Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Osterley Park and House: Part Two.

Though I have but scant interest in matters equestrian, I could tell that the stable block at Osterley Park, when viewed from the side and rear elevations, was built on far too grand a scale simply to accommodate horses, albeit those belonging to a Tudor queen and her peripatetic court. In the past, the stables incorporated a huge barn to store agricultural produce, a dairy (though I doubt one as elegant as that at Ham House) a brewhouse and a laundry. 

One range of stabling survives on into the 21st century although it contains a small collection of carriages and early fire fighting equipment rather than living, breathing quadrupeds. The café, ticket office and gift shops have also been stabled here. 

The interior of the current stables, with its striking neo-classical arches, pillars and herringbone pattern tiled floor, dates from the early 18th century, when the Child family added the central clock tower.

Robert Adam expected contemporary visitors to enter the mansion having first climbed up the steep steps by the Transparent Portico. Present day visitors use the more modest entrance at the side of the house. Covering the headphones to my audio guide with my redoubtable straw hat, now so ancient it must be deemed vintage, I made my way through what would have been the service corridors. 

Misreading the label to the chamber I confused coal with Child and was momentarily alarmed to think young children had been kept in such dark and dank subterranean pens. A second glance reassured me that it was only coal that had been stored here.

I was on safer ground in the Pastry Room, equipped with the paraphernalia to make sweet and savoury pastries. There was a lead lined sink for washing and a marble topped counter to roll out the pastry on. An apocryphal story relates how an English duke was appalled to learn that a cost cutting exercise would deprive him of a pastry chef. “Mightn’t a man be allowed a biscuit?” he is supposed to have exclaimed in anguish.

The main kitchen came equipped with a 1920s range, an 18th century bread oven and a mid-Victorian pastry oven, the original open fire cooking hearth having long being replaced. 

A wooden contraption, which reminded me of a sledge, stood in an alcove. I now think it must have been the wooden rack used to carry ice from the ice-house or slabs of meat to the kitchen. The marble pestle and mortar brought to mind the far larger one in the kitchens at Hampton Court. Unlike in Henry VIII’s palace, a female cook ruled the 18th century kitchens at Osterley.

Three narrow steps led into the small scullery where the crockery and glass was washed by hand by maids who had no access to running water, hot or otherwise. The stone steps have been worn down through overuse. I imagine the scullery maids were pretty run down too byt the end of their working day. Sad to tell the Servants’ Hall was closed to visitors as Osterley didn’t have enough stewards to be able to open it up on the day I visited, which only goes to show that you really cannot get the staff these days! That was a pity because, judging by the picture in the guidebook, it looks rather impressive with its black and white flagstone floor, its vaulted ceiling, stone columns and large marble fireplace. It seems odd that the empty servants’ hall was closed but the furnished rooms belonging to the Steward and his wife were open for visitors to freely stroll around.   

Mrs Bunce was married to Edward Bunce, the 18th century steward, and apparently provided him with administrative support. Her room echoes her husband’s in that both have dark wooden panelling and large marble fireplaces. In one of the cupboards in Mrs Bunce’s room I found what I took to be wig stands. Also on the service floor were the locked Jersey Galleries. I can find no reference to them in the guidebook so must assume they are no longer in use. Another room was given over to a small exhibition on Osterley during World War Two.

Next to this was a small kitchen. It had an iron range and a flagstone floor but why it was so far apart from the main kitchens I cannot tell.  Nearby, I came across an unlocked door in the corridor which led up an exceedingly narrow flight of stone steps. I switched on the light and ventured up the stairs, adopting the policy that unless somewhere is locked or has a sign forbidding entry, then I will take a peek. The stairs led to a dumb waiter. I heard a voice calling after me.“It’s a dead end” a man said. I descended the stairs, mission accomplished. “Someone should lock that door,“ grumbled a woman steward and muttered that people ought not to open closed doors, which is rather an odd philosophy, given that visitors are often told to close the doors behind them, as they pass from room to room in other stately homes. Such was the case at Chenies.

I discovered yet another unlocked door which, this time, led up to the ground floor and the Etruscan room. But the way was barred by rope so I returned to the basement. The basement door must make the loudest creaking noise I have ever encountered.

Luckily there were no closed or creaking doors to contend with as I entered the beer cellar and the wine cellar respectively. In the corridor outside, the red brick of the original Tudor mansion built by Sir Thomas Gresham was exposed where the whitewash had faded away.

I was very surprised to discover that the Strong Room still contains an impressive collection of 17th century and later gold and silver plate. Further along the corridor was a glass case containing the room labels used to identify which bell had been rung to summon servants. It seems Osterley House was one of the first mansions in England to use bells to summon servants, rather than keeping them waiting outside every room on the off-chance of being needed. I heard no bells, but nonetheless I answered the summons to explore the upper floor of the house, a subject I shall return to anon. 

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