Among the private gardens and posh white stucco houses that line Pimlico’s streets sits St George’s Square Gardens. Originally laid out in the 19th century, it offers a welcome break from the chain sandwich shops and office blocks of nearby Victoria.
Now that the sun is shining again, I took my new camera lens on a walk to show you why I’ll take any excuse to be there with a book…
St George’s Square was laid out in 1839 and became residential 15 years later. At the time it was open on one side to the Thames and even had its own pier.
The church at one end is St Saviour’s, which was built in 1864 on land gifted by Thomas Cubitt in his will. The church is the last one to be designed by Thomas Cundy Jnr — son of the famous architect. It thankfully survived war damage and a church hall was added in the 1950s.
The church has some impressive connections: Diana, Princess of Wales, worked in the church hall prior to her marriage to Prince Charles and Laurence Olivier was once a choir boy in the church itself.
Nowadays, the church allows the gardens some shelter from the busy Pimlico streets. Big, beautiful lawns sit between a small flower garden at one end and a dog-friendly area at the other, with a fountain and lots of benches in peaceful spots in the middle. The benches are marked with messages dedicated to locals who have passed on and it’s a bitter-sweet experience to read them.
Visit at lunchtime you’ll see a decent amount of Pimlico’s office workers, as well as yummy mummies and boot camps. Though, thankfully, there are still enough quiet corners to while away the minutes before I’m due back at my desk…
Kenwood House in Hampstead (otherwise known as The Iveagh Bequest) has been more than a little elusive to me for just over a year. Neoclassical villas as lovely as this should be seen illuminated by sunshine (or at least decent daylight) however, the British weather has kept me from capturing its full beauty.
I still haven’t managed to get many decent photos of the inside, but I have found out a lot about some of the people who have made Kenwood House what it is today, and I can’t think of a better way to tell you about the house than to tell you about them.
Aside from Lord Iveagh’s art collection (see below), much of what we admire at Kenwood House today is the work of the architect and designer Robert Adam, who was employed alongside his brother James by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, to decorate Kenwood between 1767 and 1779.
“[Lord Mansfield] gave full scope to my ideas: nor were they confined by any circumstances, but the necessity of preserving the proper exterior similitude between the new and the old parts of the buildings.”
Robert Adam, The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam
One of Adam’s most striking designs is undoubtedly the library, which is regarded as one of his finest works; it was intended both to house Lord Mansfield’s vast collection of books and also to be the climax of a visitor’s route through the house.
Adam was so proud of Kenwood’s library that he featured it alongside masterpieces such as Syon House in The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam.
Adam also designed much of the Mansfields’ furniture at Kenwood and there are still examples of his designs dotted around today, including the sideboard, pedestals and wine cooler that can be seen in the modern-day entrance hall (above).
And not forgetting Adam’s changes to the outside of the building, which included the stunning portico on the south front (pictured above). This covers the earlier brick building and hints at the grand interiors that awaited Lord Mansfield’s guests.
Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh
Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (of the Guinness Breweries family) bought Kenwood House in 1925 to house part of his collection of paintings, with the intention of leaving it all to the nation in his will. When he died two years later, he bequeathed 63 paintings to Kenwood and stipulated that the house should be opened to the public so that some of his most treasured paintings could be enjoyed by everyone.
The 63 paintings that Lord Iveagh left are still displayed and conserved at Kenwood by English Heritage and include Rembrandt’s self-portrait — bought for £27,500 in 1888 — and other works by Turner, Reynolds and Gainsborough, which are all still available to see and enjoy for free.
Born in 1761, Dido Belle (pictured above left with her cousin) was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved black woman called Maria Bell. It’s believed that Dido was conceived during one of her father’s trips to Jamaica as an Royal Navy officer.
Dido, Maria and her stepfather were living in London by 1766, before Dido was moved to Kenwood House to be raised by Lord Mansfield, her father’s uncle. By this time, her mother had moved back to Jamaica.
While records of her annual allowance suggest that her status within the household was below that of the rest of her family at Kenwood, Dido was raised as a lady. She was taught to read, write and play music, and supervised Kenwood’s dairy — a task normally given to the lady of the house.
As a mixed-race gentlewoman living in London at the height of the slave trade, Dido’s status within the house was extremely unusual for the time. Visitors to the house commented on her closeness to her cousin Elizabeth; in the only known painting of Dido (above) she is dressed in expensive clothes like her cousin, however, the fruit she carries and her turban suggest that she is still considered different.
Her uncle’s will left Dido with less inheritance than her cousin, although this may have also been because she was illegitimate.
According to her father’s obituary, Dido’s personality and skills gained ‘the highest respect from all his Lordship’s relations and visitants’. She never returned to Jamaica; instead, she moved to Pimlico where she lived with her husband and three children until her death in 1804.
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield
The second of our notable Kenwood residents is Dido Belle’s great uncle (and Robert Adam’s patron) William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who bought the house for £4,000 in 1754.
Lord Mansfield became Lord Chief Justice shortly after acquiring the house and, as the most important judge in the country, he made sure the house reflected his own increasing wealth and status. He was known as an entertainer and Kenwood provided the perfect backdrop to host fellow lawyers, politicians, artists and — according to the artist William Birch — King George III and Queen Charlotte.
But among Lord Mansfield’s most prominent achievements was his contribution to the abolition of the slave trade. As Lord Chief Justice he presided over landmark court cases in the history of slavery and the slave trade. These included the case of James Somerset 1772, in which he ruled that slaves could not be sent out of England against their will.
The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was still 61 years away, but Lord Mansfield’s ruling is widely held to be one of the key moments in the road to the end of the transatlantic slave trade.
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One of my favourite quiet places in London has to be Camley Street Natural Park in King’s Cross and I’m very glad to report that I learned of a potential rival to its (very green) crown in yesterday’s beautiful sunshine.
Meanwhile Gardens sit alongside the Grand Union Canal near Westbourne Park station. They were built on derelict wasteland in 1976 to create some much-needed green space and to use an area that had been recently cleared of crumbling houses. The council gave temporary permission to build the gardens, hence the name ‘Meanwhile’.
The gardens we see today are the result of a restoration project in 2000 and truly live up to their name as a community project; the gardens are supported by youth offenders carrying out their reparation orders and in turn help support those with mental health problems.
They also encapsulate the diversity of this west London community — at one end is this quiet green space and at the other is a renowned skate park.
They’re also super-peaceful; even on the hottest day of the year so far, I still managed to find a quiet spot. If it hadn’t been for a meeting back in central London, I could easily have sat here for hours, listening to the world go by on the canal and watching the sunlight slowly drift along the Moroccan tiles.
To find Meanwhile Gardens and enjoy them for yourself, simply exit the Hammersmith & City/Circle line at Westbourne Park and head west along the canal (towards Ladbroke Grove).
“It is a place where one can forget the hurly-burly of London … and sense a respect for the craftsmanship, imagery and colour of a less shallow era than our own.”
Article in Antique Collector, August 1937
Walk up to the imposing gates of Burgh House just off Flask Walk in Hampstead High Street and you might expect stories of the people who have lived here and perhaps a potted history of the building. But what you get is something more refreshing, accessible and fascinating for anyone with an interest in London history.
I visit a lot of historic houses in London — I’ve even volunteered at this one. They all show you a different side of London, and Burgh House adds the history of Hampstead to the mix.
The history of Burgh House
The house itself has all the style and grace that you’d expect from an 18th-century Hampstead home. It was built in 1704 in what was then fashionable Hampstead Wells, on land that was reclaimed from Hampstead Heath. Over its 300-year history, it has been inhabited by everyone from politicians and physicians to West India merchants and the Royal East Middlesex Militia — but it’s Burgh House’s place in Hampstead’s community history that has long been its outstanding feature.
When John Keats was dying in nearby Well Walk (now Keats House), Israel Lewis — the house’s longest resident — sent fruit ‘of the nicest kind’ from the Burgh House orchard.
Frequent visitors to the house have included Samuel Wesley, the future Edward VIII and The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling — Kipling’s daughter, Elsie Bambridge, lived here with her husband. Elsie later wrote:
“Our life in the delightful old house and garden in Hampstead was a source of happiness to my father to the end of his life.”
Elsie Bambridge, daughter of Rudyard Kipling
But the residents of Burgh House were not always so renowned. The Rev. Allatson Burgh — who lived here between 1822 and 1856 — was so unpopular at his church of St. Lawrence Jewry that his parishioners tried to have him removed by petitioning Queen Victoria. Samuel Wesley’s description of Burgh is my favourite part of this story: ‘an odd fellow … and as diverting as Punch’.
Burgh House today
After Kipling’s death in 1936, the Bambridges left Burgh House and it was left to dilapidate until 1946, when Hampstead council announced plans to turn it into a museum.
After a shaky few years in the 1970s, when celebrities including Judi Dench had to be called in to help save it from developers, the house was saved by the newly-formed Burgh House Trust and restored into the beautiful house we see today.
The house and museum are now a celebration of Hampstead’s rise from a settlement for forest hunters in 7000 BC to a luxury haven in the present day.
Key events in the area’s history, including its use as a Tudor hunting ground and the London Underground’s stint as an air raid shelter in the second world war, are brought to life via tiny models (the lovely kind you only see in local museums), images and a collection of 3,000 objects.
The Buttery Cafe is probably one of the best historic house cafes I’ve been to in London — as well as the usual tea, coffee and cakes you’d expect, they also have a brunch/lunch menu full of locally-sourced, homemade food. The sweet potato hash was enough to tempt even my carnivore other-half (whose chorizo version was made with free-range pork) and I’d walk over hot coals to taste their hot chocolate again.
I hear their Sunday lunches are incredible, too — but you’ll have to beat me there…
Opening times: Wednesday, Thursday Friday and Sunday:12pm-5pm
A few Saturdays ago, I joined forces with Saira from Living London (if you haven’t read her blog yet, you really should) and a few other London bloggers to explore the quieter side of some of south London’s busiest areas: Waterloo, Lambeth and Vauxhall.
Along the way, we discovered a poet’s paradise underneath abandoned railway arches, a city farm full of strange birds and Banksy’s “secret” tunnel. Here are my highlights — check Saira’s wanderings page for upcoming tours of her other London secrets…
The Graffiti Tunnel, Leake Street
Created by Banksy during the Cans Festival in 2008, The Graffiti Tunnel is a spectacle for anyone with even the remotest interest in street art. It’s completely legal and anyone can paint here — it’s so popular that you can come here a few days apart and see very different artwork in the same spot.
It’s definitely not crowded and worth a visit if you want something off the beaten track in this tourist-heavy area — but if you’re hoping for a serene paradise, maybe skip this one…
This tiny garden, art gallery and event space sits just behind St Thomas’ Hospital and the banks of the River Thames. You’d have to know it was here to find it, which made it a great pit-stop for our walk.
Old Paradise Yard was once a school for the children of Lower Marsh traders before it became a Tibetan Buddhist centre. The old school rooms have been turned into studios and they also host a cafe and evening events, but it was so peaceful here during the day on the Saturday we visited.
“Mosaic is a metaphor for London: all the peoples, tribes, creeds, colours, clans, cultures, faiths and freedoms coming together to make a brilliant whole.”
Another tunnel (or, more accurately, another four tunnels), this time demonstrating Londoners’ ability to make something beautiful out of the dingiest of places. The 70 stunning mosaics within the railway arches of Lambeth were created by 300 volunteers over a period of seven years and you could spend a whole afternoon reflecting on them.
The connection with William Blake is a local one — the poet lived round the corner for 10 years from 1790 to 1800. In 1809, he wrote that he wanted his art enlarged and displayed in a public space — two centuries later, Southbank Mosaics have made his wish a reality.
Our last stop on our wandering was a bit of a surprise for everyone — we definitely saved the best ’til last. Owing to the popularity of our planned final pit-stop, the Tea House Theatre, we were forced to look elsewhere for a well-deserved rest. But, as is often the way, in our search for somewhere else we found a wonderful hidden gem to add to our repertoires.
The Ragged Canteen is set in the old Lambeth Ragged School building, serving delicious vegetarian food (with vegan/gluten-free options), Monmouth coffee and fairtrade tea. They have free wifi so it’s perfect for getting work done, but it was also the ideal spot for five bloggers who just wanted to swap stories.
Fen Court has been a churchyard and burial ground since 1331, so it’s fitting that this diminutive garden was so quiet when I chanced upon it one dreary Sunday afternoon.
The site was once the graveyard for St Gabriel Fenchurch, which was lost in the Great Fire of London, and is now a garden dedicated not only to the people buried here but also to the abolition of the slave trade.
Settled next to the fading graves that are dotted around the space, you’ll find 17 “sugar cane” sculptures that rise up to create a slave auctioneer’s pulpit. Opened by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2008, the sculpture (named Gilt of Cain) was designed by Michael Visocchi to commemorate the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807.
Like many of the green spaces in the City, the unassuming Fen Court is surrounded by ostentatious office blocks; come here during the week and you’ll meet many of their inhabitants on their lunch breaks.
Venture here during the weekend, though, and those same office blocks will shelter you from the hustle and bustle of a London day, leaving you with only the past for company.
The site of The Charterhouse in Smithfield, London, has been a burial ground, a monastery, a private Tudor mansion, a school and an almshouse. It was used by both Elizabeth I and James I to conduct business before their respective coronations, and appears in works by Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.
And, for 2017, it’s added another string to its bow — it’s opened its doors to visitors and has a shiny new museum to show for it.
The museum opened on 27th January and tells the story of the site from the present day back to 1348, when it was used as a burial ground for plague victims. It’s small (and free) but packed with artefacts that are linked to the building’s history or that have been excavated — including the skeleton of an unfortunate plague victim on the way out.
Tours of the rest of the building — including the Great Chamber where Elizabeth I held court and the Tudor mansion — take place three times a day. Unfortunately, I missed the tours this time — book in advance as they’re very popular — but watch this space for a review when I’ve made it on one…