Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Old Palace Croydon: Part One

At the weekend I made my way to Croydon, once a prime country seat of the Archbishops of Canterbury and now housing a girls’ day school. A surprisingly large amount of the palace still survives. I first heard about the place a number of years ago, thanks to a London Open Day event. Having toured the buildings then, I picked up a pamphlet and returned with the Partridge on one of the special open days run by the Friends of the Old Palace. It was another such open day ran by the latter that saw my return to the former ecclesiastical complex at the weekend.

For reasons of insurance the Friends do not allow photographs to be taken indoors, even in the Great Hall which, if my memory serves me right does not boast any items likely to be purloined by the light-fingered. I believe the Friends have missed a trick by not selling postcards of the interior void of items subject to insurance. Consequently modern interior images are from the Friends of the Old Palace website.

The Great (outer) Courtyard is now a playground, complete with a hopscotch course marked out. Somewhat incongruously by the wall of the Great Hall stands a raised netball goal post. At right angles to the Great Hall is the external wall of the chapel. The Great Hall has three sets of window facing the Great courtyard as opposed to the one large window at the altar end of the chapel. The bow window looks to be from the 18th or 19th century and a closer inspection of the brickwork and the roofing reveals that the buildings have been altered and extensively renovated over the centuries. This is hardly surprising: having served as an official residence of some of the most powerful men in England, namely the archbishops of Canterbury, the palace was close to a ruin in the 19th century when it reached its nadir as a wash house when vast expanses of washed calico material were hung from the rafters in the Great Hall. It was thanks to the Duke of Newcastle that the complex, instead of being pulled down, was handed over to an order of Anglican nuns to use as a girls’ school.

A religious building had been on the site since at least the 9th century. King Alfred the Great was said to have paid a visit in 871 AD.  In 1086 the Domesday Book records a manor house being at Croydon. As befitted the palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury, royalty were often entertained here, particularly if you were called King Henry from the third of that name onwards. Catherine of Aragon arrived as a widow after the death of Prince Arthur and before her marriage to his brother, King Henry VIII. Thomas Cranmer, the Protestant martyr, was summoned from the palace to accord the dying Henry VIII the last rites. I wonder whether it still rankled with Cranmer that Knole had been taken from him by the greedy King, who argued that because Knole stood on high ground it was less rheumatic for him than the archbishop's other palace at Croydon, which Henry grumbled he "could never be without sickness."  This little anecdote was told to the 19th century literary editor Alexander Balloch Grosart by the then resident of Croydon Mr Corbet Anderson. Henry’s eldest daughter Queen Mary convalesced here and his youngest daughter, Elizabeth came a-calling in 1573 and stayed for a week.

I have previously mentioned Daniel Lyson’s “The Environs of London” published in 1792 with reference to a description of Eastbury Manor House in the 18th century.  In the same great work Daniel refers to a memorandum setting out the arrangements for Queen Elizabeth I’s reception, written by one Simon Bowyer. It seems the arrangements for accommodating the Queen and her retinue were proving something of a headache for the flustered Mr Bowyer. It is also apparent that this was not the first time that the court had arrived at Croydon expecting to be housed. In the previous year the Queen had stayed for a whole week. In the memorandum notes the “wardrobe of the bed.”  I wonder if the Queen brought her own bed-linen and coverings with her or even bed with her.

"Lodgings at Croydon, the busshope of Canterburye's house, bestowed as followeth, the 19 of Maye 1574:"
"The Lord Chamberlayne, his olde lodgings.
The Lord Tresurer wher he was.
The Lady Marques, at the nether end of the great chamber.
The Lady of Warwicke, wher she was.
The Erle of Leicester, wher he was.
"The Lord Admyral, at the nether end of the great chamber.
The Lady Howard, wher she was.
The Lord Honsdone, wher he was.
Mr. Secretary Walsingham, wher Mr. Smyth was.
The Lady Stafford, wher she was.
Mr. Henedge, wher he was.
Mr. Drewry, wher the Lady Sydney was.
Ladies and Gentilwomen of the privie chamber, ther olde.
Mrs. Abbington her olde, and another small rome addid for "the table.
"The maydes of honour, wher they were.
Sir George Howard, wher he was.
The Capten of the gard, wher my Lord of Oxforde was.
The Grooms of the privye chamber, ther olde.
The Esquyers for the body, ther olde.
The Gentelmen Hussers, ther olde.
The Physycyons, two chambers.
The Queens robes, wher they were.
The Grome Porter, wher he was.
The Clerke of the kitchen, wher he was.
The wardrobe of beds.

"For the Queen's wayghters, I cannot as yet synde any convenient romes to place them in, but I will do the best that I can to place them elsewhere; but yf it plese you Sir that I doo remove them, the gromes of the privye chamber, nor Mr. Drewrye, have no other waye to their chambers, but to pass throw that waye. Agayne, if my Lady of Oxford should come, I cannot then tell wher to place Mr. Hatton, and for my Lady Carewe, here is no place with a chimney for her, but she must lay abrode by Mrs. Apparry, and the rest of the privye chamber; for Mrs. Skelton, here is no rome with chimneys. I shall staye one chamber without for her. Here is as mytche as I have any wayes able to doo "in this house. From Croydon, this present Wensday mornynge, your honour's alwayes most bounden,”

Not all royal visitors came of their own free will. James I, the King of Scotland, was lodged here when he was a prisoner of state. When Queen Elizabeth came in 1573 she was the guest of Archbishop Parker, her mother’s, Anne Boleyn’s, former chaplain. In the 1640s the Puritans came to power and the Commonwealth was established. They treated the Archbishop Parker’s former palace with far greater respect than his bones. Thus, the former was left relatively untouched whereas Parker’s bones were taken from his tomb at Lambeth and flung onto a dung heap. Or so I was told on the three occasions I visited the current principal London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. Following the Restoration, Parker’s bones were re-interred.

The upheavals of the English Civil Law had seen one Archbishop, Laud, beheaded and the post falling into abeyance. With the Restoration a new archbishop, Juxon, was appointed by King Charles II. Juxon had been invited by the King’s father, King Charles I, to attend him on the scaffold, when the latter was executed in 1649. Rather curiously Juxon’s personal heraldic shield depicts the heads of 4 blackamoors. It has been surmised that his family might have been in the slave trader. If so, this was a fact of which he was clearly proud.    

The following century was far less turbulent for Archbishops of Canterbury. However, the palace at Croydon was growing less to their liking. The last archbishop to literally set his mark on the place was Thomas Herring, who carried out a series of remedial repairs to the Great Hall in the 1740s, adding tie beams to secure the rafters. His initials can still be seen on the tie-beams and on external drainpipes. 30 years later, the archbishops had ceased to use the palace altogether. What had once been pleasing surrounding countryside had become heavily industrialised. The archbishops chose to up sticks and move to the more congenial Addington to the North East of present day Croydon. The palace was sold in the 1780s and gradually the land around the ecclesiastical buildings was auctioned off too.

A 19th century print of the Great Hall when it languished as a wash house for the production of calico printing shows it in a sorry state. It declined even further when the adjoining kitchen, buttery and pantry were demolished causing the East Wall to collapse entirely in 1830. When the palace came up for sale in the 1880s efforts were made to secure it on behalf of the people of Croydon. Such efforts failed. Instead the Duke of Newcastle bought it and presented to the Anglican order of the Community of Sisters. The latter wanted to turn it into a girls’ school, which it remains to this day, although the nuns handed over responsibility for the running of the school to the Local Education Authority in the 1970s. Although the archbishops officially vacated the site over two centuries ago, there is still a very pertinent link with the past in that the current girls’ school has greatly benefited from a legacy left by one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite archbishops, John Whitgift.   

The Old Palace at Croydon, like Eastbury Manor House and Sutton House, has had a very chequered history and might well have ended up being demolished. Thanks to the Duke of Newcastle who bought the palace, the Community of Sisters who strived to turn the derelict site into a suitable accommodation for a school and the present day Friends of the Old Palace, who seek to raise funds for the upkeep and maintenance of the historic parts of the current girls’ school, one of the great treasures of the age has survived on into the 21st century and it is to be hoped for many more centuries to come.  

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Knole Part Three (Revised March 2011)

Knole has been described as a prodigy or calendar house in that it is claimed to have as many rooms as there are days in the year. However, given that the house has been substantially changed since Archbishop Bourchier lived in it and that even today no-one knows for sure quite how many rooms there are in the house this claim has yet to be verified. Truth to say there must be a prodigious quantity of rooms of which modern day visitors only see a part. One wing of the house for example is lived in by the latest generation of Sackville-Wests. The family added the name West when Knole descended through the female line in the 19th century, there being a dearth of male heirs. Elizabeth Sackville, having inherited the property on the death of her elder sister Mary, decided to add her husband’s name to her own rather than give her children her husband’s surname alone, thereby continuing the tradition of Sackvilles living at Knole. It was a pragmatic response but the irony was that later Sackville-Wests were obsessed with the idea that Knole should only be inherited through the male line. If that principle had been rigidly adhered to when Elizabeth and Mary were alive, the house would probably have passed out of the Sackville family altogether.

Although their quarters are separate from the state rooms open to the public, traces can still be glimpsed of the current generation of Sackvilles who live at Knole. Thus, I saw children’s bikes propped up against a wall within an enclosed private courtyard and a large transparent bag bearing the legend: XL ten pin bowling kit.  Given that the pins and the bowling ball were made of plastic, methinks I might have acquitted myself with more glory using them than I was able to achieve with the far weightier lignum vitae balls at the Old Naval College skittles alley.

Returning to my mind’s eye tour of the house, I forgot to mention that alongside Lady Betty’s blue and white china, there was another cabinet in the Venetian Ambassador’s dressing room displaying examples of late 18th century Sèvres and also Vincennes porcelain. Although doubtless prohibitively expensive, I find such china distinctly unappealing, which is probably why I forgot all about it.

I found the ballroom, which had once served as the private dining room of the 17th century owners of the house, oppressive. The great black, white and grey marble and alabaster fireplace reminded me of one side of a Jacobean or Elizabethan tomb. Coincidentally, according to the guidebook, the master mason who worked on this room also built Mary Queen’s of Scots tomb in Westminster Abbey. The frieze of mermaids, sea creatures and grotesques seemed vaguely sinister unlike the enchanting mermaids in Sir Adam Newton’s chimney piece at Charlton House. Counterbalancing the gloomy atmosphere was the charming 17th century van Dyck portrait of the young Frances Cranfield, dressed in black silk, softened with luminous pearls and roses. Much of the gilt furniture in the ballroom was of a far later date to the original decorative scheme. When I later glanced through the guidebook, it explained that the Jacobean room would have been empty of much of the later acquisitions, the idea being that it needed only a few portraits and pieces of furniture to display the interior to its best advantage. Perhaps it was, to my mind, the disharmonious effect of all the clutter that made the ballroom seem oppressive despite its great size.

The second painted staircase, barred to the general public, leads to the attics and to the family quarters on the lower floor. It was also where I saw the plastic ten pin bowling kit. Again, I found the staircase, covered with monochrome motifs of war, less off putting than the frescos covering the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College.

The early 18th century red stamped velvet walls of the Reynolds Room were devoid of pictures as the room itself was undergoing conservation. I found its emptiness somewhat refreshing after the intensity of the ballroom. I now think that the piles of paintings stacked up in the ballroom probably came from here.

In the Cartoon Gallery the bay windows are decorated with grotesques of monkeys, flowers, fruit and caryatids. Unlike at Charlton House, these carvings boast their original polychromatic scheme. For me though, the main point of interest about this room was the copies of Raphael Cartoons. The original cartoons had been painted by the artist as a template for the tapestries to be woven from their design. These tapestries in turn were destined to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. The Cartoons at Knole are from the same sequence of paintings that I saw on the walls of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, themselves copies of Raphael’s originals. I am not sure whether the Knole Cartoons would have held my attention were it not for the fact I had only recently seen similar versions in Greenwich.

Leading off from the Cartoon Gallery is the King’s Closet. The walls of this closet, which would once have served as a dressing room, are still lined with 17th century wallpaper. Having seen a similar one on display at Hampton Court Palace, I immediately identified the red velvet covered 17th century thunder-box by the door. It seems the royal posteriors of either King Charles II or his brother, King James II were wont to make use of the chamber pot concealed under the lid.

A short flight of stairs leads from the King’s Closet up to the King’s Room. Unlike the Spangle Bedchamber, this bedroom still sparkles with gold and silver. Encased in glass, the blinds shut fast against sunlight and hermetically sealed, this room contains another bed that had belonged to James II before he was forced into exile. This time both gold and silver thread was used in the bed-hangings. The dressing table itself and the mirrors are made of silver as are the toilette set, salver, candle stands and wall sconces. The Stuarts certainly loved their bling.

After such a display of unparalleled luxury, I returned to the Cartoon Gallery and descended down the steep Lead Staircase and out into the sunlit and comparative austerity of the Stone Court, where I was able to gratefully sit upon a bench for a while. Having rested, I promptly went through the house a second time. It is always my habit, where feasible, to try and make two trips around a stately home on the same day. My first perambulation is to get a general impression of the place and my second to fill in the detail.  I finally left just as the House was closing for the day. Fortunately there was still time for me to return to the visitors’ centre and watch a short introductory film about Knole and its various inhabitants. I then popped into the shop and bought a number of items which might end up as Christmas presents.

Knole is a fascinating house to visit but I would not want to live there. It is far too big, even I suspect in the private family quarters. I much prefer Ightham Mote. I could well imagine arriving at the latter with just a holdall of clothes and spending a delightful weekend there with friends, having first pulled down the portcullis gate to keep riff raff out. As for décor, in my mind Charlton House equally wins hands over fist, but then it is empty of the ornate 17th century furnishings that fills Knole and which is not to my tastes. In addition, Charlton House seems light and airy, mainly because it does not have delicate furnishing, tapestries and paintings to protect from the harmful effects of sunlight.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Knole Part Two (Revised March 2011)

Upon leaving Sevenoaks station I had planned to walk through the town and make my way to Knole. My resolution faded the moment I espied the steep gradient of the hill. Consequently, I promptly turned on my heel and made my way back to the taxi rank so I could be ferried through the ancient deer park right up the West Front of the house, the latter having been erected by Henry VIII as part of his major redevelopment of Knole in the 1540s.

As the autumn sun was shining brightly I decided to take photographs of the herds of deer in the park. I steered well clear of the adult stag lying in the grass, which sported a fearsome set of antlers. I had heard tell that stags could be aggressive even towards humans in the mating season. I had no idea when the rutting season was, my knowledge of deer being limited to Bambi and the fact that I am rather partial to venison served with red currant jelly. I noticed that some of the deer were wagging their tails furiously. I thought it might be a sign, like dogs, that they were happy. Inside the house a guide disabused me. It seems they wag their tails to try and keep the flies at bay.

The Western Front with its central gatehouse is certainly imposing, which is only to be expected given Henry VIII’s rampant egotism. Passing under the Gatehouse I came into the Green Court. In front of me was another impressive gatehouse, although this had been built by Archbishop Bourchier. 

However, first I needed to made my along the quadrangle to the Visitor’s Centre. This building had originally been two-storey and, like its twin range across the green, had served as quarters for Henry VIII’s retinue. Later, the Tudor upper floor had been removed and the range turned into an orangery. Now it housed several nude male statues picked up by one of the former owners of Knole on his Grand Tour in the 18th century including two men wrestling and one of Perseus holding up the head of Medusa. This theme seemed to resonate through the centuries as it had also been the centrepiece of one of the fireplaces at Charlton House. The orangery also contained a cast-iron stove built by one Buzaclo in 1774 and formerly used to heat rooms within the main house. A clock on one wall was used by household staff in the 19th century whenever they clocked on or off work, a poignant reminder that a grand house such as Knole needed an army of servants to service it behind the scenes.

Returning to the Green Court I noticed two statues on the lush green sward: one of Venus and one of a gladiator, again both souvenirs brought back by the 3rd Duke when he came from his European jaunt.
I especially like the passageway beneath the gatehouse or Bourchier’s Tower as it is now known, with its stone beamed ceiling and a huge 19th century lantern. There were doors leading off from here but both closed to the public.

So I made my way to the Stone Courtyard, which once acted as a cistern for the house, with a huge water tank lying beneath the paving stones. It was only later that I realised how different generations had remodelled the tower and the courtyard. Thus the turret, clock and oriel window with its stone gothic tracery are all later additions to Bourchier’s gatehouse. That is why the West Front, Green Courtyard and Stone courtyard do not conform to a single style. But at least the different generations tended to add to existing buildings rather than simply demolish then and start afresh.

By the entrance to the house was a curious piece of brightly coloured ironwork which I later discovered was an old shop sign. As to what type of shop the sign signified, I am still none the wiser. I also noticed that the Jacobean plaster ceiling was a peculiar shade of grey. Apparently that was due to a form of vandalism by the Victorians trying to impose their own sense of improvements on the building. 
Inside the Great Hall the Victorians also stand accused of varnishing the carved wooden screen, thereby robbing future generations of the likely riotous colour scheme which the Jacobeans favoured. The Great Hall was remodelled in the 17th century. Consequently it has an ornate plasterwork ceiling rather than the hammer beam roof to be found at say Hampton Court Palace.

I was rather miffed that I had failed to spot the Tudor steel and brass fire dogs, which bear the initials and arms of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Sadly for Anne, she would never have visited Knole when it passed into Henry’s ownership as he had ensured that she had already passed out of this world only a few years earlier. Fortunately I did spy the facsimile of Virginia Woolf’s manuscript for her masterpiece “Orlando” at the back of the hall. As I have said before, Orlando is without doubt one of my favourite novels. Knole inspired the setting and her friend Vita Sackville-West inspired the hero of the Virginia Woolf classic.
I was amused to learn that the wall paintings adorning the Great Staircase were all based on earlier Continental prints of subjects, whose meaning would have been instantly apparent to an educated man of the 17th century, but meant little to this educated woman of the 21st century without first cribbing from the guidebook. Thus,  I simply admired the amount of work involved and found them far more palatable than the polychromatic ostentation of the Painted Hall at the Old Naval College. At one point I was alone on the stairs and so stood there for a few moments transfixed, the only sound I could hear was the ticking of a 17th century clock at the top of the staircase. I also noticed a carved wooden door which reminded me of the one in the summerhouse at Charlton House.
The Brown Gallery houses a collection of portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries. The usual suspects of Tudor and Stuart royal, political and social n’ere –do-wells were on display. I awarded myself brownie points for those portraits I could identify from the painting alone. There was also a collection of redundant royal furniture which one of the Sackville’s was allowed to help himself to as a perk of his job.

The only piece of furniture I was bent on seeing was the celebrated red velvet Knole settee dating from the early 17th century and the prototype of many a modern sofa today. It is now to be found in the small museum devoted to fragile furnishings and consequently kept under glass and in a strictly controlled environment. Apparently it was designed to be a chair of state. I must say that it does not look half as comfortable as my own chair of state enscounced at Brimstone Butterfly Towers, though my own lacks the canopy of state under which the former would once have been placed.(Alas I spoke too soon as several months ago one of the iron bars supporting the frame has broken leaving my sofa as run down and decrepit as its owner).

Lady Betty Germain was one houseguest who could always be assured of a warm welcome in early 18th century Knole. She had her own suite of rooms across the way from the opulent Spangle bedchamber. Her needlework embroidery survives in the bed-hangings in her bedchamber and her name is associated with the blue and white porcelain china collection in the so-called Lady Betty Germain’s China Closet. Having an extremely small and very modest collection of blue and white china myself, I was interested to see the one at Knole. But the real attraction of the room was the picture of a red-headed beauty, thought to be of Ninon de Lenclos, the 17th century French courtesan, whose concerns for the bodily comforts of her guests extended way beyond the simply sexual.
Lady Betty more than repaid her Sackville hosts’ generosity in kind when she left her late husband’s vast and ancient mansion at Drayton in Northamptonshire to their youngest son, on the understanding that he would adopt her husband’s family name. This new heir was more than happy to comply. Being the third son, his chances of inheriting Knole were as slim as a female Sackville’s. Hence, being known by another name must have been a small price to pay for inheriting a house as grand in its way and even more ancient than Knole.  Today, Drayton House only accepts groups of visitors who write in advance for admission and pay a minimum of £120. Therefore it is likely to remain unknown to the Brimstone Butterfly other than from an old print of the exterior. 

The Spangle Bedchamber is named after the silver sequins embroidered upon a crimson satin background. When it came to ostentation, the rich of the 17th century were as brash as any other era before or since for flaunting its wealth. It is now thought that the hangings may have been originally belonged to the royal household. One wonders whether they were aware of quite how much stuff was ending up at Knole. Or were they so extravagant, they threw beautiful items away the moment they grew bored with them?

In the Spangle Dressing Room as well as in Lady Betty’s apartment are some delightful dummy boards, or silent companions.  They are to scale full length cut out portraits of men and women painted on to boards. One of the guides thought them rather creepy but I contended that one of a young girl had a very sweet smile and was not in the least intimidating.

The Museum Room formed part of the Venetian Ambassador’s dressing room. I have said in the past how Southside House was taken to task for elaborating on family traditions not backed up by actual evidence. That is no less true of Knole. According to the guide, the dates for when the Venetian Ambassador was supposed to have come a-calling simply do not stand up to close scrutiny. But here at least was the Knole settee, a modern version of which adorns my own state apartments at Brimstone Butterfly Towers.The so called Venetians Ambassador’s bedroom contains the James II bed, whichthe king was forced to leave behind in Whitehall, when he went into exile for the final time in his life.
The Billiard Room is notable for the fact that the cues are curved ended rather than straight as the idea was to push the billiard bills rather than striking them. If I showed the same degree of dexterity with billiards as with Victorian skittles, I would be hopeless with straight or curved cues.

The Leicester Gallery is a reminder of the brief period when Knole belonged to Queen Elizabeth’s perennial favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and showcases yet more of the period furniture chucked out of the royal palaces by the spendrift Stuart monarchs.

Knole is a vast house and I have still more state rooms to perambulate in my mind’s eye, including one, which like the 17th century diary John Evelyn before me, struck me with a singularly oppressive air. I shall return to the subject anon.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Knole Part One

In late September I set out for Knole, the palatial estate located in the Kent countryside, once owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury.

In the 15th century Archbishop Bourchier had built the inner Gatehouse Tower, which which was subsequently named after him, as well as the Great Hall. It speaks volumes as to what a consummate statesman Archbishop Bourchier must have been that  he managed to anoint three different kings, the last two of whom, Richard III and Henry VII were arch enemies, during the turbulent period of the War of the Roses, yet had still managed to die of old age in his bed at Knole. However it was another Archbishop, the
Protestant martyr Thomas Cranmer, who was obliged to relinquish Knole to Henry VIII in the 1540s when the latter took a fancy to it. The King deemed the hunting in the surrounding parkland to be excellent and refused to take no for an answer when he determined to make Knole his own. Henry had the palace enlarged to accommodate his courtiers. The outer central gatehouse and West Front reflect the changes he wrought to the much smaller medieval mansion.
Subsequently, the house passed through various royal owners, including Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, who presented it at one point to her erstwhile lover, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. In the early 17th century it passed out of royal ownership altogether and into the hands of commoners. It has remained within the Sackville family ever since, although the house itself is now owned by the National Trust with the family leasing their private quarters which are closed to the general public.

Thomas Sackville was as determined and as unscrupulous as ever Henry VIII had been when it came to getting his greedy little mitts on Knole. In Thomas’s case he was able to get the house and land at a knockdown price by exploiting his position at court to conceal his double dealings. Once it was in his hands, he used his wealth to extensively remodel the mansion in the early 1600s. One of the guides explained that the house was very much a template for Jacobean interior decoration. Charlton House near Greenwich was built in 1607 by Sir Adam Newton, tutor to Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. Robert Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset inherited Knole in 1609. Whereas the builder of Charlton House had been a tutor to the Prince of Wales, Richard had been a close friend. Consequently Knole is on a far grander scale than Charlton House, although unsurprisingly both share common elements of the then fashionable Jacobean architecture and design.

Another direct descendant of Thomas Sackville, did not have to resort to questionable methods to fill the house with cast-off furniture from the royal palaces. It was a rather extravagant perk of his post in the royal household that he could help himself to royal furnishings which were deemed surplus to requirement. Thus the mansion retains a singular collection of Stuart royal chairs, stools and beds, including the famous red velvet Knole settee, the early 17th century prototype for the sofa on which I am currently reclining. The most sumptuous piece of furniture must be the spectacular  gilt four-poster bed made for King James II and which bears his initials.The state bed is currently the subject of a special appeal by the National Trust to preserve it.  By the time it was completed James did not have long to frolic under the ornate canopy before he was forced to slink off to a life-long exile in France whilst his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William, ruled in his stead. Little wonder that the royal couple were only too happy to have such a poignant reminder of James’s brief and wholly inglorious reign taken off their hands.

But it takes delusions of grandeur to a new level when the same Sackville relative decided to avail himself of the royal chamber pot housed within its own velvet close stool, very similar to the one belonging to King William III on display at Hampton Court. Even the Stuart sovereigns, who dreamt of the divine rights of kings, were subject to the need to void their bowels.

The Sackville family had bent their knee to female Monarchs for centuries but they seldom allowed Knole to pass into the hands of female owners. Thus, the death of a father or a husband would often oblige a daughter or a widow to seek a new roof to shelter under elsewhere. The 17th century Lady Anne Clifford was such a victim of England’s laws of primogeniture. Indeed she spent a good deal of her married life fighting for ownership of her late mother’s estates in the North of England. Her feckless husband Richard Sackville, erstwhile friend of Prince Henry Frederick, tried to bully her into coming to terms with the other, male, claimant. He callously used their daughter as a pawn with which to browbeat his wife into submission. Anne kept a diary of her unhappy life at Knole, a copy of which I bought whilst I was there with the intention of reading it later. Richard died and Anne eventually came into her mother’s estates when the other claimant died. It must have been a great relief for Anne Clifford her to leave behind Knole with all its sad memories and be able to live under a roof which was indisputably hers. Incidentally, I saw a painting of Lady Anne’s peacock of a husband at Kenwood House in the Suffolk Collection. I had used his portrait as embodying the antithesis of Beau Brummel’s strict dictum that less is more when it comes to the colour, cut and design of a gentleman’s clothing.

In the 18th century another woman’s close association with Knole came to an abrupt end for altogether very different reasons. Her reign as the de facto lady of the house ended when her lover married someone else. The dancer Giovanna Baccelli had been the mistress of the 3rd Duke of Dorset in the 18th century and had openly entertained her lover’s guests at Knole. Although she bore his son, the Duke wanted a legitimate heir to inherit his title and lands and so she found herself quietly pensioned off. Nowadays Giovanna has been immortalised at Knole by a rather risqué life-sized reclining nude plaster statue of her, which can be found at the foot of the Painted Staircase.

In the 20th century Vita Sackville-West was mortified that she could not inherit her childhood home of Knole when her own father died. Her friend, the novelist Virginia Woolf, was inspired by both Vita and Knole to write her classic novel “Orlando.” A facsimile of Virginia Woolf’s manuscript for “Orlando” is on display in the Great Hall.  I first read Orlando as a schoolgirl. It constitutes one of my favourite novels. Therefore my journey to Knole was something of a literary pilgrimage.

Even as late as 2004, women at Knole have been treated as 21st century versions of Jane Austen’s Bennett family, whose lives are inexorably blighted by the laws of primogeniture. Catherine Sackville-West recently told the Daily Mail that she had never been back to Knole since her father died in 2004. Catherine and her sisters had all been dispossessed for a male cousin, the current owner. Catherine felt to return to the house would be all too painful. Doubtless, it must have rankled that a precedent had been established in the 19th century for women to inherit Knole. The alternative would have been seeing the house and land passing out of the Sackville family altogether for lack of a suitable male heir.

Knole is a fascinating house with some equally impressive parkland attached. I walked through the latter when the house had closed for the day. Like Henry VIII, I was much taken with the deer. Unlike him, I had no designs on their flesh, although I am rather partial to venison. I kept as far as possible to the road so as not to frighten the deer. Most of them got up and moved further away as I walked past, except one young stag, with baby antlers, who stood his ground and refused to get up from off the grass and instead looked at me unflinchingly. It was almost as if even he realised that it was a man’s world at Knole.

I shall return to the subjectof Knole anon, when I shall describe the interior of the house.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Rime of the Ancient Diner

Last weekend was unusually busy. The Eagle came around for supper on Friday night. On Thursday evening I made 4 double baked cheese soufflés, flavoured with lemon thyme from the garden, and a baked apricot cheesecake, which I left to chill in the fridge overnight. On the day itself I baked a loaf of Finnish rye bread and lemon cupcakes. At the last moment I decided to make watercress soup and serve it instead of the soufflés, which I placed in the freezer for another occasion. As the Eagle was coming around on her own and not with her vegetarian partner, I had the chance to try out a new recipe for Thai butternut squash and seafood red curry.

The Eagle presented me with a wonderful bouquet of flowers. For my part, I plucked the last white rose of summer from my garden and placed it in a small 1930s ceramic wall vase. It has since faded away but it had an exquisite perfume. To my mind it is a travesty that commercially roses often have no scent as their blooms and longevity are prized above possessing a fragrance. The Eagle’s favourite tipple is gin and soda. She had left a large bottle of Bombay Sapphire behind at Brimstone Butterfly Towers the last time she came around for supper, knowing full well that I would not be tempted to secretly quaff it all. However if a stranger saw the range of alcohol in my kitchen they would think me a dipsomaniac despite my protestations to the contrary. The alcohol I buy invariably finds it way into my recipes before it ever reaches my gullet. My personal mantra regarding the use if of alcohol in cooking is always to double the quantity suggested. I once served a home made pâté to guests who were rather partial to spending their evenings at a wine bar or pub. Even their robust palates deemed me over generous with the quantity of brandy lacing the pâté.

When the Eagle left my home in the early hours she took with her half the apricot cheesecake,  5 lemon cupcakes, most of the loaf of rye bread, fresh chillies from my chilli plant and a jar of home made green and red tomato chutney. The previous week I had filled three jars with chutney, made from the last of the tomatoes I had grown in the communal hall. The Eagle, who had previously offered to set me up in a tea-shop, now suggested I sell my cupcakes and breads at the local farmers’ market. She is determined to launch me on a new career in catering. My own career plans for her is that she needs to become even more successful in her own right so that she can afford to hire me as her personal chef.

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of sitting down to a fine luncheon prepared by someone else. The Partridge had invited a number of mutual friends around to her house. As one of the couples was bringing along their young son, holding a meal in the evening was not an option, hence the luncheon. The meal gave me a chance to pass on Red Shoes cordial regards to one of the women present, with whom he had had a long term relationship. It always struck me that the woman had been anxious to prove she was financially independent of him and did not wish to be viewed as a potential drain on his finances. Red Shoes owned a house which he continued to share with a former girlfriend whilst he was seeing my friend. He had claimed that that he could not afford to buy out his ex for her share of the property. Or so he said. Within a few months of my friend and Red Shoes parting company, he became engaged to and then married in double quick time to another woman altogether. They subsequently had two sons. My friend looked shocked when she discovered that her former boyfriend was now a father twice over. “He never wanted children when I knew him,” she said in surprise. She has since married someone else who shares her love of hiking. Her partner is also keen on locally sourced food and spoke against the importing of foodstuffs from abroad. I would have been more impressed with his argument were he not given to taking frequent holidays on the Continent and beyond and travelling there by air. As I have not flown for over 6 years, I shall offset my Fairtrade pineapples and bananas with a clear conscience.

The last time I had seen my friend’s son he had been a baby. We had played a game in which he let a ball drop from his high chair and I would roll it along the ground, before picking it up again and handing it back to him, whereupon, he would repeat the process. Now he was a talkative and boisterous child. When I asked him how old he was he said 4. I archly asked whether that was 4 months or 4 years and he replied “just 4.”  Likewise, he was most indignant when I asked when his birthday was as he said he had just had it. The concept of having  a birthday every year seemed not to have occurred to him. Later, the boy sat at the Partridge’s 1810 piano and tickled the ivories. The keys of the piano were indeed from some poor elephant’s tusks but given its great age, that fact is more palatable and indeed legally permissible than if the keyboard had been fashioned from modern ivory. The child made a tolerable noise. Luckily the Partridge did not have a violin at hand as the kind of racket he would have produced would have been such that only a doting parent could have listened to without visibly wincing. At one point the child’s behaviour earned him the threat of being placed in the family car in the street below all on his own. The rest of us were aghast at the thought of the odium that would be heaped on us all if the child suffered an accident as a result. In the event, his mother escorted him to the car and stayed outside on the pavement once she had proved that her words were no idle threat. Suitably chastened, the child returned to the flat and was on his best behaviour for the rest of the afternoon.

After everyone had left I helped the Partridge clear up and readily accepted her invitation to stay the night as it meant I could visit nearby Fenton House the following day. On Sunday I was given the choice of attending church with the Partridge or making my own separate way to Fenton House. The Partridge is a regular visitor to the latter. It houses a collection of historic keyboards, the earliest dating from the 1540s. Having passed an open audition, the Partridge has secured the right to play the instruments whenever she wishes, subject to contacting Fenton House in advance to ensure there is no prior call on their use. Consequently, she did not mind forgoing the opportunity to wander around Fenton House for once. Nevertheless, she was keen to visit the gardens as the annual Apple Day was being held in its orchards and grounds.

Although I regularly attended Sunday school as a child, I was never a regular churchgoer as an adult being more interested in the architecture than the services. I was intrigued to see what a Sunday church service would be like nowadays. The 19th century church was full as it was celebrating its patron’s day.  I noticed an elaborate  granite memorial on the internal wall over the porch and asked the Partridge why it had been erected. She did not know for the somewhat surprising reason that she had never noticed it before. By contrast she could instantly recall the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had been reburied in the nave of the church, having been disinterred from his earlier resting place in Highgate Chapel in the 1960s. I had momentarily forgotten that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. The latter I had once been able to recite from heart. The poet spent his final years as a patient and house guest of Dr James Gillman who owned a house nearby. The Partridge said he had lived in a garret there but I later discovered that the Gillman family had gone to the trouble of building an extension for their illustrious guest.

Close by Coleridge’s home is the 18th century The Flask public house. I preferred the more striking exterior of the 18th century Crown Inn at Twickenham. As Coleridge was addicted to opium and being treated by Dr Gilman for his addiction, I somehow doubt whether he would ever have strolled down the road to share the odd pint of ale with the locals lest he became addicted to alcohol. Curiously Coleridge and I once shared a medical condition in common, although his was exacerbated by his predilection for ingesting large amounts of opium for recreational purposes.  The autopsy performed on Coleridge’s body revealed he had an enlarged heart when he died, something I use to suffer from until I was treated on the NHS. The latter proved so successful that the technician had difficulty in locating my heart during my last echocardiogram, obliging him to seek assistance from a senior member of staff after a quarter of an hour’s fruitless search. It seems, physically if not metaphysically, my heart is not in the right place.  

The church service had a choir and a small orchestra. Children participated in the first part of the service until they went off to their Sunday school. Before they left one of the men from the orchestra stepped in front of the congregation with a microphone in his hand.
“Hello boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen,” he began, evoking a muttered “Oh my God!” from me.
The man struck a match and asked the onlookers if he could blow it out. He then lit a few more and repeated the question. He asked us to imagine whether it was credible that he could burn down the entire church building with a single match if there were a bonfire high enough. The whole point of this display was so that the man could draw an analogy with the idea of a single small flame of faith setting the world on fire. It was breathtakingly audacious for a Protestant to draw such an analogy in an Anglican church of all places. Had he not heard of the martyrdom of Bishops Ridley and Latimer in 1555 under the bloody reign of Queen Mary I of England?  As the fires were being lit to burn them alive at the stake Bishop Latimer was heard to tell his companion in death: 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'

A woman gave a reading at an excruciatingly slow pace. I was mentally willing her to get on with it as I followed the text from my pew. Then we had the main sermon from a guest preacher. He was the kind of brimstone and hellfire apologist who would probably have told us to clad on our armour and set out on a holy crusade in another age. I could not help feeling that he was rather too fond of his own voice and relished the fact he had a captive audience, too polite to slink out of the church as he droned on. Christian he might have been, charismatic he was not in my opinion. The final hymn left me puzzled. I knew the tune but the words were unfamiliar. Afterwards the Partridge explained that the tune to the hymn by William Young Fullerton was better known as the music for the traditional Irish ballad of Oh Danny Boy.
The saving grace of the entire service was a spirited rendition at the end of Widor’s “Toccata” played on the church organ. Trays of red and white wine, orange juice and little pastries of sweet onions were passed around the remaining congregation. Now that the service was over I was full of good, if not quite the Holy Spirirt, again.   

When we had entered the church it has been a sunny autumn morning. We left, almost two hours later, to heavy rain showers. I was still determined to visit Fenton House, although we did not know whether the Apple Day fete would have been abandoned thanks to the deluge. I shall return to this subject anon.