One of the National Trust’s smallest houses is also one of its best
Smallhythe Place, Kent, is full of drama
I am lucky to live in an area of Kent which is surrounded by multiple wonderful National Trust properties. We have family membership and regularly visit old and new sites for a day out.
My favourite are those which give you a real sense of the owners’ lives, especially if they were creative, like Rudyard Kipling at Bateman’s, Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst, or Henry James at Lamb House, all of which are near my home.
But it turns out, another neighbouring home, one of the National Trust’s smallest houses – called Smallhythe Place - is also one of its most charming.
Just outside the lovely market town of Tenterden, Smallhythe Place is the former home of famous Victorian actress, Ellen Terry. It’s a wonky Tudor beamed house, which sits right alongside the road, so at first you zoom past it, unaware this could be a National Trust property. There’s no crunchy gravel drive, or long country approach, here. Instead you have to perilously park on the side of the road and pick your way back to the rickety front gate.
But it wasn’t always so - when inside, you learn that Small Hythe was once a mighty medieval shipbuilding centre, along what was then the great River Rother (now a trickle). The house is thought to have been built in the 1500s and believed to have been the port official’s home.
Terry – once one of the world’s most famous actresses – fell in love with the house as she rode past it in a horse and trap and left a message that if it ever came up for sale, she would buy it. It did and she moved in in 1899. Extraordinarily famous in her day, the home became a retreat from the stage and after her death, her daughter turned it into a museum and converted the 17th-century barn behind it, into a mini-theatre, which still puts on performances today, with Joanna Lumley as patron.
Inside the house, you can see Terry’s preserved treasures, costumes (usually including her famous Lady Macbeth Beetle Wing Dress, a spiderweb costume which caused a sensation in its day; although this was being restored when we visited) and possessions.
Her boudoir is the most interesting, with the school desk her children used for lessons, her dressing table and a tray set for afternoon tea. She had a fresh posy of flowers on the tray every day and the staff still continue this tradition. Special mention goes to her “travelling day bed”, which she packed up and took on tour, so she could lounge in comfort.
It’s a charming little house and despite visiting much bigger properties, with much more famous former inhabitants, this house fascinated all of our party the most, from eight to 80. Put it on your to-visit list, if you are in Sussex or Kent.
I’ll definitely be back and will be booking a ticket to the Barn Theatre, as it looks to be a magical place to see a show.
The Travel List
What is it: Smallhythe Place is a small National Trust property, which is a museum to the Victorian actress Ellen Terry.
Where is it: Just outside Tenterden, Kent, between the market town and Rye.
Opening times: Check the website before you visit, as the house is open from 11am, on select dates. Visit national trust.org.uk for more details.
How to see a show: Book tickets for the Barn Theatre, here.
Get in touch: Do you have a favourite place in Britain, or would you like me to visit somewhere in particular? I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading The British Travel List! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.