IT IS ODD how seeing a mundane object can stimulate less than mundane thoughts. Embedded into a wall in Salcombe (Devon), I saw an official post box for depositing mail. At first, I took little notice of it. Then, when I saw it a second time, I noticed that its red-painted front bears the letters “GR”. This refers to a King George. Because the first letter boxes were installed in the reign of Queen Victoria, the GR on the letter box in Salcombe must refer either to George V (reigned 1910-1936) or George VI (reigned 1936-1952) because the other King Georges all preceded Victoria.
Possibly the GR on the box in Salcombe refers to George V because he was the first George to follow Victoria, in whose reign the boxes bore the letters “VR” (Victoria Regina). Even though Edward VII was the first monarch to follow Victoria, boxes installed in his reign include the Roman numeral VII. Likewise, in the case of other monarchs who followed Victoria, their initials on post boxes include numerals identifying which king or queen they denoted (i.e., E VII R, G VI R and E II R). Not having ever looked out for it before, I am not sure whether any post boxes installed during the reign of George V bear the logo G V R or, as I saw in Salcombe, simply GR. A rapid search of the Internet revealed that most George V post boxes illustrated on websites dealing with post boxes bear the letters GR, as was the case with the example I noticed in Salcombe.
I suppose that when Charles or his son William come to the throne, letter boxes, if they still exist in the age of electronic mail, will bear the logos “C III R” and “W V R” respectively, rather than “CR” and “WR”. Why the V (meaning ‘5’) was not included on the post boxes issued during the reign of George V but the VII (meaning ‘7’) appears on those installed during his predecessor’s reign is not clear to me.
WHILE WALKING IN CAMBRIDGE, I spotted a pair of pillar boxes. At first sight they looked identical but soon I realised that they were not. One had a wider orifice for inserting letters than the other. The wider one bears the ‘logo’ of Queen Elizabeth II and its neighbour with the narrower slit bears the logo of the Queen’s father, King George VI. Apart from these differences, there were much the same.
The two pillar boxes I saw in Cambridge are not particularly old. The first post box on the British mainland was placed in Carlisle in 1853. The idea of using such receptacles for collecting mail is connected with the author Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). An informative website (https://www.postalmuseum.org/collections/highlights/letter-boxes/#) related:
“Anthony Trollope, now more famed as a novelist, was, in the 1850s working as a Surveyor’s Clerk for the Post Office. Part of his duties involved him travelling to Europe where it is probable that he saw road-side letter boxes in use in France and Belgium.He proposed the introduction of such boxes to Britain and a trial on the Channel Islands was approved. Four cast-iron pillar boxes were installed on the island of Jersey and came into use on 23 November 1852. In 1853 the trial was extended to neighbouring Guernsey. None of the first boxes used on Jersey survive. It is possible that one still in use on Guernsey together with another in our collection, originally sited in Guernsey, date from the 1853 extension to the trial.”
Before the introduction of pillar boxes:
“… there was [sic] principally two ways of posting a letter. Senders would either have to take the letter in person to a Receiving House (effectively an early Post Office) or would have to await the Bellman. The Bellman wore a uniform and walked the streets collecting letters from the public, ringing a bell to attract attention.”
Well, all that history is news to me and I might not have bothered to find out about it had I not seen the father and daughter pillar boxes standing side=by-side in Cambridge’s Market Square.
HOME HOUSE IN London’s Portman Square was completed in 1777 for the wealthy Elizabeth Home, Countess of Home (c1703-1784). Born in Jamaica into a slave-owning family, her wealth was produced by the unpaid labour of slaves imported from Africa. The house is remarkable, especially for its intricately detailed interior décor designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).
In 1933, Home House became home to the Courtauld Institute of Art, now part of the University of London. A close friend of mine, now sadly deceased, studied at the Courtauld for both his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate. Whilst writing his doctoral thesis, my friend was supervised by Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-1983). Blunt was the director of the Courtauld from 1947 to 1974. He was also in charge of the Royal Collections of art from 1945 onwards. In addition, he carried out much important scholarly work in the field of history of art. Blunt, as director of the Courtauld, was given a flat in Home House.
Until 1979, few people knew, or even suspected, that Blunt had been involved with spying for the Soviet Union. When this came out into the public domain, Blunt’s downfall commenced. He was stripped of his knighthood and his Honorary Fellowship at Cambridge’s Trinity College was rescinded. Also, Blunt resigned as a Fellow of the British Academy. Soon after his exposure as an espionage agent, who worked against his own country for the Soviet Union, Blunt ceased residing at Home House. In 1989, the Courtauld Institute shifted from Home House to larger premises in Somerset House in the Strand. Home House remained vacant until 1998, by which time it had been beautifully restored and adapted to become a private social club. During a recent visit to Home House when we were entertained by a friend, our host, a member, took us to see an interesting exhibit, which is housed in the wash basin area of one of the Club’s unisex toilets. We were shown a glass-fronted display case containing a wooden furniture item. It bears a label with the words: “From the bathroom of Sir Anthony Blunt”. The labelled object is the toilet seat on which Blunt must have sat numerous times, and its wooden lid. Another case in the room contains Blunt’s telephone. Although the loo seat and the ‘phone are unremarkable except for their provenance, the rest of Home House is a visual delight.
WE VISIT RICHMOND regularly to see a couple of friends, with whom we almost always take a stroll, usually somewhere reasonably near their home. They know that I love seeing places that I have never visited before and almost always they take us to see something that they feel might interest us. On our most recent walk with them, taken in October 2021, we began by walking across Richmond Green, taking a path that was new to us. At the western edge of the green, we crossed a road and immediately reached a Tudor gateway that leads into an open space surrounded by buildings. The open space is on the site of a now mostly demolished royal residence that was particularly liked by Queen Elizabeth I.
The royal residence was Richmond Palace. It was built by King Henry VII, when the 14th century Shene Palace, which used to stand on the site, was destroyed by fire in December 1497. Henry VII built a new palace on the same ground plan of Shene Palace. Richmond Palace, as the new building was named, was used continuously a royal residence until the execution of King Charles I in January 1649.
On a wall facing a pathway leading from the old gatehouse to the River Thames, there is a commemorative plaque with the following carved on it:
“On this site extending eastwards to cloisters of the ancient friary of Shene formerly stood the river frontage of the Royal Palace first occupied by Henry I in 1125…”
It adds that Edward III, Henry VII, and Elizabeth I all died in the palaces that stood on this riverside site in Richmond.
“While the brick buildings of the outer ranges survived, the stone buildings of the Chapel, Hall and Privy Lodgings were demolished and the stones sold off. By the restoration of Charles II in 1660, only the brick buildings and the Middle Gate were left.”
The same source relates that after being owned by the Duke of York, who became King James II, and after he was deposed:
“The remains of the palace were leased out to various people and, in the early years of the 18th century new houses replaced many of the crumbling brick buildings. ‘Tudor Place’ had been built in the open tennis court as early as the 1650s, but now ‘Trumpeters’ House’ was built in 1702-3 to replace the Middle Gate, followed by ‘Old Court House’ and ‘Wentworth House’ (originally a matching pair) in 1705-7. The Wardrobe building had been joined up to the Gate House in 1688-9 and its garden front was rebuilt about 1710. The front facing the court still shows Tudor brickwork as does the Gate House. ‘Maids of Honour Row’ replaced most of the range of buildings facing the Green in 1724-5 and most of the house now called ‘Old Palace’ was rebuilt about 1740.”
During our recent perambulation with our friends, we saw most of the buildings listed in the quote above but not the Maids of Honour Row. They also pointed out that Richmond Green, across which we walked, was used for jousting tournaments in mediaeval times. Today, this pleasant green space close to Richmond’s main shopping street is used for more peaceful purposes including walking, both human beings and their canine companions.
Once again, a visit to our friends in Richmond has resulted in opening our eyes to new places of great interest, and for that we are most grateful.
MANY PEOPLE REGRET having to wear spectacles. I am not a part of that crowd.
When I went to school and university, my eyesight was so good that I did not need to consider wearing glasses. However, many of my fellow pupils were not born with such satisfactory vision and were forced to wear spectacles. I felt that those who wore glasses looked far more intelligent than those who did not. I do not know when and from whom I got that rather ridiculous idea. My parents did not wear glasses until they were about 45 years old, by which time I was in my early teenage. Yet, I knew they were both intelligent long before they discovered that they were having to hold their newspapers and books ever increasingly further from their eyes before they finally resorted to wearing spectacles.
I qualified as a dentist in 1982 without needing to wear glasses apart from safety goggles whilst drilling teeth at the dental school. About three years later, I decided it would be a good idea to protect my eyes whilst treating my patients. Instead of goggles such as handymen (and handywomen) use, I decided to ask an optician to make me a pair of ‘specs’ with tough plain lenses. I was extremely pleased with my spectacles. Wearing them, I looked in the mirror and immediately felt more intelligent, however ridiculous this might sound.
As I approached my mid-forties, the plain lenses needed to be replaced with prescription lenses as my eyesight was no longer what it had been. After a year or so, I began noticing two things. First, at night I was seeing three red traffic lights where there was only one. Secondly, when sitting far away from the stage in a theatre, I could hear what was being said or sung but the performers on the stage were barely distinguishable from one another. Watching a play was a bit like watching from afar insects moving about. Enter my new pair of long-distance ‘specs’ and these problems were resolved. But now I had two carry around two pairs of glasses: one for reading and the other for seeing afar. The solution was to try bifocals, which I have grown to like.
My first pair of spectacles was made by an optician’s firm in Kent, near where I worked. Since then, I have had several pairs made extremely competently in Bangalore, India. Most of my Indian ‘specs’ have been made by a company called Lawrence and Mayo (‘L&M’), which has several branches in the city. We favour the branch that used to be on Mahatma Gandhi (‘MG’) Road, but has, since the construction of Bangalore’s metro train system, been located nearby in Barton Tower, which overlooks MG Road. This branch has supplied eye care for several generations of my wife’s family and at least one of the staff has known members of at least four generations.
“…set up optical businesses in two cities simultaneously: London and Kolkata. Later they went on extending their businesses all over the world … After Kolkata, they went ahead in setting up their branches over large cities of India. It soon gained the reputation as being known as authorised opticians to kings and viceroys alike …”
Apart from London and India, the company had branches in Cairo, Spain, Portugal, Colombo, Rangoon, and Singapore.
“They were Opticians, Watchmakers and Craftsmen of fine custom made Jewellery, which they used to embellish on customised spectacles for Royal Families, Prince and Princesses based on colour stones based on their coat of arms.”
Of the Lazrus family I found the following information (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/Community/exe/history/lazarus.htm):
“Frank Lazarus (s. of Mathilda Lyon and Lippa Lazarus of Plymouth), who married into a family who were among the founders of the Jewish community of Hartford Conn., USA, and who later returned to England. He was in the optical business and apparently had a business called Lawrence and Mayo, with a branch in India, and which is now one of the biggest and the oldest optical firms in India.”
Of the Myers, I have not yet managed to discover anything about them.
However, I have found that amongst their many customers, the Indian branches have served some well-known people including Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, and J.R.D. Tata. As if that were not enough, they have supplied eyewear to:
“…queens, viceroys, barons and other people of high repute chose Lawrence & Mayo as their personal optician. During the Wimbledon Finals of 1923, Queen Mary was spotted styling the Amulet inspired glare protectors from Lawrence & Mayo.” (https://youandeyemag.com/optician/lawrence-mayo/)
Although the quality of the work they have done for me is more than satisfactory, learning about some of their former customers is additionally gratifying.
Today, the 5th of January 2021, about two years since I last obtained a new pair of specs from L&M in Bangalore’s Barton Tower, I picked up a new pair from a local optician, owned by an Indian optometrist in London. I am about to give them a ‘test drive’ and hope that they will be as satisfactory as those made by Gandhi’s erstwhile optician. They are certainly better looking than the glasses that appear in many portrayals of the Mahatma.
CHEYNE WALK RUNS along the left bank of the River Thames from midway between the Battersea and Albert Bridges to 245 yards downstream of the Albert Bridge. Before 1866, Cheyne Walk ran along the shoreline, but after the construction of Chelsea Embankment it became separated from the waterfront. Today, while walking along this lane east from the Albert Bridge, we spotted the narrow Cheyne Mews. A sign at its entrance intrigued me. It reads:
“King Henry VIII’s manor house stood here until 1753 when it was demolished after the death of its last occupant, Sir Hans Sloane. Nos. 19 to 26 Cheyne Walk were built on its site in 1759-65. The old manor house garden still lies beyond the end wall of Cheyne Mews and contains some mulberry trees said to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I.”
The manor and village of Chelsea was already in existence in the Anglo-Saxon era (between the departure of the Romans and 1066), when a document records it as ‘Cealchylle’. The 11th century Domesday book names it ‘Cercehede’ and ‘Chelched’. The manor was owned by the Abbey at Westminster until the reign of King Henry VII, when it was in the hands of Sir Reginald Bray (c1440-1503), a highly influential figure during the king’s reign. Next, it changed hands a couple of times before being possessed by William, Lord Sandys (1470-1540), a diplomat, Lord Chamberlain, and a favourite of King Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547). Sandys, who disapproved of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn (c 1501/07 – 1536), accompanied the unfortunate Anne to the Tower of London, where she was imprisoned.
In 1536, Sandys gave the manor to King Henry VIII. The much-married king gave it to his last spouse, Katherine Parr (1512-1548) as part of her dowry. She lived in the manor house after the coronation of King Edward VI in January 1547 until she died. After her death, the manor was owned by the soldier and politician John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-1553). Then the manor passed through many owners until the physician and founder of the British Museum Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) bought it in 1712 from the Tory politician Lord William Cheyne (1657-1728).
There were two manor houses in Chelsea, an old one and a new one. The old one, which was given to the Lawrence family by Henry VIII was close to Chelsea Old Church that stands to the west of the Albert Bridge. The New Manor House stood on Cheyne Walk where we saw the sign. It stood near a coffee house that was flourishing when Sloane bought the manor, Don Saltero’s Coffee House, founded in 1695 by James Salter. Saltero’s was originally a barber’s shop until Sloane began donating unwanted specimens to his former servant and travelling companion, the owner of Saltero’s. Salter displayed these specimens (botanical, zoological, and other), collected on Sloane’s travels, in cabinets and gradually the barber shop was transformed into ‘Don Saltero’s Coffee House and Curiosity Museum’. This establishment attracted local men to become its customers, including Sir Isaac Newton.
Sloane’s purchase was a shrewd investment because at the time London was expanding westwards. His biographer James Delbourgo wrote:
“The manor cost the considerable sum of £17,800 and included a total of eleven houses and the Manor House itself … As a suburban equivalent of a country seat, the manor grounded Sloane’s gentlemanly identity. It also bought him about 90 acres of land … as a freeholder, and an unknown number of tenements, on which he began to collect his own rents.”
I have found an engraving of the appearance of the Chelsea manor house that stood on Cheyne Walk in a book published in the 1880s. The image resembles that included on a map of Chelsea surveyed in 1664 by James Hamilton and redrawn in 1717 (www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1880-1113-1221), but the exact location of the house is not marked on the map.
Apart from the commemorative sign at Cheyne Mews and the garden, to which we were unable to gain access, King Henry VIII’s manor house has completely disappeared. I wondered whether Chelsea’s Kings Road had any links to Henry VIII’s ownership of the manor, but it does not. It began as a private road used by King Charles II, who came to the throne long after Henry VIII, when travelling from London to Kew, and was only made a public thoroughfare in 1830. The site of the former manor house owned by Sloane is but a few minutes’ walk from the Chelsea Physic Garden, some of whose land was leased to the Society of Apothecaries for a small amount by Sloane when he acquired the manor.
Finding small things of great interest like the sign on Cheyne Mews is one of many things that increases my ever-growing fascination with London.
WHEN I FIRST VISITED Kew Gardens, I was a teenager, the entrance fee was sixpence (2.5 pence), and you entered via a metal turnstile. I did not visit Kew often in those days because it was a long way from my family home in northwest London. Recently, we have been exploring the delights of Kew Gardens occasionally with our friends who live in the heart of nearby Richmond town. During our most recent visit, whilst drinking coffee outside the former Orangery, now café, I stared at the nearby red brick building, Kew Palace, and began wondering about the history of the site, where the botanical gardens now stand, before Kew Gardens were opened to the public in 1840.
Kew Palace, which is also known as the ‘Dutch House’, now within the botanical gardens, was built on the site of a 16th century house, the ‘Dairy House’, in 1631. It is one of the oldest of the buildings standing by the Thames and was built for Samuel Forterie (1567-1643), a merchant of Dutch descent. After King George II (reigned 1727-1760) came to the throne, the building was used as a residence by various members of the royal family including King George III during some of his periods of illness.
For a long time, Kew Palace was not the only royal residence in what is now Kew Gardens. Before the Dutch House, now Kew Palace, was built by Forterie, a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley (1532-1588), 1st Earl of Leicester, lived in its predecessor. His house was close to one owned by the Keeper of the Privy Seal, Sir John Puckering (1544-1596), which Elizabeth visited both in 1594 and 1595.
Kew Palace was opposite a much larger building, Kew House, also known as the ‘White House’. Originally built in the Tudor era, it was first owned by Richard Bennet, son of the Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bennet (1543-1627). Richard’s daughter and heir, Dorothy, married Sir Henry Capel (1638-1696) and they lived in Kew House. After Dorothy was widowed, she continued living at Kew House until her death in 1721. The next owner of the house was the astronomer and politician Samuel Molyneux (1689-1728), who married a grandniece of Lord Capel.
Two years after Molyneux died, Frederick (1707-1751), Prince of Wales, father of King George III, leased Kew House from the Capel family. He and his wife, Princess Augusta (1719-1772) lived at Kew House, and employed the great designer William Kent (1685-1748) to decorate the house and to lay out the grounds. After Frederick died, Augusta began the creation of the ‘Exotic Garden’, the forerunner of the present Kew Gardens. The architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796) was put in charge of the works. In addition to the well-known pagoda (erected 1761-62) and still in existence, he oversaw the building of at least twenty structures in the garden. Many of these have been demolished, but amongst those still standing are The Orangery (1757-61), The Ruined Arch (1759), The Temple of Bellona (1760), and The Temple of Aeolus (1763).
After Augusta died, King George III (reigned 1760-1820) used Kew House and then bought its freehold in 1799. The King enjoyed improving the grounds of the property and ploughed up some of the neighbouring Richmond Deer Park to create an enlarged garden. Some of the work was entrusted to the garden designer ‘Capability’ Brown. The King received visits from the botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who brought him seeds and plants for his gardens. By 1802, Kew House was falling to pieces, and was demolished in preparation for a new palace, which was never built. A sundial in Kew Gardens marks the site of the house. On a map drawn by John Roque in 1754, the former Kew House is labelled ‘The Princess of Wales House at Kew’ and the Dutch House (Kew Palace) is labelled ‘His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales House at Kew’. The map also includes drawings of three follies: ‘The Hermitage’, ‘Dairy House’, and ‘Merlin’s Cave’.
When George III was in residence at Kew House, he led an unsophisticated existence as described by Madame D’Arblay (aka Frances [‘Fanny’] Burney; 1752-1840). She wrote in Volume 3 of her published diary that the King lived there in:
“… a very easy, unreserved way, running about from one end of the house to the other without precaution or care … There is no form or ceremony here of any sort …They live as the simplest country gentlefolks. The King has not even an equerry with him; nor the Queen any lady to attend her when she goes her airings.”
This suggests to me that the King was careless about how he dressed (if at all) at his country retreat.
Kew Palace (the Dutch House) was separated from Kew House by a public road. Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), George III’s wife, took over its lease and then bought its freehold in 1781, and eventually died there. As mentioned already, her husband spent time at Kew Palace during his periods of illness.
In 1840, the botanical gardens, the ancestor of what we now enjoy, were opened to the public. Had it not been for the enthusiasms of the area’s earlier owners, some of whom I have described above, the location of this establishment might have been at another site. The main attractions of Kew Gardens today are the plants and some of the magnificent houses built for them during this century and the two preceding it. However, it is of interest to see Kew Palace and the few remaining garden follies created by Sir William Chambers several decades before the foundation of the present botanical gardens.
The Pagoda, which is tall enough to be seen from outside the confines of Kew Gardens is an attractive feature of the place. Writing in 1876 in his guidebook, James Thorne remarked that:
“… It is in 10 storeys, each storey diminishing a foot in diameter and height, and each having a balcony and projecting roof. Originally a Chinese dragon crawled over every angle of each roof, but these have all taken flight.”
The Pagoda remained without dragons until 2018, when its restoration was completed. It was then that these creatures, looking extremely well groomed, returned to their original perches.
WINDSOR CASTLE IS well-known to many people and much visited. However, what came before the castle was built is less known. Recently, we visited the place near Windsor which used to be the home of Britain’s royal rulers well before the Normans invaded the British Isles. Our trip began at the car park close to where the Magna Carta was signed in Runnymede in 1215.
We slithered through the mud and wet leaves on the path running along the bank of the River Thames from Runnymede to Old Windsor. The path runs past the large gardens of homes along the river and provides views of the occasional barges moored on both sides of the stream. We caught glimpses of a couples of swans but remarkably few other forms of bird life. Birds might have been in short supply, but not aeroplanes. Despite the decrease in air travel that has resulted from the covid19 pandemic, there seemed to be a ‘plane flying low over us every one or two minutes because we were walking beneath the flight path along which aircraft descend as they near Heathrow Airport. The low clouds meant that although we could hear them, we could not see all of the ‘planes.
We left the riverside path after having walked about a mile and followed a footpath to the church of Saints Peter and Andrew on the edge of Old Windsor. This lovely church with a sharp pointed steeple and flint walls is set in a graveyard with many picturesque funereal monuments and a tall redwood tree. The present building was constructed in 1218 to replace an earlier wooden church that was burnt down by French mercenaries in 1215 in response to King John’s recent somewhat reluctant signing of Magna Carta at nearby Runnymede (www.oldwindsorchurch.org.uk/history.html). I do not know who was paying these incendiary Frenchmen and wonder if President Donald Trump might not employ some people to create similar mayhem following his election defeat. Since 1218, the church, which was locked when we visited, underwent various modifications over the centuries including an extensive restoration in 1866 by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960).
Most of the present village of Old Windsor is of little interest to the visitor. However, its history is. Old Windsor existed before the formerly named ‘New Windsor’ or ‘Windsor’ as we know it today. The name ‘Windsor’ might be derived from Old English ‘Windles-ore’ or ‘Windlesora’ (meaning ‘winding shore’). The place now known as ‘Old Windsor’ is recorded in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an early history of the Anglo-Saxons. During that pre-Norman Conquest era, there was a royal palace at Old Windsor. The old palace continued to be used until the castle, the present Windsor Castle, began to be constructed in the reign of William the Conqueror. According to James Thorne in “Handbook to the Environs of London” (published in 1876), the royal residence at Old Windsor continued to be used, maybe occasionally, until the reign of King Henry I, that is until between 1100 and 1135. The old palace has long since disappeared. Some archaeological remains of the palace were discovered in the 1950s and are kept in the Reading Museum.
We walked from the church to a main road (the A308) along a long road (Church Road) through Old Windsor. Apart from a few mildly picturesque old cottages near the church, it was lined with suburban dwellings lacking in architectural merit. The main road along which we walked back towards Runnymede is appropriately named ‘Straight Road’ because it is straight in comparison to the river that runs its sinuous course close by.
When we reached a short thoroughfare named Ousely Road, we noticed what looked like the gatehouse to a large estate at its far end. We walked up to what was definitely once a gatehouse, and which, to prove it, is named ‘Front Lodge’. Beyond it, a vast lawn ascended a slope towards a large house that was barely visible. By walking a short distance from the lodge, we reached the entrance to the Beaumont Estate on Burfield road to which Ousely Road leads. This estate is currently owned by the De Vere hotel group, but in the past, it had a far more celebrated owner.
The estate, which was originally called ‘Remenham’ after Hugo de Remenham, who owned the land in the 14th century, was renamed ‘Beaumont’ in 1751 by the son of the Duke of Roxburghe. In 1705, the then owner, Lord Weymouth, had a mansion built. It was designed by James Gibbs (1682-1764), who also designed St Martin in the Fields in London and the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford. Sadly for us, in the early 19th century, the building was rebuilt and extended for its then owner, an ‘Anglo-Indian’ (i.e. a ‘Brit’ who had lived and worked in India) named Henry Griffiths, by Henry Emlyn (1729-1815), an architect based in Windsor. The impressive neo-classical portico on the present building was Emlyn’s work.
In 1786, the mansion was acquired (for £12000) by another man who was associated with India, Warren Hastings (1732-1818). Hastings had been the first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal) and along with Robert Clive (1725-1774), he was one of the founders of the British Empire in India. When Hastings returned to England in 1785, the House of Commons attempted to impeach him for misdemeanours he was alleged to have perpetrated whilst he was in India. He was eventually acquitted in 1795. During the first three years of his trial, Hastings lived in Beaumont House. In 1789, he sold it to Griffiths, already mentioned.
After several others had owned the estate, in Beaumont became a college, Beaumont College, run by the Society of Jesus and established in 1861. This institution flourished until it was closed in 1967. After becoming a computer training centre and then a conference centre, the estate was acquired by the company that owns the De Vere hotel group. When we wandered into the estate, there seemed to be nothing much happening there.
From Beaumont, it is a short walk to the National Trust Runnymede car park, from which we set off for nearby Datchet, which I will write about separately. If it had not been for the slippery state of riverside footpath, we would have returned along it and thereby would have likely never have come across Beaumont and discovered its interesting connections with British India.
THE RIVER WESTBOURNE may be known by few, but seen by many, living in, or visiting, London. Much of this tributary of the River Thames is hidden from view; it runs underground. The river rises in West Hampstead, passes through Kilburn and beneath Bayswater Road, flows through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, then runs into the Thames near the gardens of The Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the annual Chelsea Flower Show, (close to the Bull Ring Gate bus stop).
What I will refer to as ‘The Serpentine’ is really the combination of the Long Water (in Kensington Gardens) and the contiguous Serpentine (in Hyde Park). It occupies part of the valley of the River Westbourne and is thus the only part of this river that most people can see. The Serpentine was created between 1730 and 1733 for Queen Caroline (1683-1737), wife of King George II. The body of water was formed by linking several existing ponds fed by the River Westbourne and by water pumped from the Thames. Today, some of the water is supplied from borewells in Hyde Park. Prior to the creation of the Serpentine, two of the ponds were separated by a building called ‘Price’s Lodge’. The “Daily Post” dated 20th of April 1733 reported that:
“The old Lodge in Hyde Park, together with part of the grove, is to be taken down in order to compleat the Serpentine River.”
Price’s Lodge, formerly known as ‘the Cheesecake House’ was a place where the nobility riding around Hyde Park could purchase refreshments (https://georgianera.wordpress.com/tag/prices-lodge/). The newspaper quoted above refers to ‘The old Lodge’, which might possibly been a separate building from Price’s Lodge, which might have still been in existence and being used as a boat house in 1801, but it was no longer standing later that century.
We begin our stroll at the end of the Serpentine just across Bayswater Road close to Lancaster Gate Underground Station. It was here that after flowing beneath Bayswater Road that the River Westbourne flowed into the Long Water section of the Serpentine. The so-called Italian Gardens consists of four large basins or reservoirs, each with eight sides. There is a fountain in the centre of each of them and another in the middle of them. The reservoirs are set on a platform adorned with sculptures and a statue of Edward Jenner, of vaccination fame. The platform is about eight feet above the water level of the rest of the Serpentine. At the north end of the platform with the reservoirs and fountains, there is a decorative building with a central single chimney and roofed with Italianate tiles. Facing the fountains, the building has a loggia, a convenient shelter during a rain shower. Behind the loggia there is a large room housing machinery to pump the water that shoots out of the fountains.
Between the Italian Gardens and Bayswater Road, there is a relatively new café, The Italian Gardens Café, which overlooks the fountains. The café is next to a neo-classical structure which contains a concavity lined with wood panelling. Made in 1705, designed by Christopher Wren (of St Pauls Cathedral fame) and bearing the crest of Queen Anne (reigned 1702-1714), this is the Queen Anne Alcove. This decorative building was moved to its present site from near Kensington Palace in 1868.
The four reservoirs, which make the Italian Gardens delightful, were built in 1861 and were intended to act as filter beds for the Serpentine. The loggia-cum-engine house was designed by Robert Richardson Banks (1812-1872) and Charles Barry (1823-1900). The sculptural features, including urns and nymphs, through which water flows from the Gardens into the Serpentine, were designed by John Thomas (1813-1862).
Moving on from the Italian Gardens southwards along the east side of the Long Water, you can, if you are lucky, spot birds such as herons and cormorants standing in the water near the opposite shore. After a short stretch along which the lake is well hidden from the path by vegetation you reach an open space in the centre of which there is a huge sculpture made of travertine stone, “The Arch”, presented to the park by its creator, Henry Moore (1898-1986), in 1980. Looking through the arch and across the Serpentine you can see the equestrian sculpture “Physical Energy” by the Victorian sculptor GF Watts. The two sculptures are in line with Kensington Palace, of which there is an unobstructed view from the Moore artwork. “The Arch” is irregularly shaped because it is based on the for of an animal bone that the sculptor had in his possession. A path leads away from the Serpentine to the Serpentine Sackler art gallery, which is often worth visiting. However, we will ignore that and continue to follow the Long Water in a south easterly direction.
Soon, we reach an elegant masonry bridge with five arches spanning the water. This was built in the 1820s to the designs of John Rennie junior (1794-1874), son of John Rennie, who designed the first Waterloo Bridge. The foot path around the Serpentine passes under each end of the bridge through semi-circular stone lined tunnels. The bridge marks the boundary not only between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park but also between the Long Water and the Serpentine.
Walking along what has become the north shore of the water because of the bend in the Serpentine, you will pass numerous waterfowl of various shapes and sizes, including swans, gulls, ducks, coots, moorhens, geese, and cormorants. Step carefully to avoid their squidgy droppings along the footway. As you approach the modernistic Serpentine Bar and Kitchen (designed as ‘The Dell’ by Patrick Gwynne [1913-2003] and built in 1964) at the eastern end of the lake, you will pass two boat houses and a shed where in normal times, small pedal-operated boats may be hired by visitors. Look away from these boat houses towards the parkland north of the water and you will spot a roughly hewn monumental stone, a granite boulder. This is the Norwegian War Memorial, presented by the Norwegian Navy and Merchant Fleet in 1978. On one side it bears the words:
“You gave us a safe haven in our common struggle for freedom and peace”,
and on another:
“Worked and shaped by forces of nature for thousands of years”, which refers to the stone itself.
The Serpentine Bar and Kitchen is at one end of the Serpentine. Walking around the back of it, you will notice a small monument that marks the spot from which a supply of water to the Abbey of Westminster was granted by King Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066). Further along the path, heading south, we cross a balustraded bridge with arches facing the Serpentine. Water from the lake flows under the path and emerges from beneath it just before it falls over a cascade (made in 1820) into the luxuriantly vegetated ‘Dingley Dell’. South of the bridge, there is an ornamental urn, the Queen Caroline Memorial, beneath which there is the following inscription:
“To the memory of Queen Caroline wife of George II for whom the Long Water and the Serpentine were created between 1727 . 1731.”
The path around the Serpentine begins heading west along the south shore of the lake. It is flanked by many trees including weeping willows. Eventually, we reach the Lido. The Lido includes a café and an outdoor bathing area, where bold swimmers, who are not averse to pondweed and sharing the water with waterfowl, can swim in the unheated water of the Serpentine. The front of the café is supported by a row of pillars with Doric capitals. A plaque attached to the wall facing the water commemorates the once leader of the Labour Party George Lansbury (1859-1940), who created the bathing area in about 1930. When the situation is normal, when there is no covid19 pandemic, swimmers use the bathing area throughout the year whatever the temperature of the water.
After enjoying a refreshment at the Lido, we move towards Rennie’s mighty bridge, passing first the Diana Memorial Fountain, opened by the Princess’s mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, in 2004. This curiously designed water feature consists of two streams of water that flow down curved slopes and meet each other at the lower end of the fountain closest to the Serpentine. Near this, there is a huge, rather unattractive, sculpture of a bird with a long beak. Titled “Isis”, this artwork was created by Simon Gudgeon in 2009. Its circular base has bands of metal inscribed with the names of supporters of the Look Out Hyde Park appeal.
A short stretch of foot path takes one from Isis to the beautiful bridge across the Serpentine. After emerging from the tunnel under the bridge, we find ourselves back in Kensington Gardens and alongside the Long Water section of the Serpentine, walking in a north-westerly direction. Looking away from the water, you will spot a single storey building with three arches each topped with triangular pediments. Built in 1734-35, this is Queen Caroline’s Temple, which might have been designed by William Kent (1685-1748). Opposite it and across the water you get a fine view of Henry Moore’s sculptural arch.
Further on, the pathway runs alongside the water, affording a good view of the distant Italian Gardens and many waterfowl perched on a series of wooden posts crossing the water. Looking away from the water, you will see a statue of Peter Pan standing above a collection of children and animals. Peter Pan is a character created by the author James Barrie (1860-1937), who lived on Bayswater. The statue was created in 1912 by the artist George Frampton (1860-1928).
A few yards further, and we come alongside the western edge of the Italian Gardens. Looking west, you can see a distant obelisk, a memorial to the explorer John Hanning Speke (1827-1864). Near the north west corner of the Gardens, there is a cute sculpture of two bears embracing each other. This metal artwork is placed upon a disused stone drinking fountain. A plaque attached to it notes that it commemorates the 80th anniversary of The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain & Cattle Trough Association, which was founded in 1859. If you get thirsty reading this plaque, then help is close at hand at the lovely Italian Gardens Café.
Finally, one more brief note about Queen Caroline, for whom the Serpentine was created, and which now provides much joy to many Londoners and others. When she inquired of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) the cost of enclosing the publicly owned St James Park to secure it for her exclusive use, he replied:
“Only three crowns”
By this, Walpole, the Prime Minister, meant the Crowns of England, Scotland, and Ireland because what she was asking was politically impossible.