DURING THE PENULTIMATE year of our daughter’s time at secondary school (i.e., high school), we, her parents, were invited to several early evening meetings to hear about options for her higher education. At one of these, representatives from three US universities gave talks about the delights and advantages of studying at universities in the USA. One of the Americans explained that when applying, you should only include things that you were the first to do; things that you were best at; and things that only you have done. She emphasised this by saying:
“You have to be the first, the best, and/or the only.”
Well, our daughter chose not not to move to the USA to study, but, chose to study at Cambridge University. Recently, we visited a country house managed by the National Trust, which can easily claim to be the first and the best, and maybe the the only. The property is in Norfolk and is called the Blickling Estate. Its last owner was Philip Henry Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian (1882-1940), who was instrumental in getting the National Trust Act passed by Parliament in 1937. At his death, he bequeathed the Blickling Estate to the National Trust. It was the FIRST large Jacobean house to become a property run by the National Trust.
Built in the 1620s for a wealthy London lawyer, Sir Henry Hobart (died 1626), who did not live long enough to see it completed, Blickling Hall is the BEST Jacobean building in the care of the National Trust. As for fulfilling the ONLY criterion, as advised by the above-mentioned lady from an American university, this is more difficult because like all other National Trust properties, Blickling Hall is unique; it is the only Blickling Hall.
However, apart from many things that makes Blickling Hall so special, there is one other aspect of it that gives it some extra kudos. Currently, it has the largest second-hand bookshop of all such outlets run by the Trust. But this is a place well worth visiting for its interiors, exteriors, and fine gardens, both formal and otherwise. I feel that it is one of the first places you should see in Norfolk, as well as being one of the best, but only you can judge whether I am right.
THE GROUNDS OF KENWOOD House in north London are delightful at any time of the year. Here you can enjoy the marvels of a fine country house in magnificently landscaped grounds, rivalling rural spots like, for example, Stourhead, Blenhheim, and Compton Verney, without leaving the metropolis. Amongst Kenwood’s many horticultural attractions are the superb flowering bushes such as camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons.
Kenwood was within about half an hour’s brisk walk from my family home in Hampstead Garden Suburb and even nearer Highgate School, which I attended between 1965 and 1970. In amongst the flowering bushes, I remember that there used to be an open-fronted, small round hut with a conical roof. Inside it, there were benches that served as seats. This edifice was labelled ‘Dr Johnson’s Summerhouse’. The Dr Johnson to which this referred was one of Britain’s greatest literary figures, the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). When I used to see this hut during visits to Kenwood in the late 1960s and the 1970s, I used to try to imagine the great Johnson sitting, resting and enjoying the view of the lawns and trees, some of which we can still see today. But, in those days, I was unaware that he never did enjoy these views from this spot.
It turns out that Dr Johnson used his summerhouse not in Kenwood but far away at Streatham Place in what used to be countryside south of London during Johnson’s lifetime. Shaun Traynor wrote:
He added that the grounds of Thrale’s home contained a secluded summerhouse in which Johnson used to read and write. When Henry Thrale (born between 1724 and 1730) died in 1781, his widow Hester remarried, and the Streatham Place with its summerhouse were sold. Thrale’s daughter Susannah, who had been fond of Johnson, moved the hut to her home in Knockholt, Kent in 1826. According to Traynor:
“She erected it on rising ground in the very centre of the grove making all paths lead to it, and making the grove a kind of shrine to Dr Johnson’s memory.”
The years passed, and the summerhouse fell into disrepair. In 1962, a local man, who had great feelings for its historical significance, bought it and then presented it to London County Council (‘LCC’) so that it could be displayed to the public. After restoring it, it was placed in Kenwood at the spot where I recall seeing it, in 1968 (http://www.thrale.com/samuel_johnsons_summer_house). Although it is not inconceivable that Johnson might have visited Kenwood, it is not at all likely that he passed much if any of his spare time in a summerhouse in that garden.
In about 2017, after not having visited Kenwood for two or more decades, I paid it a visit. One of the first things I looked for was Dr Johnson’s summerhouse. I knew exactly where to look, but it was no longer there. After peering in amongst the large clumps of bushes in the spot where I remember that it used to stand, I found an octagonal concrete base. I wondered whether the summerhouse had once stood there. On enquiring at the information desk within Kenwood House, I learnt that the base was all that remained of what I had remembered seeing. I was told that the summerhouse had been destroyed by fire. This fire occurred sometime after 1984, probably 1991 (www.moruslondinium.org/research/dr-johnsons-streatham-park-mulberries). I was saddened to learn of this.
However, all is not lost. Alan Byrne, an artist who used to love sitting in the original Johnsonian summerhouse in Kenwood, has created an accurate replica of the refuge that the great writer used to enjoy. Using detailed plans of the original and other records, he produced an accurate reconstruction during the years 1997 to 1999 (https://www.johnsonsocietyoflondon.org/Dr-Johnson-summerhouse-photos-and-narrative). It stands in his garden in Islington.
Even without Dr Johnson’s summerhouse, Kenwood is well-worth visiting. The gardens alone are splendid, but when it is open, Kenwood House is a ‘must-see’. It contains some fine rooms decorated by Dr Johnson’s contemporary, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) as well as a collection of fine-art paintings that is, after the National Gallery, one of the best in London. When you feel that you have seen enough of Kenwood, then treat yourself to a stroll through its grounds and the contiguous Hampstead Heath to historic Hampstead, a place which offers a great range of eateries and pubs. And, incidentally, Samuel Johnson was no stranger to the place as the historian Thomas Barratt revealed:
“‘Mrs. Johnson for the sake of the country air,’ writes Boswell, ‘had lodgings at Hampstead, to which Johnson occasionally resorted. ‘For his own part, Johnson would doubtless have preferred Fleet Street; but he was fond of his wife, and felt in duty bound to minister to her pleasures as far as his limited means admitted.”
I can sympathise with Mrs Samuel Johnson. I much prefer Hampstead to Fleet Street, even if the former has less countrified air than it did in the 18th century.
A long time ago, I remember seeing an advertisement issued either by Aer Lingus or the Irish tourist board, which said:
“In Ireland, it rains every fifteen minutes for a quarter of an hour”
During my first visit to the Republic of Ireland (Eire) back in 1976, I stayed with some friends in their secluded country house far south of Dublin. Remote as it was, it had a telephone, but it was without a dial. To use the ‘phone, it was necessary to lift the receiver and then turn a small crank several times. This crank sent a signal to the operator at the exchange, who then connected you to the switchboard. Next, you told the operator which number you required, and he or she then tried to connect you.
One night, there was a fierce storm with much wind. On the morning following, one of our party wished to make a ‘phone call. After several attempts to alert the operator with the cranking mechanism, we concluded that the storm had damaged the line connecting the house to the exchange. We thought that it would take many days before this would be repaired. One of my friends suggested that we got in the car and followed the telephone line to discover how and where it was damaged.
Soon, we found the place where the problem had occurred. The wind had caused the two wires that led to the house to become tangled in the branches of the tree. One of my friends stood on the roof of our vehickle and using a long stick, a branch that had been brought down by the storm, managed to disentangle the wires. When we returned to the house, we discovered that the problem had been resolved. Life was so simple in those days!