen, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava


The origins of the house may go back to the pre-dissolution days and links with nearby Bayham Abbey. The present 16th-century tile-hung half-timbered house was used by smugglers from the coast know as ‘owlers', from which the house derives its name. It was acquired by the Marchioness of Dufferin in 1952, and the gardens have largely been developed since then.

The following text is taken from the Kent Compendium of Historic Parks and Gardens for Tunbridge Wells Borough:


Lamberhurst probably originated in the late Saxon period as a clearing in the Wealden Forest for swine pasture (CAA). There is little evidence of permanent settlement until a Chrism List (church accounts of fees for consecrated oil) of 1115 reference to ‘Lamberhurste' (meaning ‘a wooded hill for lambs, or lambing, near a stream'). The raising of sheep for wool flourished along the water meadows of the Teise Valley from the C13 and by the C15 the hamlet of Lamberhurst had become a village with cloth and cattle (and leather) industries. From the C16 to the C18 it was also an important centre for iron working and much of the area's woodland was felled to provide fuel for furnaces and clearings for hammer ponds (Hasted).

By 1522, a new house was built in a wooded area in the northern outskirts of Lamberhurst on land belonging to Bayham Abbey in nearby Sussex. Abbey accounts record that it was leased to a Thomas Wyliard for a yearly rental of one white cockerel (Young). Subsequent tenants were thought to have been night smugglers (owlers) involved in the illegal export of wool. In 1770 the property probably belonged to Elizabeth Wilson and her sisters, who owned the surrounding woodlands (1770 plan). By 1796 a drive to the house had been laid out, two ponds dug out and an orchard planted (Austen, Saxby and Playfoot). It is recorded as Owl House on the 1821 Greenwood map.

At the time of the 1841 Census a farmer, Stephen Whibley James Playfoot, and his family, occupied the property, then called Great Owley House. They were probably tenant farmers, as the Tithe Map of 1843 records an oast house to the immediate west of the house and its owner as a Richard Curteis Pomfret, a lessee of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester. Various members of the Playfoot or Whibley families lived there until at least 1861 (Census data), during which time gardens around the house were laid out and the property was known as Owl House (1st edn map). From then until World War One, there were three changes of ownership (Census data; Electoral Register), but no alterations are recorded to either the house or gardens (2nd and 3rd edn OS maps). A 1907 photograph shows a ramshackle cottage with fruit trees and a vegetable garden.

After World War One the house was sold to a Mr and Mrs Horace Haiselden followed by three subsequent owners before 1952. Owl House, together with the nearby farm of Little Owl House (about 23ha in total) were bought by Maureen, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava as her weekend estate. She renamed it The Owl House and described it at that time as having ‘no garden to speak of and only a ploughed field surrounded by woodland' (Brochure), and in 1954 she commissioned James Russell of Sunningdale Nurseries, Windlesham, to design the garden. The resulting partly walled, formal garden south of the house and the extensive, ornamental, woodland garden were completed by 1960 and were regularly opened to the public until 2005. It was also used as a wedding and party venue. The estate was inherited in 1998 by her grand-daughter Eugenia and her husband, the actor Julian Sands but in 2006 was offered for sale. The Owl House and the gardens immediately adjoining it were bought by the present owners and the coach house and two estate cottages were sold as separate private houses.The Sands retained the site of the (by then neglected) informal water and woodland gardens and a swimming pool complex around the C19 oast house. The property remains in multiple, private ownership.

Features & Designations




  • House (featured building)
  • Description: The house is a 16th-century tile-hung half-timbered house.
  • Earliest Date:
  • Latest Date:
  • Garden Terrace
  • Description: Around the house are flagged paths, terraces and planted borders as a setting to the attractive old house.
  • Lawn
  • Planting
  • Description: There is a woodland and wilderness garden, the acidic heathland soils being ideal for the collections of rhododendrons and azaleas and other shrubs that have been planted in the glades and walks.
  • Pond
  • Description: There is a series of former hammer ponds.
  • Woodland garden
  • Water Garden
  • Walled Garden
Key Information





Principal Building

Domestic / Residential





Civil Parish





  • Kent Gardens Trust