Preston Manor Behind the Scenes

‘Basement to Bottle’ was the name of an extremely revealing behind the scenes tour of the Royal Pavilion that I was lucky enough to experience several years ago. It included a tour of the Pavilion’s extensive cellars along with a viewing of the dusty innards of the palace’s main dome.

Such tours of hidden areas in grand buildings are not about gleaming state rooms or sweeping staircases. They are about the areas that were originally inhabited by the servants who kept these stately homes in good order. In the case of Preston Manor, a new tour has been announced. I met up with local tour guide Sarah Tobias and Brighton & Hove City Council’s Museum Learning Officer Paula Wrightson for a sneak preview.

Preston Manor itself is somewhat of an enigma. Its exterior gives little away as to its age. Parts of the building actually date back to around 1600 and there has been a house on the site since at least the time of the Norman Conquest. The central portion dates from 1738, the year that the building was rebuilt by the then Lord of the Manor, Thomas Western (as in Western Road). Wings were added to the west and east in 1750. A large extension was added in 1905 and it was in this part of the building, at the end of the north-west corridor in particular, that my tour began.

A small brass bell marked ‘PRIVATE’ offers some clue as to what lies beyond. The rooms behind the tour currently serve as administrative areas. There is an office, store, toilet, kitchen and access to the basement. These areas are not glamorous but they are fascinating nevertheless.

The basement is extensive and contains all manner of treasures including an array of servants’ bells and stone door surrounds which are clearly very old. The best bit, however, is the cellar below which includes several huge vaulted areas. One of the rooms has been reinforced with heavy iron joists which may be explained that it was used as a communications centre during the Second World War. Secret stairs lead up to the very top of the house where a number of obscure spaces – boiling in the summer, freezing in the winter – were once home to the female servants.

One of these special tours will be taking place each month. To book a place, call the museum team on 03000 290900.