From Hampshire to Verbier - the homes of the Duchess of York
"Your home should tell the story of who you are, and be a collection of what you love brought together under one roof" (Nate Berkus)
"A house is made with walls and beams; a home is built with love and dreams" (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
When we think back to different times of our lives, we define them by where we were living. A house isn't just bricks and mortar; it's bound up with memories and emotions. A house takes on the life and personality of it's occupants.
So I thought it could be fun to examine the full and eventful life of the Duchess of York through the lens of the houses she's lived in. And as we move from country farmhouse to terraced street to royal palace and to the Swiss Alpes, we'll find descriptions, memories, photos of the houses and of Sarah herself at the stages of her life that each abode represents.
Dummer Down Farm (1969 - 1980)
Dummer Down Farm wasn't Sarah's first childhood home. That was Lowood House in Berkshire, "a big white Edwardian house". However, it is certainly the place she most identifies with when looking back at her childhood.
She was 10 when the Fergusons moved to this big farmhouse surrounded by 800 acres of beautiful green land on rolling hills, perfectly for this pony-mad little girl and her sister to be out all day, riding, playing, and living an idyllic outdoor life. This is also the heart of "Jane Austen country", not far from the village where the great novelist grew up.
Dummer is a beautiful village of old thatched houses, and it's an easy day trip from London. There's even a public footpath that passes quite close to the house itself, so if anybody wants to see the house where the Duchess of York grew up, I can thoroughly recommend it, especially if you also fancy a hike in some magnificent English countryside!
40 Lavender Gardens, Clapham, London (1980 - 86)
In her early 20s, Sarah moved to London, where she worked in PR and later publishing.
In her autobiography, she describes Lavender Gardens as "a nondescript brick townhouse... on the wrong side of the river". While it is south of the river (just), it's in fact only a short distance from Chelsea on the north side, so it was easy for Sarah to take part in the "Sloane Ranger" social scene of upper class London. In her autobiography, Sarah talks of nights out at jazz bars and restaurants ("I loved to be bathed in sound and rhythm").
Her housemate at Lavender Gardens was Carolyn Beckwith-Smith (Carolyn Cotterell after her marriage in 1986). In "My Story", Sarah describes her as "my best friend, my guardian angel" and says "every day she would listen to my problems, which were as legion and twisted as ever". After getting married the same year as Sarah, Carolyn supported her friend in her new life, becoming one of her Ladies in Waiting.
Tragically Sarah would later lose Carolyn to cancer in 1999, but she will never be forgotten. In fact, the Duchess listed her (alongside Diana, her mother and her daughters) when she tweeted about great women in her life for International Women's Day 2019.
During Sarah's romance with Andrew, he would visit her at the little terraced house, with the Royal Protection Officer sat in the car outside, covering the entrance. Carolyn was sworn to secrecy about her flatmate's royal romance, and, good friend that she was, never said a word!
Buckingham Palace (1986 - late 80s)
Certainly the most famous of Sarah's homes, and according to her, perhaps the least pleasant to love in!
After the Duke and Duchess were married, while their future residence of Sunninghill was still being constructed, they started out living "above the shop" at Buckingham Palace. It's safe to say that Sarah didn't like it much...
She wrote: "Lunch and supper had to be ordered from our menus the night before, or at the very latest first thing in the morning. Suppertime was 7.30 but by the time the meal arrived the footman would be weary and my grilled fish invariably cold, for the kitchen sat in a distant wing of the palace". Then the chef would finish for the night and there was no access to the kitchen, no possibility to grab some toast if you're peckish, as we all can in ordinary life.
In addition to this, the heating system followed a rigid timetable, and windows facing the mall could not be opened, to preserve the unity of the picture postcard view. And daily life would be interrupted by the shouts of tourists and by the Changing of the Guard. With her husband frequently away in naval duty, the Duchess felt isolated.
Eventually she was offered a refuge by Queen Noor of Jordan, who generously let the Yorks stay at Kingswood House, the still vacant country house that had been bought for her children. It became a weekend escape for the Royal couple, as they awaited the construction of Sunninghill, and a temporary family home after the birth of Princess Beatrice in 1988.
Sunninghill Park (1990-2006)
Finally, in 1990, not long after the birth of Princess Eugenie, the Duke and Duchess moved into their newly built marital home, which was a wedding present from HM the Queen.
The first newly constructed Royal residence for over 100 years, the house was set in a 650-acre estate, adjoining Windsor Great Park, and had six reception rooms, 12 bedrooms, and 12 bathrooms. It also boasted a swimming pool, tennis courts and stables, and was perfectly situated for attending receptions at Windsor Castle, racing at Royal Ascot and polo at the Guards Club.
Sunninghill was designed by the Balmoral Estate Architect Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith, but the Duke and Duchess were closely involved in planning the project, and it was a house to reflect the royal couple's style and personality.
Chris Hitchins, in his book "Fergie Confidential", gives us the following description:
"No one could have failed to be impressed by the magnificence of Sunninghill once they ... stood on the natural stone floor of the vast white entrance hall crowned by a glass-domed ceiling... Its refreshing combination of old and new made it as special as anything else with the A&S brand on it".
The interior designer was Nina Campbell, who given permission to select unused furniture and art from Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle to decorate the new house. According to Hitchens, personal touches included framed photographs taken by the Duke, and the Duchess added cuddly teddy bears to the big comfortable sofas, while her peach-coloured bathroom contained a huge marble bathtub. For the housewarming party, a marquee was erected in the grounds, and Elton John, a good friend of the Yorks, entertained the guests with a live performance.
Sunninghill was important for the Yorks - their first proper family home, and the house where Beatrice and Eugenie spent most of their childhood.
In 2003 Prince Andrew took up residence at Royal Lodge, the stately home that had been the Queen Mother's residence, while Sarah stayed at Sunninghill. The Princesses officially lived with him, but spent time at both residences (which were only 5 minutes drive apart anyway), whenever they were home from boarding school.
In 2006, the Duchess joined the Duke at Royal Lodge. Despite their divorce, the couple were close, and being good parents to their girls always came first, so sharing the same residence made sense. Besides, in a 30-room mansion like this one, there was space for privacy and also space to come together as a family.
Sadly, Sunninghill remained disused for many years and fell into disrepair. Eventually the estate was bought by a Kazahk businessman and the house was demolished in 2014. It's sad to think of the ultimate fate of Sunninghill. Our houses are repositories of memories and emotions, and it must have been tough on the Yorks to contemplate the end of this special family home.
But they would always have the memories, and it was time for the York family to move forward to a new era - the beautiful, historical palace of Royal Lodge, and soon, a magnificent second home in the Swiss Alpes!
But first we need to take a detour to the Big Apple...
5th Avenue, New York City (early 2000s to around 2008)
During this period, the Duchess had significant business interests in the USA, including being the face of companies like Weightwatchers and Westfield, and earning fees from public speaking engagements. She was a divorced single mother and needed to support herself and contribute to her daughters' upbringing, so she was forced to spend long periods away from home. Clearly she needed an American bolthole, and what better place than New York's most famous street!
Sarah's rented apartment was high in a luxury block with a wonderful view over Central Park. Viewers of the "Duchess in Hull" documentary caught a glimpse of Sarah's pad, but I have struggled to find pictures for this article. As she admitted in the documentary, it was tough on her being so far away from her girls, but she is a strong and resilient person, and made the most of it.
Around 2008, with her business interests affected by the global financial crisis, Sarah could not longer afford to keep up the flat, making Royal Lodge (at least for the moment) her only permanent home.
Royal Lodge (2006 to present)
Whilst a house has been present on the site since the 17th Century, the current building dates mostly from the 1840s. It is a Grade II listed building, set in 92 acres of grounds in Windsor Great Park, around 3 miles from the Castle. The main building has some 30 rooms, including 7 bedrooms, and a saloon (48' by 30' by 30'). The home's previous resident had been the Queen Mother, who had lived there for many years, right up to her death in 2002 at the age of 101.
Before the Duke moved in, an extensive £7.5m renovation was carried out, modernising the property and building an indoor swimming pool and a driving range for the golf-mad Prince. The Duchess moved in three years after him in 2006.
One curious feature on the Royal Lodge estate is "Y Bwthyn Bach", a miniature cottage that was presented as a gift to Princess Elizabeth as a child from the people of Wales in 1932. In this YouTube clip, Princess Beatrice shows us the cottage and explains its history: https://youtu.be/lOZiMaedlgI Royal Lodge played an important role in one of the happiest moments of the recent history of the York family - the wedding of Princess Eugenie and Mr. Jack Brooksbank. The house was the setting for the black-tie reception on the evening of the wedding, and then the next day the revelry continued with a carnival-themed party in the grounds featuring fair ground rides and a big marquee.
Royal Lodge remains the primary home of the Duke and Duchess of York, although, as we all know, they also have a luxury ski chalet in Switzerland. Before having a look around the beautiful Chalet Helara, let's first take the much shorter 25-mile trip from Windsor into London's opulent Belgravia district...
Eaton Square, Belgravia, London (early 2010s to present?)
In addition to business meetings and shopping trips in London, the Duchess is a very sociable person, and enjoys the capital's upscale restaurants and nightspots. She is often seen (sometimes with one of her daughters) at Annabel's, Mossiman's, the Chiltern Firehouse and many other haunts favoured by the capital's elite.
No doubt Sarah was keen to have a place of her own in London, rather than either relying on a hotel such as the Lanesborough (where she has often stayed the night in the past) or being driven back to Royal Lodge late at night.
So at some point in the early 2010s, she began renting a place in Eaton Square, a highly prestigious address in the heart of Belgravia. We don't know many details, but in this article, the Daily Express speculated on the basis of another Eaton Square property: https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/property/898210/sarah-ferguson-news-prince-andrew-eaton-square-home
They estimated the rent at around £15,000 pcm, and the pictures (seen here) of the other property might give us some idea as to how the interior of the York flat might look.
Chalet Helora, Verbier, Switzerland
Skiing has always been a big part of Sarah's life. As a child, the family would go to Switzerland or France every year, visiting resorts such as Zurs, Courchevel, Meribel, and also the Swiss resort that would become throughout her life her sanctuary, her home from home.
This was Verbier, described by the Daily Mail as "the most exclusive ski resort in the world" and "a playground for the rich and a place where the famous go to be seen". She first fell in love with the place in her early 20s, when she was going out with F1 tycoon Paddy MacNally, who had a huge luxurious chalet there, where he would throw famous parties. Verbier in the 80s was apparently known as "Chelsea-on-skis" for its popularity with the young London jet set, the "Sloane Rangers".
Later, after her marriage, Sarah and Andrew often joined the Wales family at Klosters, traditionally a more popular resort with the Royals. But there were still frequent trips to Verbier. In fact, Sarah really needed her ski trips to escape the stress and pressure of her life. As she says in 'My Story', "I refused to stop doing what I had done all my life, no matter how much the press reviled me for my foreign vacations. My skiing kept me sane".
As time went, the Yorks began to visit Verbier more and more as a family, and, finally, in January 2015, the Duke and Duchess spent around £13m on their joint purchase of the opulent Chalet Helara.
The luxury chalet has seven bedrooms and a terrace with spectacular views of the Swiss mountains. The master bedroom has an en suite bathroom. There is also a large indoor swimming pool with sauna, bar and floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of the surrounding mountains. A staff of six is required to look after the family's needs and keep everything running smoothly.
The Yorks were understandably proud of their new holiday home, and used a beautiful photo of it to illustrate the front of their family Christmas card for 2015. I was privileged to receive this card, and I've included a photo of it below!
In August 2015, the press reported that Sarah was becoming a Swiss resident, a sensible measure in terms of significantly reducing her tax bill. However, contrary to reports, she never moved out of Royal Lodge, and continues to live there, whenever she's in England.
Around this time, she gave an interview to Swiss paper 'Le Nouvelliste': “Since my first visit, I have regularly returned for holidays to Verbier. My family has followed me over the years. We feel free and happy, we feel at home. I find here a positive energy that allows me to focus on new philanthropic activities".
And that brings us up to date. Nowadays, the Duchess divides her time between England and Switzerland. At Royal Lodge, she enjoys the relaxing atmosphere of a traditional English country house, surrounded by the green tranquillity of Windsor Great Park, with London and the Belgravia flat just a short drive away. At Chalet Helara, she looks out at the Swiss mountains she has loved since childhood, with skiing in the winter and Alpine meadows in summer. At both locations she frequently shares the company of her beloved family - Andrew, Beatrice and Eugenie.
Both Royal Lodge and Chalet Helara are more than houses - they are homes, and, in Emerson's words, "built with love and dreams", and I wish the Duchess and her family many years of happiness in both!