Charlton House is sited I quickly discovered on the top of a rather steep hill. Or at least it seemed that way to me as I slowly made my way towards it from the railway station. Having managed to take an earlier train than planned I toyed with the idea of popping into the local greasy spoon and availing myself of a coffee and making use of their other facilities. Then I decided that as, according to the map, the uppermost part of the hill was known as The Village, I fondly imagined it to be full of quaint tea shops. I was wrong in my assumption.
Daniel Defoe, author of “Robinson Crusoe” and my own personal favourite “Roxanna” had not been very impressed by Charlton village, judging by his comments he made in his work “A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies” published in the 1720s.
“Charleton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz'd well govern'd nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify'd the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.
The introduction of this rude assembly, or the occasion of it, I can meet with very little account of, in antiquity; and I rather recommend it to the publick justice to be suppress'd, as a nusance and offence to all sober people, than to spend any time to enquire into its original.”
Oddly enough, Defoe fails to mention Charlton House itself, even though the Horn-Fair would have been held in front of it, before the village green was enclosed in the 19th century. My own first glimpse of Charlton House was of its former summer-house built in the 1630s and designed by one of England’s foremost architects Inigo Jones. An alternative theory suggests it was actually built in the 18th century. Either way, its destiny was less than glorious when it was turned into a public convenience in the 1930s. But its beautifully carved wooden door is now firmly shut to both lovers of architecture and those desirous of answering a sudden call of nature. I fell into both camps on Sunday.
To while away the time until the house opened its doors to the public, I explored the gardens. I came across an intriguing stone monument decorated with an ankh symbol, a carved lizard, a scorpion and two crossed snakes. On top of the monument was a giant acorn. There was also a faded inscription in Latin. I later discovered that the monument was an antique folly bought by a former owner of the house on a European jaunt to Rome. The inscription simply bore witness to the fact.
Close by the summer house is one of the first mulberry trees ever planted in England. King James I, erstwhile patron to Adam Newton who built Charlton House, was keen to encourage the English silk trade and it was believed that silk worms would flourish if fed mulberry leaves. Unfortunately it was later discovered that King James had commanded the wrong kind of mulberry trees to be grown and their leaves were not suitable for the silkworm industry. In the following century the legendary Giacomo Casanova found another use for the fruit of the mulberry tree, when he discovered that the juice of the berries could be used as an ink. Thus he was able to write hidden messages to another prisoner help captive in the same prison under the leaded roof of the Doge’s palace. By means of this secret correspondence Casanova was finally able to escape from his Venetian goal.
As I approached the house, I heard a voice calling out to me. Being partially deaf I could not establish where the sound was coming from until I looked up and saw a man leaning out of an upper storey window.
“Do you need any help?” he asked, adding, “We open at ten”.
“I know, I replied. "That’s why I am taking pictures whilst I wait”.
The front of the house has a handsomely decorated porch, delicate stonework tracery edging the roof and a sundial located between the third and second storey bay windows. 1607, the date building work started on the house is carved into the stone work on the plain stone surface of the porch. As I walked around the side, I realised from the brickwork that one of the turrets had been completely rebuilt. The house viewed from the rear was distinctly plain and gave little inkling of its rich interior.
On the stroke of ten I walked in through the front door. A woman sitting at a little table by the entrance handed me a ticket and a guide. The ticket was to allow the Friends Of Charlton House to establish how many visitors their open day had attracted. By noon, it was already in three figures. The hall known as the Minstrels’ Hall, owing to the addition of a minstrel’s gallery in the 19th century, is of double height and runs the full length of the mansion. High up on the wall, on the opposite side to the main entrance, sits the feathered insignia of the Prince of Wales, in honour of Sir Adam Newton’s illustrious pupil, Prince Henry Fredrick. Royal insignia abounds in a house which owes its very existence to Newton’s place in the royal household. The ceiling also displays Jacobean strap work. In a corner, I noticed a painting of a pretty 18th century woman in a silvery white gown. I was unable to establish who she was or her connection, if any, with the house.
I made my way from the Minstrel’s Hall to the Old Library. The little corridor which joined the 19th century one storey extension to the mansion was lined with geometric blue and white tiles. It also displayed a sequence of photographs taken from a 1909 edition of County Life magazine, showing the mansion in its Edwardian heyday when the principle family rooms were all richly furnished with antiques. Nowadays, like Eastbury Manor, Charlton House must earn its keep. Thus part of one floor is given over to a Japanese Language school, the former chapel and another chamber form the local public library and the Minstrel’s hall has been has been turned into the Mulberry café which is open on weekdays to serve the local population. Other rooms are rented out used for conferences and weddings. Consequently, as with Eastbury Manor House, Charlton House has been denuded of its original furnishings and is filled only with utilitarian furniture for official functions.
The confusion as to where the original family chapel lay meant I first assumed it had been part of the Old Library. However, even though the strapwork on the ceiling and the wooden carvings around the gallery suggested Jacobean origins, it simply did not look old enough to date from the early 17th century. This was hardly surprising as it had all been built in the 19th century with a sympathetic eye to the original mansion.
I returned back into the main house and noticed two finely carved wooden doors by the foot of the principle stairwell. These led to the former family chapel and another chamber, both of which now serve as a public library. Sadly the doors were firmly locked. So I walked up the stairs instead. The oak staircase is in an excellent condition and the treads emitted a satisfying creak as I ascended to the first floor. The walls of the stairwell were decorated with a delicate floral design in plasterwork dating from the 19th century.
The Long Gallery is more satisfying than the one at Eastbury Manor House in that the walls are still covered in wooden panelling and there is an exquisite marble fireplace in situ. The ceiling too retains its splendid plasterwork. It is therefore far easier to imagine 17th century denizens perambulating up and down its length when the weather outside was too inclement for the ladies and children of the household to brave.
Adjacent to the Long Gallery is the White Drawing Room. It contains another magnificent fireplace. Apparently the design, which draws on Biblical and Classical themes, is made of plaster but was painted to look like marble by a television production companym when they serialised Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blues in the 1980s. It took me a while but eventually I was able to deduce that the central roundel was of Perseus slaying the Gorgon Medusa with the winged horse Pegasus standing nearby. Beneath the roundel was a depiction of Christ in his triumphal chariot bearing in his wake Evil, represented by Death and the Whore of Babylon, the latter wearing the papal tiara a none too subtle dig at the Roman Catholic Church. The frieze also showed scenes from the Crucifixion. I would dearly have loved to have got closer to the fireplace but there was a small hill of stacked blue chairs and a large table barring my way. There was also a low lying trolley, presumably to cart the chairs around the building. I did debate whether or not to stand on the trolley but it did not look particularly safe and I had visions of sending the chairs collapsing in to a heap on top of me. So I refrained from such recklessness.
The next room, the Grand Salon, is directly above the Minstrel’s Hall and likewise runs the length of the house. This contained the most ornate plaster ceiling of all with its 3 dimensional hanging pendants. More royal insignia was incorporated into the original design. The fireplace was decorated with marble statues of Venus and Mars. The former has developed a hairline above her lip giving Venus the somewhat unfortunate appearance of possessing a moustache Frans Hals' Laughing Cavalier would have envied. Although this is without doubt the most magnificent of the rooms on display it is by no means my favourite. That accolade must go to the Newton Room. But before I could reach that I had first to progress through several other rooms first.
The Dutch Room (possibly a corruption of the name of Sir William Ducie a former owner) contains a plain black marble fireplace. I assume it was this same fireplace that led Edward Hasted in his work “The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1” published in 1797 to relate the following rather improbable tale:
“Dr. Plot says, there was a marble chimney-piece in the dining room of this house, so exquisitely polished, that the lord of Downe could see in it a robbery committed on Shooter's-hill, whereupon, sending out his servants, the thieves were taken.”
I loved the plasterwork frieze along the wall in this room and could envisage it adorning the walls of Brimstone Butterfly Towers had I but the space and the money to reproduce it..
Dr Plot could also have been referring to the ornate black marble fireplace with its geometric patterns in Prince Henry’s room. It is doubtful that Prince Henry ever visited Charlton House as he died before its completion at the early age of 18.
Having walked through a small panelled corridor, whose locked doors led to modern offices but which housed the servants’ quarters in earlier periods, I came into the Newton Room. The fireplace in this room was one of the most enchanting I have ever seen. The plasterwork seems to depict lots of naked and semi naked women and mermaids frolicking about. I haven’t a clue as to what they are supposed to represent but they seem so jolly and engaging that I sat down and just gazed at the fireplace for a good quarter of an hour. In the 1909 photograph of the same room in Country Life magazine, the background had been painted in so that the figures in relief showed up that much more clearly. I imagine the original plasterwork would have been brightly coloured, in line with the colourful Jacobean fireplace at Igtham Mote. I noticed that the internal windowsills of the Newton Room were lined with marble. The view looks over what was and still is parkland. Unlike in earlier epochs, the park land can now be enjoyed by the local community as well as by visitors to the house.
I made my way to the Green Room, a much more intimate space, which I assume derives its name from the green and white tiles of sailing ships lining the inner fireplace. By comparison to the other exuberant decorative schemes this fireplace and its surrounds were rather restrained. Likewise, the black and white marble fireplace in the so-called Ducie Room, displaying the 17th century heraldic shield and initials of Sir William Ducie, later Viscount Downe and his wife Frances.
I finally made my way back to the Mulberry café in the Minstrels’ Hall and found myself being served by the same man who had called to me from the upper storey window. I also saw him vacuuming the floor of the Old Library as well as instructing a group of staff as to their duties for the day, so clearly he was willing to turn his hand to anything.
As a postscript I must remark on a strange incident that befell me at Charlton House. Before entering the mansion I had checked the time and messages on my mobile phone. I then switched my phone off before entering the building. After I had wandered around on my own in a virtually empty house, the mansion gradually began to fill up with visitors. I took the opportunity to eavesdrop on one of the guided tours and was indignant to learn that the Long Gallery was supposed to he haunted. "Why hadn’t I witnessed any supernatural manifestations whilst I was sitting on my own in the Long Gallery earlier?" I silently grumbled. When the Long Gallery was once again empty, save for myself, I whisked out my camera and switched on the video recorder element.
“If there are ghosts here I want to see some action,” I challenged aloud
Later, seated in the Mulberry Café with my slice of Victoria sponge cake and cup of cappuccino, I played back the Long Gallery footage. To my disappointment but not my surprise there was nothing amiss. I then stepped out of the mansion to continue with my packed itinerary and switched on my mobile, or at least tried to switch it on. But it would not work. I tried unsuccessfully again throughout the afternoon whilst I was at the Old Naval College complex in Greenwich but to no avail. I knew I had recharged it the night before so it couldn't be that the battery had run flat. At home I plugged it in on the off-chance that I had been mistaken but there was not so much as a flicker of activity, so I promptly unplugged the charger. An hour later I tried again and this time the mobile phone came to life. For some reason I have lost the date and time settings but to my great relief I retained all my stored telephone numbers. Next time I find myself in a haunted house I shall be a little more circumspect as to what I demand of the resident spirits in future.