Why oh why did I not visit Ham House when I lived in London? This is an historic jewel of a property run now by the National Trust, situated just outside Richmond in South West London, close to the River Thames.
We had the good fortune to be shown around the property by one of the managers and a restorer who pointed out wonderful little nuggets of information about Flemish brickwork and the clues to discovering the evolution of the architecture.
It also seems that one of the prior owners liked to buy in “job lots”, hence the plethora of statuary which lends such an impact to the entrance to the property. Also the lead water butts too …
Are they Italian I ask, no – they were bought in bulk from a cash-strapped nobleman. These little insights made the past come alive as we thought to ourselves, not much has changed in business dealings then!
So who is responsible for this Stuart property? Well this is a story that encompasses one of the most turbulent times in English history – the English Civil War and England’s only regicide.
Ham was acquired from its builder, Thomas Vavasour, by one William Murray in 1626. Murray’s Uncle was Prince Charles (King Charles I) tutor and William became the Prince’s whipping boy – enduring punishments for naughtiness as, of course, no-one could “put hands on” a future annointed king. He remained close to the King, dying in exile after the beheading of his liege.
Ham passed to his feisty daughter, Elizabeth, who, with a mixture of guile and cunning, maintained good relations with Oliver Cromwell (he wanted Ham for himself apparently) whilst all the while, communicating secretly with the exiled Charles II. It was she who maintained and enhanced Ham with her husband, the Duke of Lauderdale – a confident of the King, following largesse donated for loyalty after the restoration.
Ham House has retained its appeal as a true Stuart property as much by accident than by design. Each succeeding owner introduced new furnishings but preserved the house itself until it was gifted to the National Trust in 1948.
The renovation of Ham, then a shadow of its former self, has been magnificently undertaken by the trust and it’s one of the most visitor-friendly properties I’ve visited – there’s a happy little team here behind the scenes obviously, their dedication, pride and love for Ham House evident in their every word and gesture. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
Everything is interesting but these few things have remained with me especially:
- The reclining River God statue in the centre of the carriage circle is in fact made by Coade stone – a stone like ceramic marketed by Eleanor Coade in the late 18th century. She made her fortune reproducing classical and neo-classical statuary.
- The oak benches outside the entrance are of the period, still perfectly maintained with the most beautiful carving.
- The Green Closet houses an interesting display of miniatures – why is it there? Well, the King had one so …
- The Queen’s suite of rooms was prepared for a visit from Charles II’s consort, Queen Catherine of Braganza. The further one progresses through the rooms, the higher their status. We were told that this part of the house remained out of bounds even up to modern times. Someone who worked at Ham House before the National Trust took it over mentioned that, it was only on a National Trust tour recently that she ever saw behind the closed door to the apartment.
- The Duchess’s Bathroom – a rarity in the 17th century.
- The Dairy with its supports in the style of a cow’s leg and the original hand-painted Wedgwood tiles.
Entrance is free to members of the National Trust. For non-members, it’s £10.40 for adults, £5.20 for a child and £26.00 for a family ticket. There’s free car parking close to the entrance in Ham Street and a lovely little cafe on site.
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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