Saturday, 28 August 2010

Eastbury Manor House Part Two

Last year I watched a short season of ghost stories on the BBC  set around the titular  "The Crooked House." One episode, called "The Knocker," featured a grand Elizabethan manor house located in the middle of a mundane housing estate. I assumed the television company had used trick photography to achieve the effect. That was until I arrived at Eastbury Manor House and wondered whether the author had been inspired by the place. I took the underground to Upney Park, a place hitherto unknown to me. The architecture in the main was rather drab but it was obvious that a number of people had bought their council houses and had decorated them to suit their own tastes, I was rather impressed by one, I assume pre-war house, which had been rendered with plaster on the outside and decorated with motifs of wheat sheaves akin to designs I had seen on the exteriors of ancient cottages in certain parts of the English countryside. The PVC windows with the mock leaded lights rather spoilt the effect for me.

At the house itself I made my way through the main entrance. I then walked past the original 16th century oak spiral staircase to the enclose courtyard beyond. In the centre was a mature cherry tree whose luscious black fruit lay upon the ground. I was tempted to pick some up but refrained from doing so. I thought the custodians had missed a trick not selling the fruit on to visitors like me. As I looked around I was joined by one of the guides who related at length the history of the place. She explained that of the two turreted staircases only one had survived into the 21st century. That one had been used by the servants. The family staircase had fallen into disrepair and had been pulled down in the 19th century. In recent years the National Trust had agreed that a new turreted staircase could be built in its stead. However they stipulated that it must not be a replica of the other. Rather than have a pastiche the National trust settled on a turret which followed the same foot print of the original but had a cast iron spiral staircase installed as opposed to the original oak staircase. From the traces of a previous hand rail set in the wall it seems this new staircase twists in the opposite direction to the original. The outside of the new turret is covered with oak planks rather than brickwork, the remnants of which can be glimpsed to one side. The oak planks have already started to weather producing a pleasing patina. Thus the modern and the new serve to compliment each other.

The guide ended her story by warning me that when the tea shop would close and left me to my own devices. Having explored the courtyard I decided to venture up the servant’s spiral staircase. It is not for the faint hearted or those subject to vertigo. The servants’ staircase does not possess a handrail as more often than not their hands would be full carrying and fetching things from one part of the house to the other. In addition the ancient broad oak treads had worn away in parts to reveal glimpses of the floor below. Commonsense told me that I was not taking my life in my hands as I slowly and rather labouredly ascended the steps to the very top of the house. My eyes told me something else. I was glad indeed when I reached the top of the turret and could sit down upon the wooden chair thoughtfully placed there for just such a contingency. Fortunately the roof access was padlocked shut, relieving me of the necessity of climbing up the narrow wooden ladder.  From the leaded window I could see the twisted barley chimney stacks but the view itself was otherwise nondescript. The windows would have afforded a far more mysterious and imposing vista in the 16th century when the house was set on high ground and surrounded by lonely marshland.

Now that I had reached the top without falling through the staircase I could take the time to admire the impressive feat of Elizabethan engineering that had gone into is construction.  The fan shaped treads set against the whitewashed walls had a certain rustic beauty to them, the more so since I am especially fond of wooden objects. It is now thought that the treads themselves would once have been painted although this is not apparent to the untrained and naked eye.

Being a connoisseur of home made cakes I was disappointed that such fares were only available at weekends in the cafe. So I settled on a pot of peppermint tea and a packet of crisps. I was seated at a small table by the original open kitchen range. I could still make out marks in the wall of the fireplace where the spits for roasting huge joints of meat would once have been placed.  I could not tell whether the serving hatch cut out of one wall was authentic or added in recent years to facilitate access to the modern kitchen beyond. Then I remembered that Hampton Court Palace had similar serving hatches in the kitchen complex. I was also able to make out a bread oven set high in the wall by the range As I waited for my tea to cool I wandered into an adjacent and empty panelled room. The panelling seemed to be to be more 18th century than Elizabethan. It did not resemble the linen-fold panelling still to be found at Hampton Court Palace and at Sir Ralph Sadlier’s earlier brick built Tudor mansion Sutton House in Hackney. It has also been painted in a drab colour unlike the vibrant colours fashionable in the 16th century. The panelling itself reaches down to the level of the kitchen floor but steps have to be climbed to reach the modern floor. The panelled room acts a a charming overflow for the seating in the kitchen and garden areas. 

Fortified I returned to my tour of the house. The attic rooms now provide a mixture of offices and exhibition space. Originally it would have been divided up into servants’ quarters and a long gallery for the ladies of the house to promenade up and down when the weather was too intemperate to allow them to venture abroad. The latter so called East Attic had on display an exhibition charting the mixed history of the house up until the present day.

This time I used the modern iron spiral staircase to descend to the floor below. The empty rooms betray little of their original purpose or decorative schemes. Tucked away at the end of one chamber I came across an extant garderobe. Although it lacked the flushing mechanism or regal splendour of King George III's water closet at  Kew like the King’s it was possessed of a small window near the top of one external wall to allow ventilation.As with Sir Ralph’s garderobe at Hackney, the Eastbury Manor House garderobe must have once serviced a bedchamber. I was told that of the three modern public conveniences on the same floor, the room set aside for the disabled had something of a mystery attached to it as no one had ascertained its precise purpose when the house was first built.

Little remains of Eastbury Manor’s Tudor decorative scheme except for the Painted Chamber. The walls of the latter were adorned with brilliantly coloured frescos inspired by motifs drawn from the Classical World and were commissioned by Alderman John Moore  when he rented the house in the late 16th century. He ensured that his own coat of arms were incorporated into the wall painting. It was through his step daughter Maria Perez de Recalde that the house became associated with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 as she married Lewis Tresham the younger brother of one of the key conspirators, Francis Tresham.  The latter had the good fortune to die of natural causes in the Tower. I say good fortune because various other conspirators were later hung drawn and quartered as traitors. Lewis went on to become a baronet in 1611, proving that his brother's involvement in the Gunpowder Plot had not irreparably damaged the family's social standing.
The remaining frescoes depict views from an imaginary Renaissance villa. They are greatly faded and only small fragments survive but there is a small model of how the chamber might have looked when first painted. In “The Environs of London: volume 4: Counties of Herts, Essex & Kent” written in 1796 Daniel Lysons hints that even at the close of the 18th century wall  frescoes could be seen in rooms other than simply the Painted Chamber. Unfortunately he offers no further description as to their whereabouts in the house. Posterity not only has Alderman Moore to thank for the  frescoes, his death in 1603 resulted in his executors drawing up an inventory of Eastbury Manor House in 1603 giving  detailed description of the precise furnishings of the principal rooms.

The adjoining East Chamber is missing an ornate fireplace which someonehow found its way into another, much smaller house in the vicinity. It is a pity it is not still in situ but at least it was not simply demolished. I descended to the ground floor by a very prosaic set of steps. By now the tea room was closed for business and  to my regret I was told that I that the air raid shelter was no longer open to the public on account of it being below sea level and consequently extremely damp. I therefore made my way to the Old Hall instead. On display over the fireplace is a specially commissioned modern appliqué commemorating the marriage of the daughter of the man who had built the house: Clement Sysley  Nowadays the Hall is licenced for couples to hold marriage or commitment ceremonies in the chamber.
The walls of the Winter Parlour have exposed brickwork and the room itself was empty. Its counterpart the Summer Parlour was filled with boisterous young children for most of the time I was in the house. The furnishings may have long vanished but it is clear that the parlours would have offered the original family comfortable and spacious accommodation and afforded fine views over the gardens
Before I had arrived at the house I had fondly imagined there would be spacious gardens to explore. I was mistaken. Nevertheless there was far more external space at Eastbury Manor House than remains of Sir Ralph’s formal gardens at Hackney. On a bright summer’s day the enclosed garden and the rest of the open spaces must make pleasant vantage points from which to view the house. When I went the day was predominantly overcast and drizzling.

Eastbury Manor House is one of those hidden jewels in which London  abounds but few people have heard of. It is well worth making the effort to see it.  National Trust Eastbury Manor House