As it was Sunday, we took our shopping trolley to Sainsbury, stopping on the way at The Daisy Cafe in White Conduit Street for breakfast. It was already spitting with rain on the way home and the sky was heavy with dull grey clouds.
This was not to our liking as we had arranged to meet friends for a joint visit to William Morris’s Red House. Nonetheless, we boldly set out, catching a bus to London Bridge where we hoped to take the train. (“Hope” is the operative word these days in view of the extensive engineering works needed to repair a system that has suffered years of neglect, causing line closures and disruption, especially at weekends,)
We left the train at Lewisham where we were supposed to meet our friends. By now in was raining in earnest and the view across the station forecourt struck me as desolate! Nothing daunted, we joined our friends and took the bus to Bexleyheath.
Today, the Red House is in the care of the National Trust, and, not being an expert in the matter of historic houses, I will quote their description: “The only house commissioned, created and lived in by William Morris, founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, Red House is a building of extraordinary architectural and social significance. When it was completed in 1860, it was described by Edward Burne-Jones as ‘the beautifullest place on earth’.”
As is explained on the Web site, the NT hasn’t had charge of the house for very long and the rooms are therefore sparsely furnished. In any case, the original furniture has been scattered across the globe and can now be obtained, if at all, only at inflated prices beyond the means of the NT.
The rooms contain specimen furniture and recreations of fabrics and wallpapers according to William Morris’s designs. The fireplaces, such as the one above, are each of unique design and at least two are decorated with a motto. This slightly strange one seems to read “Our concern is our best having”.
I think my favourite room was the one pictured above. It is light and airy with tall windows overlooking the garden. It also has an intriguing window alcove where it would be pleasant to sit and read on a sunny day. I bet it’s a devil to heat in winter, though!
When the house was completed in 1860, it was lit by oil lamps and candles and heated by means of the brick fireplaces which occur in all the major rooms. Electricity and central heating were installed in more recent times and are not original.
Visitors today enter by a side door, which I imagine was the back door or garden door originally. The front entrance gives onto a narrow corridor through a door whose design seems influenced by Gothic or by ecclesiastical designs.
The house is surrounded by well planted gardens so that every window has a pleasant prospect of greenery. There are, however, a number of stained glass windows by Burne-Jones, demonstrating this group’s interest in a rather romantically re-imagined Medieval period.
A modern house of this size would have attached to it garages for one or more cars. In Morris’s day, the affluent family had a horse-drawn carriage and, therefore, stables where carriage and horses were kept when not in use.
Today, there are no horses in the stables, though there are still two stalls. The carriage would have entered on the right, where the white-framed windows are, the carriage doors having been removed long ago.
What were my impressions of the Red House? I very much like and admire the art, furniture, fabrics and design of this exciting Arts & Crafts period and I was looking forward to visiting the house. I think I was possibly a little disappointed, not because there was anything wrong with the house or the exhibition, but because, for reasons I find hard to pin down, I didn’t altogether like the house. Its design seemed to me too self-conscious and heavy. I felt it demanded attention all the time – “Look how elegant and how clever this design is” – which is inimical to feeling relaxed and at home. It felt to me rather like a show house. That is probably unfair and others will derive entirely different feelings from it, I expect, but I can speak only for myself.
Perched on the glass of the bus shelter was a cranefly. He looked as if he were peering in, shading his eyes with his legs, but I think he was just resting, waiting for dusk and some dry weather to start cavorting. As always, the delicacy of these creatures is a source of wonder to me.
The bus brought us here, to Blackheath. The rain had stopped and the weather had improved to the point where you may be able to see a glint of evening sunlight in the photo. The ducks and geese are all heading in the same direction because they have spotted someone with bread to spare!
This is All Saints Church, perched on a rise, and to the left where the shops are (but out of sight) is the Everest Inn, a Nepalese restaurant where we had a very enjoyable dinner (or, in our case, late lunch!) before heading for home.
At Blackheath station came the parting of the ways. We caught a train to London Bridge and from there, a bus home, with the feeling that we had spent our weekend profitably and well.