The northern-most region of Great Bookham is bounded by the River Mole and just inside this boundary is the Manor House of Slyfield. It is one of the most historic houses of Bookham going back to the early days of the fourteenth century and is one of the three great manor houses of Bookham. It would be easy to think of it as part of Stoke d’Abernon whose post code it now shares but its position is very much in the parish of Great Bookham.
The present house was rebuilt in the Jacobean period in 1615 in the reign of James I and just after the reign of Elizabeth I. The history of Slyfield goes back even further, probably fourteenth century. Edmund Slyfield of the sixteenth century was Sheriff of Surrey in charge of maintaining the law in the region. It was in 1614 that the Manor was sold by the Slyfield family and came into the possession of George Shiers, the apothecary to James I, dispensing the medicines of the day. It was under his ownership that the Manor house was rebuilt and exists to this day, some 400 years later. The memory of the Slyfields is preserved in the fifteenth century Slyfield Chapel of St Nicolas church where members of the family lie buried.
What remains is the house itself together with farmhouse and barns. In its original form there was a large Great Hall attached to the side of the house which linked to what is now known as the farmhouse. It is likely that much of this large farmhouse provided the living quarters for the many servants of the house. Nothing remains of the Great Hall.
When entering the house there is no sense of grandeur and size. It is relatively narrow as houses of that date did not have corridors leading to rooms – rooms took up the width of the house and a door from each leads into the next room. The ceilings, though magnificent, are not particularly high.
The overall impression is of being surrounded by oak panelling and magnificent wood beams, all produced with extraordinary skill and carving. There are deep plastered ceilings executed with great craftsmanship and the downstairs main room sports a marvellous ceiling with symbols of ‘plenty’. The arms of the Shiers’ family appear in the ceilings and on the walls.
At the base of the staircase are two magnificent carved gates standing some five foot high. Much of the carving gives the appearance of brickwork. The gates were there to contain the fierce guard dogs allowed to roam downstairs to mind the house. The staircase is beautifully carved in oak.
The bedrooms upstairs are in the same panelled style with plastered ceilings. The ceiling of the main bedroom is arched or vaulted but plastered similarly to the downstairs room. Another bedroom ceiling has a plaster figure symbolising ‘peace’.
Some of the original windows remain with their oak surrounds and sills including the large windows in the hallway and stairs and a small window still in place with wide oak frame and small glass panes. Some have been replaced with larger eighteenth century windows and in some cases original glasswork can still be seen. Most of the original windows would have been relatively small. In places some of the old windows have been bricked up on account of the window tax – a tax introduced at the end of the seventeenth century according to the number of windows in a house. Six windows represented one level, nine another and so on, an early form of council tax.
And of course a house of this age must have its ghosts. A picture of a donkey surrounded by a blue haze hangs downstairs next to the staircase. On November 14th at midnight the blue donkey is supposedly seen leaping over the gateway barring the stairs and vanishing at the top. Sleepless nights could well have been spent awaiting the event but certainly, recently, it has not been seen. It is suggested that a sighting may require a good previous visit to the local alehouse! An even longer visit may produce donkeys of even more extraordinary colours!
And then there is the haunted bedroom. Lying silently in bed the sound of hooves can be heard outside the window. Guests have remarked on hearing the sound of horses in the courtyard only to be told that no such thing occurred. It was in this room in the 1690’s that Sir John Fenwick is said to have taken refuge. He had taken part in a plot against king William III and had hoped to remain hidden in Slyfield as a safe house. He was pursued by the king’s men and found at the house and it is believed that the sound of their horses arriving in the yard still echoes through the house. He was tried for treason at the Tower and beheaded.
The southern aspect overlooks fields and to the side is a formal garden. The peace, tranquillity and grandeur is now unfortunately broken by the sound of the nearby motorway – how unsympathetic to history can planners be? It is sometimes suggested that Queen Elizabeth I visited the manor but this seems unlikely as she is far more likely to have chosen a far larger and grandiose palace such as Hampton Court and of course, it would have not been the house as it is today. Great Bookham is privileged to have such a piece of history in its bounds.