We're delighted to welcome Ilona Harris, who joined the West Horsley Place Trust as Director at the start of November. She shares her first impressions, and her hopes for the future.

-What was your first visit to West Horsley Place like?

A- My first visit to West Horsley Place was actually to see an opera last summer. In a very serendipitous moment, more or less a week after I responded to the job advert, a friend, whose friend was singing, asked if I wanted to go to the opera. My first impression was a mix of wow, charm and relaxation. The formal gardens with the manor house as background were just lovely. I have to say the toilets really impressed too. For me they were a real exemplar of a place that cared about marrying the heritage and history of the building with high spec design and comfort.

Q- What made you want to join the team?

A- Well, the toilets obviously! In all seriousness, they were a good indication to me of how West Horsley Place saw itself – a custodian of beautiful, rich heritage combined with a progressive, modern, artistic-led organisation doing things with intent and purpose. The job itself appealed because it was the chance to create something, to build a place for people to access arts, culture, heritage and nature. Once I met the rest of the team, it was also clear that their spirit and passion for doing that was something good to get involved with.

Q -What are you most looking forward to in your new role? What have you enjoyed most so far?

A- I’ve loved going on all of the tours and hearing the stories of West Horsley Place. The volunteers are all completely joyous and infectious with their knowledge of the place and love for it. I have to say it was a total thrill to be told I was walking down the same staircase that Elizabeth I had walked down. Seeing my 5-year-old totally mesmerised by the story telling sessions I took her to was also a joy.  What I’m most looking forward to is helping to shape what comes next. There is so much potential and West Horsley Place is at the very beginning of its journey.

Q - What new challenges are you anticipating?

A- Starting something from nothing is always a challenge. It’s easy to be compared to places and organisations that have existed for much longer. In turn, that is financially challenging. As a young charity we will have to take small steps of advancement, rather than huge leaps.

Q- What is your favourite room or space at West Horsley Place and why? 

A- I won’t say the toilets again…..I love the Library. I think everyone who comes to the Manor House loves the Library. You exhale as you walk in, relaxing into its air of quiet and comfort. It’s a fantastically atmospheric room. Oddly it reminds me of my grandparents, not that they had a library or any room that looked like this. I think it’s the sense of calm comfort that it gives, somewhere where everything slows and you’re happy to just be, leaving the rest of the world and any troubles that might be there, outside, just for a bit.

The library window seatQ -What inspires you?

A- People who are relentlessly creative inspire me, always coming up with ideas and interesting thoughts to share. I love a brainstorm and a whiteboard. People who are kind and able to see the positive are inspiring. I met a lady at my Nan’s house once (she used to take in lodgers so there were always unusual people around) and in the chat we had, she said everyone notices when your bus doesn’t turn up or you just miss it and we think ‘typical’ but most never notice when you catch it just in time, or it arrives just as you get to the bus stop. It isn’t typical that the bus is late or missed. It’s just that we don’t notice when it isn’t. I loved that and think it’s completely true.

Q-What talent would you most like to possess?

A- I think I’d like to read people’s minds. Sometimes we all can, but sometimes we can’t. I like clarity and fairness and I think reading people’s minds would sometimes help achieve both.

Q-In another life you would have been?

A- My mum swears blind that I used to say I wanted to be a vet, which I didn’t, despite a love of dogs. I don’t know what I would have been. I fell into the career path I’ve had because I wanted to work in the arts but not as a practising artist. I think I would like to do something that’s an inherent skill with my hands, making something; a talent that I have rather than a job that could be done by lots of people. I did consider not long ago retraining as a hairdresser. It might seem a frivolous thing but I think transforming the way someone looks (and often women) to transform how they feel about themselves is actually quite fundamental and powerful.

Q- We have a huge range of events at here, which are your favourites? Or something you’re looking forward to?

A- I’m very much looking forward to the open air theatre in the summer. Equally the Surrey Hills Christmas Fair this weekend. Beyond that I’m looking forward to a full programme of events, exhibitions, walks, talks, tours and art in 2023. Watch this space!