On Wednesday I ventured into the Tourist Information Desk at Kingston upon Thames and waited patiently whilst an elderly man enquired about a travel card. The man’s wife was hovering nearby and apologised to the woman on duty for his taking up so much of her time. The information officer then turned her attention to me.
A momentary look of alarm crossed her face when I said I was seeking information on a staircase. Her face relaxed when I explained that it was either a 17th or 16th century staircase and that the last time I had seen it, it was to be found within a modern shop.
“It’s in the Next shop by the marketplace” she said with an authoritative air.
I had been looking for the staircase for quite some time, ever since I suddenly recalled its existence, decades after I had first set eyes on it. In a “History of the County of Surrey: Volume 3” edited by H E. Malden and published in 1911, the author explains that the staircase had been part of the Castle Inn but in the early 20th century the inn had been transformed into a shop. When I stumbled across the staircase in the 1980s it was housed within a bookstore. I shall never forget my surprise and delight at my discovery. It was so incongruous to see such an imposing and ancient staircase plonked down in the middle of a modern booksellers Even then I knew that the wine barrels and grapes carved into the staircase indicated that it was very likely to have belonged to an inn at some stage of its existence. In ye olden days before the existence of the internet and long before the Brimstone Butterfly was so much as a caterpillar, I was unable to discover more about the staircase until I found H E Malden’s informative piece on the web. Alas, his description as to the location of the staircase did not help me as the furniture dealers he referred to had long since vanished. Were it not for the good offices of the woman on the Information desk I might well have remained none the wiser as the Next shop displays a modern frontage and from the street can be seen escalators but no ancient staircase. It is only once you have stepped inside the entrance and looked up do you see one flight of the oak staircase, the rest cunningly concealed behind racks of clothes and in-store advertising. Another kind of shop might have made much more of having such a remarkable piece of historic domestic architecture within its walls. I wonder how many people who use it are aware of its antiquity.
I was elated to come across the staircase again after so long an absence and spent a great deal of time photographing it from different angles, narrowly avoiding bumping into the café assistant who brought trays of hot drinks down to the staff on the ground floor. The staircase seemed even more splendid than my memory of it.
As H E Malden’s description of the actual staircase if not the location is as relevant as ever I have reproduced it in its entirety.
“No. 5 Market Place, just opposite (now belonging to Messrs. Hide & Co. furniture dealers, etc.), formerly the Castle Inn mentioned in 1537, retains an early 17th-century staircase from the ground to the second floor; the heavy square newels have carved and panelled sides and ball tops, the carriages or sloping strings are carved as laurel wreaths. The handrails are heavy, and the space between the strings and handrails is filled in with heavy foliage, roses, and other subjects;
at the head of the first flight are three tuns, and on the first floor is a Bacchus seated on a tun and holding up a cup, and there are other human figures worked in with the foliage.
In addition to those described by HE Malden I found further initials: HW and PJW. I also thought one figure was of a hermaphrodite as the figure had women’s breasts beneath the moustachioed head of a man. I noticed that appropriately enough for an inn the finials were shaped like bunches of grapes.
It struck me later that the carvings of the knight on horseback, the dragon and the exotic buildings were out of kilter with the rest of the 17th century staircase in terms of actual design. They seemed far more fluid and graceful in style than the lower parts of the staircase. Moreover, H E Malden fails to even mention them, which suggests they were added after 1911.
There was also a casement window with wooden shutters on the wall along one landing. It looks to be 17th century but I have no idea whether it too had once graced the Castle Inn.
As well as being a beautiful object the staircase represents a mystery. To whom or what did the initials refer to? I found part of the answer in “Pubs, Inns and Taverns of Kingston” by Richard F Holmes published in 2010. He claims that the staircase was part of the Crown Inn and not the Castle Inn, although the two inns were adjacent to one another. But he also believes that external brickwork with the initials SB and the date 1651 refer to one Susan Browne, the owner of the Castle Inn which boasted 27 fireplaces. The brick carcass of 1651 replaced the earlier wooden structure. The initials SB are also to be found in the staircase. Nevertheless it would suit the purposes of this post or at least the title if the staircase once belonged to the Crown Inn so I am settling on the Crown Inn as being the original home of the staircase.
I also gleaned from the Richard F Holmes book that the booksellers, Borders, which I remember from several decades ago was demolished in 1999, leaving the ancient staircase like a ship of antiquity stranded in an ever changing sea of modernity.