London’s hidden houses
Author, photographer, broadcaster and campaigner Lucinda Lambton goes in search of the hidden country houses of Greater London and unearths some unexpected jewels that have somehow survived the rampages of modern development
Barking and Dagenham, Carshalton, Bexley Heath and Ickenham: these are not usually names to conjure up visions of the great English country house. What few seem to realise, however, is that as these areas were once prime countryside close to the great metropolis, they were also peppered with the villas and estates of the metropolitan rich. This means that they are now rich hunting grounds for architectural excellence, and their surviving historic buildings are rendered all the more precious by their prosaic and suburban surroundings today.
How I gnash my teeth at those who sneer at the suburbs, for we ought to celebrate the extraordinary survivors they contain. What, for example, could be more intoxicating than to suddenly spot the Tudor tower, chimneys and gables of Eastbury Manor, defiantly proclaiming their presence among the housing estate in Barking? First glimpsed from the elevated A13, it is still a shock when, having battled through a sad, industrial no man’s land, you find how miraculously this great pile has escaped the gobbling jaws of London, despite their chomping up to its very door.
Dating from the mid-16th century (the timbers used in the building of Eastbury were felled in the spring of 1566), its delicate bricks would undoubtedly have witnessed Queen Elizabeth I’s progress to Tilbury Docks — on what is now the thundering A123, a few yards away — to give heart to her army of 20,000 men on the eve of the Spanish Armada.
After a steady decline over the centuries, by the mid-19th century Eastbury was a gauntly ruinous farmhouse only saved from collapse by the aptly named antiquarian Edward Sage, who wisely persuaded farmer Wassy Sterry not to pull it down. Sterry died insane a year later, but Eastbury lived on to be repaired by the Society of Ancient Buildings during the First World War. The house is now owned by the National Trust and it is a heartening experience to sit in its garden, surrounded on all sides by the development that so could easily have overcome it.
It is my view, satisfyingly confirmed over the past 40 years, that however unexpected the surroundings, architectural treasures are waiting to be nosed out around every corner, such as Valence House, slap bang in the middle of Dagenham’s Becontree estate, the world’s largest council-housing estate, built as ‘Homes for Heroes’ after the First World War. In 1921-34, all the old manors, farms, and cottages of the parishes of Dagenham and Barking in Essex were compulsorily purchased, and the countryside was engulfed by the 25,000 houses and some 10,000 souls who came to live in them.
Scant evidence of the past has remained in these parishes, save, that is, for Valence House. It is no mean experience to be in the middle of semi-detached houses one minute, then to be instantly plunged into the rarefied atmosphere of a handsomely panelled room, which is hung heavy with 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century portraits by the great masters of their day
Faces of the family who owned a house here from the 1200s onwards all stare forth from the walls. They are the Fanshaws – members of parliament, writers, participants and prisoners of the Civil War, as well as ambassadors and scholars, and key figures in the royal households. Sir Thomas Fanshaw and his wife Margaret were both painted by Peter Lely. Her father, Sir Edward Heath, fortified Oxford in the Civil War when it was the capital of royalist England and headquarters of the King’s army.
Most interesting of all is Sir Richard — royalist, poet, scholar and linguist — who was sent as an emissary to Portugal to negotiate the marriage to Catherine of Braganza. There are portraits by Marc Gheeraedts (both the elder and the younger), and by Sir Godfrey Kneller, as well as six more by Lely.
Go west to Ickenham. There, hard by Breakespear Road – named after Nicholas Breakespear, who in 1154 was the only Englishman to be made a pope — stands Swakeleys, as fine a 17th-century house as any to be found in the country. It was built between 1629 and 1638 by Edmund Wright, and bought by Sir Robert Vyner in 1665.
In that year, the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of going “merrily to Swakely”, where his host displayed a startling sight: “He showed me a black boy that had died of consumption, and being dead, he caused him to be dried in an oven, and lies there entire in a box.” The house has had many owners, including the Gilbey family of Gilbey’s gin, and the Foreign Office Sports Association. The Frischmann family now owns it.
To the north is Arnos Grove, at Southgate, where stands 15 Cannon Hill. This vast red-brick 1920s and 1930s neo-Georgian development initially gives no hint of what is in store, until you realise that there is an 18th-century house engulfed by these 20th-century surroundings.
With its seven-bay front of dark brick, its cupola and pedimented doorways, it stands in delicate contrast to its brighter and brasher additions. This was once the Arnold’s estate, which was acquired by James Colebrook in 1719, when he built the house. The north wing was added in 1765 by Sir Robert Taylor for Sir George Colebrook, the south wing was built a little later, for Lord Newhaven.
As it is now a care home for the elderly, your architectural expectations are not high, but walk through the door and you are bowled over by sweeps of Baroque muralled splendour, painted in 1723 by the Flemish Gerard Lanscroon, who worked as an assistant of Verrio at Hampton Court and Windsor Castle. Here, smothering the walls of a double-height entrance hall, are paintings of Apollo and the Muses, as well as Julius Caesar’s Triumphant Progress in Rome. On the ceilings is The Apotheosis of Caesar.
Here, an angel blows a trumpet; there, silver urns are borne in palanquins. There are incense burning candlesticks of silver, and there are golden-capitaled Corinthian columns, draped with blue ribbons and roses. A handsomely feathered Indian looks on, beside a woman in bejewelled finery, and a large Turk looks out from a window. All these figures are there to honour Caesar, trying to catch a glimpse of the emperor amid the architecture of Rome, with an obelisk, pyramid and temple. All, I fear, are trying in vain because in the 1930s Caesar was mostly cut out to make a door.
Pity these crowds forever frozen in the vain hope of catching a sight of him, but only able to see the one arm and leg that remain.
Ham House in Richmond, extended in 1672 by the Duchess of Lauderdale, “profuse in her expense and of a most ravenous covetousness”, is well known. What is less well known, however, is Ham’s dairy, with life-size cows’ legs — hocks and hooves, and with a little beard on each fetlock — supporting the marble shelves.
Buildings like these, once attached to grand estates, are especially poignant when the big house itself has gone. A perfect example is the Baroque church of St Lawrence, Little Stanmore, with its Classical mausoleum by James Gibbs. It was built for the Duke of Chandos, who in 1713-44 lived nearby in his great palace of Canons park. Anyone wanting to be knocked for six should go to the Water Tower at Carshalton, an oasis of tranquillity amid the congestion of south London. Acclaimed by Horace Walpole in 1779 “as rural a village as if in Northumberland”, how much more remarkable it is to find that Carshalton is the same today. Alexander Pope, John Ruskin and John Evelyn have all praised the charms of the place, although it had a great reputation for cock-fighting, hunting and hare-coursing, referred to in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.
Carshalton House stands behind a high wall nearby, where you find the 18th-century “Orangery and Bagnio – a curious and impressive water house”. It was built by Sir John Fellowes, an 18th-century city bigwig, who created a building that must be unique in Britain for its seven fanciful roles. It was a greenhouse or orangery, a saloon, a robing room, a water tower and a plunge bath, as well as being a picturesque eyecatcher, with Dutch gabled battlements and slender split- stone obelisks topped with stone balls. Flaming urns of stone on the ground floor add a further flourish.
Hidden away behind all this finery was a hydraulic mechanism and a huge lead tank, primed to supply the house and grounds with “soft spring water” — a rare luxury for its day. Nor was it the only one. Sir John also built a room that is as enchanting as it is rare: an 18th-century marble-bottomed plunge bath, surrounded by an arched array of blue-and-white tiles. Little bulbous vases decorate each one, with Dutch vases filled with tulips, fuchsias and ranunculous, and with Chinese vases filled with prunus blossom, chrysanthemum and peonies. Whereas most of the houses – with the exception of Eastbury – are more or less hidden away from the 20th-century development that surrounds them, Hall Place at Bexley has the roaring A2 on the south of the grounds, with a slip road and roundabout hugging the eastern perimeter.
The busy A223 rips past the façade to the north, within inches of gilded wrought-iron gates that were made in the 18th-century by a blacksmith at Hyde Park Corner. Hall Place was built by Sir John Champneys in the 1540s, its chequered stone and flint walls for- ever giving a lilt of liveliness to the noble gravitas of Medieval stonework that he saved from the recently destroyed religious houses nearby. In the mid-17th century, the house was bought by Sir Richard Austen, who uncompromisingly added his own vibrant mark. Thus the stone Gothic architecture stops dead and Restoration re-brick begins, without so much as a courteous nod between them; both buildings assert the taste of their own ages.
The grace of this old house and its gardens with topiary animals, created to celebrate the coronation in 1953, manages somehow to overcome the sight and sound of the roads that encircle it. Hall Place – and indeed many of these houses – is now a vital part of local life, open to all and giving glorious relief from miles of densely populated streets around.
Carshalton and Arnos Vale are open by appointments; Swakeleys for three days a year. Nor can we for a moment take their survival for granted. They have all been saved by the bell from destruction, adding immeasurably to the nation’s wellbeing. From the family on a day out, to the architectural adventurer, no one should be snooty about London’s suburbs.