Thursday, 11 February 2010

A day devoted to Valentines

I was not downcast by the poor state of repair of the 18th mansion at Clissold Park when I paid a visit on Monday. Thankfully, it is in the process of undergoing a major programne of renovation. Likewise, when I visited Valentines Mansion in Ilford several years ago, I knew that it would close its doors that very night to the general public, before embarking on a project to restore it to its former glory. Consequently, I was able to wander around its crumbling interior like an extra from off the set of the Fall of the House of Usher, safe in the knowledge that Valentines Mansion would not share the same wretched fate as that of Edgar Allan Poe’s.

The present house at Valentines was built in the closing years of the 17th century. Successive owners have significantly altered the house and grounds. The latter now forms a large public park, affording a range of sport facilities, as well as plenty of things to interest those of a more horticultural leaning.

I first heard of Valentines Mansion when it featured on the digital television series “Most haunted.” The premise of the show is that its presenters will carry out a series of experiments to test for paranormal activity at a given location. The quality of its experiments was best demonstrated, when one of its psychics picked up a skull from off the counter of a public-house and solemnly declared that it was that of a Victorian woman (Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901). He then went on to assert that the unknown woman had been murdered by a Jacobite solider (the last Jacobite uprising had been quelled in 1745). Thus, the woman was doubly unfortunate. Not only was she slaughtered, but by a man who must have been well over 110 years old at the time. As the psychic unfolded this astonishing tale of a blood thirsty and incredibly long lived Scot, a ticker-tape at the bottom of the screen announced that subsequent DNA tests on the skull had shown that it dated from the Viking era.(circa 793AD to 1066AD).

The paranormals skills of some of the participants might be somewhat wanting, but the programme did afford an opportunity to gawp at locations that might otherwise have remained unknown to me. Thus, one of the shows centred on Hellens Mansion in the county of Herefordshire, the medieval sister building to Southside House at Wimbledon. Legend has it that in the 17th century a young woman living there eloped with a man deemed her social inferior. He died not long afterwards and the young woman was forced to return to the family home, whereupon she was imprisoned in her bedchamber, only leaving it upon her death some three decades later. From what little I can recall of the programme, the ghost hunt at Valentines mansion itself proved fruitless.

I later discovered a horticultural association between Hampton Court Palace and Valentines mansion. In 1758 a vine was planted in the hothouse at Valentines. Ten years later, the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown took a cutting to grow at Hampton Court Palace. That cutting became the legendary Great Vine, which is now deemed the largest and oldest vine in the world. I had toyed with the idea of buying a cutting of the Great Vine to grow at Chateau Brimstone, but since I have never been partial to a glass of wine, I decided against such a step.

With my keen interest in the culinary arts, I much admired the kitchen at Valentines Mansion as it contained a 19th century iron cooking range. I was fascinated by the various ovens and hobs and, since there was nobody about, had fun opening and shutting doors and generally exploring it to my heart’s content. Had I been an original kitchen maid entrusted with the arduous task of keeping it clean, I doubt if I would have been quite so thrilled.

The house also contains an elegant staircase and a large set of windows glazed with coloured Venetian glass. Apart from the fireplaces and sash windows, the rooms themselves were generally nondescript, having been used as council offices for a number of years. Now that Valentines has re-opened its doors to the general public once more, I look forward to seeing what changes have been made.