The West Wing of Malling Deanery is a beautiful and quite magnificent building.
Driving up to and through its large pillared gates onto the gravel driveway is nothing short of thrilling. The house has a presence of its own; it is large but not overbearing, situated perfectly at the end of Church Lane in Lewes in stunning grounds of around four acres which come to an end on the River Ouse. Picturesque doesn’t do it justice.
The owner Michael Richards, a retired academic and psychotherapist, has lived in and near Lewes for over 50 years and came to the area originally to join the staff at “the then new University of Sussex”. He bought the West Wing of Malling Deanery with his wife Janet 12 years ago.
Michael knows the history of the Deanery very well and he explained a little of this to me when I met him:
“As well as the Cluniac Priory in Southover, Lewes had another ecclesiastical suburb in South Malling, a Western outpost of the archdiocese of Canterbury. Its activities were presided over by the college of secular (i.e. non-monastic) clergy who resided together in a Deanery. This community, like the Cluniac Priory, was closed down in the Reformation and the Deanery passed into the ownership of various local worthies like John Evelyn the diarist and Dr (“sea water”) Russell. It was rebuilt around 1640 in the Jacobean style, similar to the large house in nearby Streat.
Unlike [the large house in Streat], Malling Deanery was “Georgianised” in the 18th Century when brick replaced stone as the preferred building material. In 1907, it was enlarged by the addition of West and East wings in the same Georgian style. In 1970, it was divided into three wings and I am the second owner of the West Wing.”
Michael is devoted to his impressive fruit and vegetable garden
When I arrive, he has prepared us a three-course lunch which includes an array of delicious home-grown produce. Exploring this part of the garden is Michael’s favourite thing to do when arriving home. “I usually nip [straight] into my vegetable garden to see what’s ready to eat!” he says.
We eat in his kitchen which, despite its grand size, is warm and welcoming. It has been beautifully decorated with William Morris wallpaper, deep green cabinets and large lights which hang down from the ceiling. Michael chats to me about The Lewes Home with genuine interest. He is a kind, inquisitive and reflective man, I like him enormously.
Exploring the West Wing
After lunch, Michael takes me on a tour of the house. As we leave the kitchen we pass through a cosy and inviting living room before arriving in his study. He is clearly most comfortable here. Michael loves to be surrounded by books and treasures how they remind him of the “internal journey that [they] chart”.
Touring the house, Michael speaks fondly of how he and his wife have made use of the space over the years – often by accommodating beloved children and grandchildren – but fascinatingly, Michael describes how he and Janet had some wonderful parties at the West Wing.
A House Full of Culture and Life
For 8 years, Michael and Janet housed Glyndebourne singers as lodgers. The singers would give informal recitals in the glorious first floor reception room, including one performance for Michael and Janet’s silver wedding anniversary. Other friends of the couple who worked as professional musicians would also perform in this same room, which can comfortably accommodate 70 people. Michael also describes the talks that were held here as well as a play about the monks’ reaction to the dissolution of the monasteries which then went on to the Edinburgh Fringe. Standing in the room as Michael describes the events that have taken place there is a remarkable experience; looking over at the beautiful piano and the vast space around it, I can quite imagine the buzz of those performances and the joy and delight that would have been experienced there.
I find myself more than once pausing to touch the walls, the fireplaces, the original panelling, almost trying to soak up some of the history and to imagine myself at one of the fabulous recitals that took place at the house.
One of my favourite features of this great room is “the couch”, that is, the chaise longue Michael used for his patients as a practising psychotherapist. Its so perfectly situated in this room full of memories and stories.
Beyond this incredible space I visit five bedrooms, one – the master bedroom – with a particularly striking fireplace. The first floor bathroom is another talking point. It is a space which evokes instant calm, the central free-standing bath is pure luxury and Michael comments on how he loves to relax there, although he does make me laugh with his stories of more than one flood he has caused by overfilling the bath – once whilst he was sitting in it!
As well as the building being a fascinating space, its owner Michael is equally as fascinating. He took some time out to answer a few questions for the Lewes Home.
Tell us a little about yourself…
I was brought up in a religiously active family where academic achievement was highly valued by one parent and kindness by the other. These values led me to have two careers: first as an academic teaching and researching physics and second as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. More significantly, I have had two marriages, the first one of which produced my two sons.
What makes Lewes Special for you?
I love Lewes’ history and quirkiness. I also like living in a place small enough to keep seeing familiar faces but large enough to keep meeting new ones.
What is your favourite place in Lewes and Why?
Two places that mean a lot to me are my church, St. Michael’s, where much of my internal journey has taken place and the Southdown Club where I have enjoyed many friendly battles on the squash and tennis courts.
Is there a period in architectural history that you are particularly fond of? Why?
I particularly enjoy the Arts and Crafts movement when Victorian elaboration gave way to something more practical and attractive.
Apart from your own home, can you tell me about another Lewes house that always catches your eye – what do you love about it?
I lived in Undercliffe house for a year when my first marriage failed and enjoyed its unusual position and its Arts and Crafts style.
Before I leave, Michael shows me his beloved fruit and vegetable garden – he even picks some green beans for me to take home. Of course there is more to the garden, it is a large landscape and I am told that one section of the garden is actually an arboretum – a botanical garden devoted entirely to trees. Most years a local arboriculturalist who works at Kew Gardens holds a guided tour of it – followed by a drinks party of course!
Walking right down the garden onto the banks of the Ouse is a perfect finishing touch to exploring this glorious Lewes Home. As I pull out of the driveway, I pause to look back at the house. I have found it, as I am sure have many others, an absolute pleasure to spend time there and hope to visit Michael again soon.
Malling Deanery, West Wing is for sale with Strutt and Parker.