Saturday, April 14th 2012
We had arranged to meet friends today to go to Hampstead and there visit an historic house. As we were all coming from different parts of London, we met in Starbuck’s coffee shop near King’s Cross station. Before leaving there, I made a precautionary trip to the toilet. Even getting to it isn’t easy and I have seen many people try and give up. The reason is because in order to access the toilet, you need to press a button that sounds a buzzer behind the counter. Eventually, a member of staff will press the door release or someone emerging from the toilet will open the door on the way out. When staff are busy, you may have to wait some time to gain admittance.
Why the draconian control? A clue lies in the sight that meets you when you finally reach the hallowed space: the deep blue light. This makes it hard to see what you are doing and the reason for it, so I am told, is that in blue light, it is hard to find a vein in your arm. In other words, it is intended to discourage drug-users from “shooting up” in the toilet.
The 46 bus from St Pancras took us to Hampstead’s hilly High Street. It was the hill that helped make Hampstead the exclusive enclave that to some extent it still is. The hill was too steep for horse trams so workers flooding into London huddled instead around the bottom of the hill in Camden Town, Kentish Town and Somers Town. Motor buses and the tube (Hampstead station is the network’s deepest tube station) have made it more accessible but it still has a slightly snobby air to it.
We took the 286 further up the hill to Whitestone Pond, which sits on the highest point in London. It was originally called the Horse Pond, a name given to it because, according to some, military horses used to be brought here to quench their thirst or because, according to others, the pond was made for the benefit of draft horses tired and thirsty from trudging up the long hill. Perhaps it was for both.
The modern name is derived from the white milestone that perhaps once stood beside the pond but is now sited on rough ground across the road by Hampstead Grove and Lower Terrace.
Splendid views must once have been had from here but they are today somewhat obscured by surrounding buildings.
The pond was neglected for some years and was often empty. Recently it has been cleaned up, part of it has been planted and the water supply renewed. It is now a pleasant amenity and often visited by water fowl such as this trio of ducks.
One of the streets leading from Whitestone Pond is Hampstead Grove, where we went next. The notice on the wall gives a clue as to where we were heading. The house itself is just visible above the NO ENTRY sign.
This is one of two entrances to Fenton House and today the one by which visitors enter. The narrowness of the street at this point makes it difficult to get a good photo of the façade. Note the small terrace with people enjoying the view.
If you continue down Hampstead Grove and follow its gentle curve to the right, you reach this handsome wrought-iron gate with gilded decorations which faces onto a triangular open space limited by three roads (Hampstead Grove, Hollybush Hill and Frognal Rise). This is now used as a car park but I imagine that when the house was a residence, visitors would have arrived here in their carriages and walked up the drive to the house.
The house, now known as Fenton House, is thought to have been built in 1680, not by the usual combination of architect, builder and purchaser, but by a local bricklayer, Thomas Eades. Usually described a “merchant’s house”, it is designed for living in, rather than for show, and is set in an extensive garden. It was bought in 1688 by Thomas Simpson, a lawyer, and after him came a long series of owners, most of whom lived in the house, but a few of whom rented it to others. The name Fenton comes from Philip Fenton who bought the house in 1793. The last owner was Lady Binning who, on her death, bequeathed the house and her extensive collections of porcelain and other objects to the National House, the present owners. The interest of the property, apart from its beauty of house itself and its contents, derives from the fact that it has been little altered from its original construction, though the interior decor dates mostly from the 19th century.
The harpsichord pictured here is just one of the many musical instruments that abound in the house. There is at least one, and usually several, in each room.
When I visit a place like Fenton House, I play a game called Empty Room. It consists of taking photos of the place without any people in the way. Especially on a day like Sunday, this can be difficult or even impossible. The game requires patience, quick reactions and some nifty footwork. For example, at a particular moment on the top floor, I realized there were so many people there with me that there was a good chance of getting some “empty room” photos on the lower floors. I rushed down and got them.
While some of the rooms are large and grand, intended for receiving visitors, there are also numerous intimate corners where one might study, do one’s correspondence or sit with a companion, taking tea or enjoying a view of the garden.
Lady Binning, the last private owner of Fenton House, was a niece of George Salting, a well known Victorian collector, and the house is full of porcelain and art objects inherited from him and from her mother, as well as items that she collected herself. Nearly every room has one and usually several display cases full of precious articles, while the mantelpieces and tops of furniture also provide display space.
Porcelain and objets d’art are not the only items carefully collected and preserved. There are also the aforementioned musical instruments and miscellaneous pieces such as clocks.
On the upper floor are some smaller rooms and from one of these one can access one of the rather small terraces. It is big enough to stand and admire the view but not for much else.
I imagine that when the house was first built and for some time afterwards, the view would have been a lot less cluttered, though there would have been fewer familiar landmarks to see.
As noted, Fenton House is set within quite a large garden. This can be visited separately for a small fee and is certainly worth seeing. It consists of various parts divided by walls or hedges and there isn’t a vantage point where one can gain a clear view of the whole. Above is a view of one of the formal layouts. There are several of these, all different, with alleys for strolling and corners with benches suitable for children hiding from adults or for canoodling couples.
In another part of the garden is a large orchard, no doubt big enough to supply the kitchen and the dinner table. The garden is tidy and well maintained.
There is a greenhouse for bringing on new plants and, beside it, a bee hive, showing that this is a working garden. The bees don’t have far to go to find their flowers.
I suspect that keen gardens would linger here for a while, identifying the many different species of plants, shrubs and trees, and perhaps picking up a few tips on garden management.
In a house like this, without delving deeply into the records, it’s hard to know what items belong to the house originally and what have been brought in to help recreate the appearance of the house – a perfectly respectable thing to do. Moreover, the house was 266 years old by the time the National Trust took charge of it and had been occupied by at least 20 families, so I think that not only the interior decor but also the garden would have changed, at least partially, during that time. There has been no attempt to recreate the house “as it would have been” at a specific date and I think that is right: part of its charm is that it has survived many ages and occupants, all of which help to form its character as we now know it.
The decorative figure shown above stands at the end of this lawn, roughly over my left shoulder. It is a lawn that shows 266 years of care and attention. To one side is a raised walkway with flower beds and benches. I can imagine tea being taken on the lawn on fine days and perhaps the click of mallet on croquet ball. It is altogether a beautiful house which must have brought great pleasure to its long list of occupants, whether owners or tenants.
After our visit to Fenton House, we went for a little stroll around Hampstead. The upper part, near Fenton House, consists of narrow stepped streets and houses perched on steep terraces. These are some of Hampstead’s most exclusive addresses.
In Heath Street (which gave its name to the tube station until it was though more practical to call this “Hampstead”), we passed the Horse and Groom. This was once a famous pub owned by the Young’s brewery. People travelled from afar to visit it. I have been there a few times myself and feel a little sad that it is no longer a pub. There has been a pub on the site since at least the 18th century but the current building, which is listed, dates from the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign.
We walked along Flask Walk, whose pub, the Flask, equal in fame to the Horse and Groom, still survives, and made our way the Café Rouge, where we enjoyed a late lunch, before all going our separate ways.