Yesterday I visited Owletts in Cobham, Kent for the final hour of what was to be an historic day for the house.
Sunday 2nd July 2023 was the last public National Trust opening by the Baker family of Owletts before they leave to start their new life in Sweden .
Owletts was bequeathed to the National Trust in the 1938 by the renowned British Architect Sir Herbert Baker who was born at the house in 1862 and also died there in 1946.
Herbert Baker received many honours durning his lifetime. He was knighted in 1926 and was awarded the British Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1927.
Owletts House was given to the National Trust with its owners carefully curated collection of art and artefacts . The collection has almost 3,000 items, which include fine examples of both his own and other designs from the arts and crafts era.
The oldest piece in the collection is a tapestry dating between 1530 to 50.
David Baker, a great grandson of Herbert Baker alongside his wife Bella and Daughters have been resident tenants since 2010 . I believe the Family had to leave the house due to an unsustainable rent increase by the National Trust and now after September future openings of Owletts appear to be uncertain .
From May 2023 Owletts opened on the first Sunday of each month and has always been staffed by a loyal group of passionate, knowledgeable volunteers who are now anxiously waiting for news of National Trust plans for Owletts and the Herbert Baker 'collection'.
When I last visited in June and I found the house full of energy with many visitors. Possibly the high numbers were because it was the closing day of the popular garden tearoom. Established by the Baker family with all profits went into maintaining and improving the gardens it was a wonderful addition to the Owlett visitor experience. After sampling the tea and cakes we realised just why their home made cakes were so popular. Fortunately I managed to grab a recipe card for Bella Bakers sought after Kladdkaka - Gooey Chocolate Brownie Cake.
Yesterday thought the house was very different. As soon as I walked through the front door I sensed an atmosphere. With none of the usual fresh flowers from the gardens in the rooms it seemed joyless. There was a strange sense of loss and sadness in every corner of Owletts.
Upstairs at the previously privately occupied rooms, closed doors were now flung open revealing stripped beds, the empty rooms now bereft of personal belongings. From the walls the painted faces of ancestors blankly stared at the onlookers who had ventured in to take a last glance before their family left for the last time .
Downstairs the rooms which had been welcoming strangers for so many years now felt inhospitable, it was as if the house had picked up the gloom from
the family and village.
I watched as Bella Baker closed the shutters of the rooms for one last time and saw both family and volunteers moved to tears.
Owletts has been a constant of village life in Cobham, occupied by the same family for as long as living memory, the sense of loss was palpable.
Camilla Baker, great-grand-daughter of Herbert Baker will still be living in the grounds of the house and is in the process of setting up the Herbert Baker Society. As well as Director of Herbert Baker Furniture she is part of the Lost Crafts venture and a Meditation Teacher.
I met Candy Balfour, another direct descendant of Sir Herbert Baker who was "minding the stairs" for the last time. We had a long and interesting conversation about the house and Baker family links to Rochester.
Candy pointed out to me the elaborate ceiling details from 1684 in both the upstairs hall and downstairs drawing room explaining further how the details refer to local agriculture and European Aesthetics.
Owletts staircase she believed identical to the one at Restoration House in Rochester and that possibly Charles Dickens referenced it in Great Expectations. Dickens most definitely would have visited the house as he had strong links to the village of Cobham. She also pointed out the two paintings of Rochester hung on the stairway.
I offered to take a photograph for her own memories, but she politely declined. She said she has many photos and memories, and showed me on my way out where the Christmas Tree always stood. I can only imagine how it must have felt for the family to hand the keys over to the National Trust of their ancestral beautiful home.
It was a privilege to look at previously private rooms and it is with respect and a desire to record their part of Owletts history that I am sharing these photos.
The house has two further openings planned for 3rd August or 6th September 11am - 17.00pm
Directions and visitors information Owletts National Trust
Further reading links -
More Baker family history and links to Satis House, Boley Hill, in Rochester
The House has Grade II Listed Status by Historic England
Herbert Baker is buried in Westminster Abbey
Sir Herbert Baker Biography Book
Herbert Baker the Bank of England rebuilding
Paintings at Owletts House
You Tube inside Owletts after the 2013 restoration project