The Theatre in the Woods: Timeline

Supplementing the Tales from the Theatrical Woods, here is the story of the three hectic years that culminated in a new opera house.

Peter Grimes


Jun / Jul Grange Park Opera stages its 17th festival in Hampshire.
2 Jul Mary Innes-Ker, Duchess of Roxburghe, dies aged 99. Her grand-father was a prime-minister and King George V, her godfather. Her grand-nephew Bamber Gascoigne is her residual legatee.

Duchess of Roxburghe


9 Mar After a year of discussions with the landlord, the Hampshire lease is terminated
21 Mar  Ivano Ruggeri  reads about West Horsley Place on Twitter


Early April Mary & Alexander Creswell make the first visit and have the magical idea of hiding a new opera house in the woods behind this shy door.


12 April Mary & Alex take Stephen & Joanna

Joanna Barlow reported We had the best day possible yesterday touring West Horsley. I have to tell you we were all bewitched. Alex took some photographs but nothing can really convey the gorgeous ancient quality of that unspoilt place.

1 It is under an hour from London.
2 It has SO many possibilities for places to erect temporary or permanent structures.
3 The interior is very very old and fabulously shabby but watertight and splendid and faded.
4 The kitchens and larders and pantries alone are big enough to hold 5 families of ten.
5 The crinkle crankle walls and walled gardens and parterres and secret corners and orchards and rose gardens and paths (all in v good nick) are perfect for picnicking, wandering and being. And of course an opera house.
6 The road which leads to the house goes straight past it towards woods below crinkle crankle wall. The woods are not old but coppiced tangly nothings
7 You will adore it. It has a seductive zeitgeist, and rose coloured brick and tall trees and enough room all round.
8 The Great Hall is a long large drawing room. You could do a small concert. The Bechstein grand was in good voice despite Pat the Housekeeper saying it hadn’t been tuned for 27 years.

Mary and Alex were kindness itself and we stayed with them far too long.


Stephen Barlow reported We adore the Cresswells. Perfect people. Want to see them and their children at least once a week for ever. I’m sure both m’wife the Empress and Mary perhaps will write, so this is my own perspective.

  1. I’m hugely taken with the positioning, ambience, variety of spaces and outlooks, and logistical potential. It’s perfect in many ways. 
  2. The House; It’s all in a state of disrepair but incredibly beautiful and liveable disrepair. It’s impossible not to fall in love with it as it is – it’s waiting to be admired, and used, and loved. 
  3. Grounds. Frankly, the crinkle-crankle walled meadow is incredibly inviting!

The BIG idea. I really see the possibility of a permanent medium-size operation here, carefully chosen brand of modest Wagner, Verdi, monteverdi through to Mozart etc.  

All the regional/funding/demographics stuff is for your mekon like brain. But you and Ivano must go and see it as soon as you can. I want to talk to you about it!


Saturday 2 May GPO trustees visit and propose to Bamber & Christina Gascoigne


13 May Planning consultant Iain Rhind and builder Martin Smith visit WHP
7 May Sotheby holds a two day sale of the Duchess’ most precious objects. Bamber’s introduction reads as follows: “West Horsley Place played an integral part in my aunt Mary Roxburghe’s fascinating life. It was completely unexpected by me that I would be heir to her estate. She had expressed that, given the work required to restore the house, she expected I would sell it. But having spent many memorable times with my aunt here, and knowing how special the house was to her and her family, together with my wife I decided to take up the challenge of carrying out the essential work to the house to ensure that it can withstand what may lie ahead over the course of its future, and continue to stand as a monument of its remarkable past.”
Jun / July Grange Park Opera stages its 18th festival:
1 Jul Three architects are interviewed by David Lloyd Jones, Iain Rhind, Mary Creswell, Wasfi Kani. Their brief is a horseshoe opera house with a small footprint. This is green belt.

BBC Proms

25 July Grange Park Opera’s production of Fiddler on the Roof is staged at the Proms with Bryn Terfel as the milkman Tevye
Oct / Nov Preliminary meetings with Guildford Borough Council at which we present The Theatre in the Woods
11 Nov Plans for the new opera house announced

Joanna’s statement The shock of being told that our time was up at The Grange was so great that for a short moment I felt nothing could replace that sublime setting. Hearts set at zero, and searching frantically for somewhere else to go, we went to see West Horsley Place which has the unarguable advantage of being only 23 miles from London with a nearby train station.

Nothing could prepare us for the quite stunning house and gardens: slightly faded from its former glory it has everything one could dream of. A glorious and sprawling ancient house, grand but welcoming, formal gardens with secret corners for picnickers and gazebos, a sense of history and occasion, a crinkle crinkle wall extending the length of one garden and beyond into the orchard (too majestic to describe) and barns and outbuildings and aged trees and box hedges. And the 17th century brick dog kennels. And I forgot to mention the pig houses. Four sows and one boar.

Being given to ridiculous statements I can only say that it felt as thought the place was waiting for us, and that the fates had foreseen that which we of Grange Park Opera never could have imagined.

West Horsley Place was waiting to be reborn through the generosity of Bamber Gascoigne, and the energy and passion of everyone who loves and supports Grange Park Opera. 

Tears dried, I am now completely thrilled as we turn a new page; whatever happens now will be a gift to lovers of opera, as well as the young audiences who will be attracted to all the other projects and events which will breathe new life into this demi–Eden.

Soon can not come soon enough.

Bamber’s statement I have had two very great surprises in the past eighteen months. The first was discovering that I had been left, by a 99-year-old aunt, a beautiful house in the country. A week after her death I received a request to go to a solicitor’s office. On arrival I was handed her will. I did my best to look calm and collected while they provided a cup of coffee and biscuits.

The other great surprise was provided by Grange Park Opera. A small group of their trustees paid a visit. Again over coffee and biscuits, they described their proposal and asked Christina and me if it might be acceptable. It didn’t take us long to say ‘Yes, indeed’. It isn’t every day that you are invited to have an opera house in your garden.

It was obvious from the start that West Horsley Place is perfect for an opera festival. They are planning to build the theatre tucked away romantically in a wood. A short path through the wood will bring opera-goers to our orchard, a magical place of amazingly old fruit trees, perfect for a picnic. A wrought-iron gate leads visitors into semi-formal gardens, areas of mown grass separated by ancient box hedges, which I can imagine already full of the bright tented pavilions for which Grange Park Opera is famous.

And then the house itself. Amazing… and I could go on and on. But it is enough to say that the ground floor, an unbroken sequence of Tudor stone flags leading into the garden, has space for 150 people to dine in luxury. Roll on the first night!

17 Nov First fundraising meeting

Theatre Model


4 Jan Submission of planning application
11 Jan Launch of  £10m Appeal to build the Theatre in the Woods
3 Mar Michael & Hilary Cowan pledge £1m taking the appeal to £4.1m
From March 2016 we kept the family up-to-date with Tales from the Theatrical Woods, written mainly by architect David Lloyd Jones with odd chapters by Wasfi.
10 May Fundraising = £4.7m
18 May  Guildford Borough Council vote to approve permission
31 May  Final permission given by the Secretary of State
1 Jun Fundraising = £4.9m

Jun / July Grange Park Opera stages its 19th festival, the last in Hampshire
20 June Martin Smith starts work on site
23 June  UK referendum on membership of the EU
15 July 107 of 146 concrete piles are completed
16 July Fundraising = £6.1m
5 Sep Steelwork commences
13 Sep The Duchess’ ashes are placed embedded in the orchestra pit
27 Oct Steelwork complete
12 Nov Topping Out: Claire Rutter sings
21 Nov External blockwork commences
Christmas The building is watertight



January 25: Tanking complete
February 8: Cooling labyrinth blockwork commences
February 13: Blue spider arrives laying stalls slabs over labyrinth
March 17: Blue spider leaves


April 28: Seats installed. Nicky Haslam chooses the door colour and sketches a design for the proscenium.

Tricia Guild of Designers Guild chooses the interior colour: Purple Basil


5 June First performance in the new opera house: a dress rehearsal for the builders who had created the miracle

Tosca 2017

8 June  Grange Park Opera’s 20th festival (the 1st in Surrey) opens with Tosca starring Joseph Calleja. Teresa May holds a General Election for the same night.
15 Jul The final performance of the season is Die Walkure
 29 Jul The £10m Appeal target is achieved but we decide to go a bit further



Lavatorium Rotundum

22 Sep Planning consent granted for the Lavatorium Rotundum
30 Sep Six mature quince trees planted and a few tiny apple trees grown from orchard seeds by Baschea from Cottage
1 Oct foundations for the Lav Rot commence and Joiners Konrad and Lucien return to work on the interior: their first task is to line the five storey wall of the Cowan Vestibule. Trish Guild has chosen a greyish damson colour and there are mirrors between the doors so you can see around the curve of the vestibule

Read more in Tales from the Theatrical Woods