Although the affluent residential town of Richmond is situated a mere 10 miles from central London, it once was rural agricultural countryside consisting of large houses and hunting lodges of the extremely wealthy. One such estate, a 17th century treasure trove, lies nestled among the naturalistic landscape along the banks of the river Thames. Tucked safely behind its original brick walls, Ham House, originally built in 1610, is the creation of an enterprising courtier, William Murray, and his tenacious daughter Elizabeth. As a boy, William was educated with the young Charles I and the two remained firm friends into adulthood, when William was given the lease of Ham House and its estate as a gift from the King in 1626. Though the building’s façade remains largely the same today as it did when William was bestowed guardian of the property, the luxury and grandeur of the interiors are a credit to William and Elizabeth, whose lavish decorative additions cemented the Murray family’s status as one of harbouring exquisite taste and elegant style.
In 1642 the English Civil War broke out. William, staunch Royalist, and close friend to the king, was duty bound to help the fight against the Parliamentarians, leaving his wife Katherine and their young family to hold the fort at Ham House. The royalist cause lost the war and Charles, amongst many of his loyal countrymen, was captured, and soon tried and found guilty of high treason, then subsequently beheaded in 1649. Charles’ son forged an alignment with the Scots and was consequently crowned Charles II of Scotland. However, his attempts to take back the throne of England failed, and he was forced to flee England for the confines of the continent. English general and statesman Oliver Cromwell, who led the armies of the Parliament of England against King Charles I was installed as Lord Protector of the new Commonwealth, causing much distress and social upheaval for Royalist families such as the Murrays.
Although it was William’s friendship with the King that established the Murrays at Ham House, it was daughter Elizabeth’s cunning survivalist nature that ensured the family’s legacy was not only secure but would continue to thrive under her watchful eye. Towards the end of the English Civil War, many English manor houses and stately homes lay in ruins, their treasures plundered, their artworks melted down, destroyed, or divided. Although a Royalist until the end, Elizabeth established good relations with Cromwell for the sake of her family’s survival, while she continued to send secret Royalist messages to the prince, who remained exiled in France.
Fortunately, Elizabeth’s strength of character and determination guaranteed the heritage of the estate for future generations. Ham House remained in the custody of Elizabeth’s descendants from her first marriage, the Tollemaches, for almost 300 years, after which time the property was entrusted to the National Trust in 1948, whose continuous conservation efforts have perfectly preserved one of England’s great manor houses, allowing the public a rare glimpse of the wealth and opulence of aristocratic life in the 17th century.
With the promise of perfect weather, and the first glimmer of real sunshine in almost a week, we take the opportunity to visit such a unique and special place. On arrival we are greeted by imposing iron gates, interspersed by large stone pinecones atop classical pillars. Their conical presence, representing eternal life and regeneration, symbolise Elizabeth’s legacy, and her presence may be felt within the grounds even today.
Fortuitously, our arrival coincided with the first guided tour of the gardens for the day. The tour is a free service provided by knowledgeable volunteers of the National Trust. We gathered beneath the curious eye of Father Thames, a colossal statue of the bearded figure reclining on a rock while pouring water from an urn into the river below his feet. Our guide Helen promised us a real treat, and lead us towards the Cherry Orchard, where she assured us that we will find “no cherry trees, nor cherries, not even a single solitary piece of fruit”. We followed eagerly, our small party of eight, through a great colonnade of trees, whose branches intermingled with one another above our heads, forming a protective tunnel, like the arches of a bridge. The temperature seemed to drop suddenly beneath the interlacing green leaves, the thick canopy a deterrent from the midday sun. Little flickers of sunlight tried desperately to shine the way, dappling the ground with golden warmth.
We ambled curiously towards a glaring light, pouring in through a break in the trees. Where an orchard should have lay, instead we found an array of perfectly coiffed conical spires of box hedges engulfed in a vast sea of pungent lavender, as though rising eerily from a dense purple mist.
Like a Maestro sensing our arrival, a welcome breeze began to sway, and the soft movement triggered a gentle current over the purple sea. The breeze carried with it a wistful, heady perfume, and as I stood there mesmerised by the rhythm of the landscape, I reflected upon how much had changed since Elizabeth’s day. Did she enjoy her garden with a sense of wonder and surprise? Did she also brush her hand over the flowers as she wandered through the twisting pathway, filling the air with their heavenly scent, just as I did? Or did she simply tire of the symmetrical scene, looking upon it as she did, day after day, no longer enchanted by its magical display? Bacchus, the god of wine, still revels amongst the lavender as he did when Elizabeth first created the garden, his stone statue the only authentic 17th century piece that remains from the original design.
Helen’s assured voice jolted me back to present day as her factual musings filled in the gaps of my daydream imaginings. She recounted that this was Elizabeth’s own private space, designed to be enjoyed from the comfort of her bedroom window, high above the garden. We strove onwards to the rear of the house and down past the raised terrace towards beds of English wildflowers whose dishevelled appearance was in stark contrast to the perfect symmetry we witnessed previously. Peppered with native grasses on brown woody stems, the flower meadow lay tinged golden by the sun. As we drew closer the true beauty of the meadow was revealed. Flashes of colour drifted between the grasses, and the tiny treasures became unveiled; ruby red poppies mingled with brilliant blue cornflowers, their intense colours challenged the sky. Common daisies seemed to have sewn themselves haphazardly across the lawn, as though blown in by a drunken wind. This profusion of brightly coloured flowers, all crowded together in chaotic harmony, remained unperturbed by their grand formalistic setting.
Our guided tour of the grounds finished at the original walled kitchen garden which still thrives today under the nurturing hands of the National Trust gardeners. Divided into sections, the space now holds a series of working plots comprising of produce and flowers, all completely functional in order to sustain the outdoor café and provide cut blooms for the house. It seemed the ideal time to stop for lunch and to allow the information, so generously offered by Helen, to absorb. Enveloped by the colours and smells of the kitchen garden we found a little bistro table and settled in to enjoy lunch while persistent sparrows darted about in their quest for crumbs.
Despite the bucolic setting and lovely weather, the promise of exploring the opulence and elegance of the interior was not to be ignored.
Grand manor houses of old are not necessarily a rare commodity in England. However, to discover them today, lovingly cared for and meticulously preserved, is an absolute treat that seems almost too good to be true, especially for someone who recently relocated from abroad. Australia has its many wonders, of course, both natural and made by human hand, yet of stately manor houses there are so few. Whenever I visit an estate managed by the National Trust, or one of the many other Not for Profit organisations who so diligently maintain England’s myriad of historical properties, I feel transported to, not only another time, but to another place entirely. From the exterior, many of these stately buildings can appear quite similar; architectural parallelisms can be noted and observed, an obsession with symmetry and form is almost always evident, and the building’s monumental size and imposing nature is a common trait. Yet once inside, the whims and theatricality of the owner come alive, making each home a uniquely immersive experience.
Stepping through the impressive entryway of Ham House is like walking into a movie set, and the entire atmosphere seems made for drama and theatrics; it feels almost as though the actors have only just left the stage. A striking black and white marble floor steals my attention as I cross the threshold into the dramatic entryway. I find myself unable to focus on the tiny details within the space as such lavish grandeur begs to be admired as one vital force. An ornately decorated candelabra hangs above our heads, the only source of artificial light emanating from the room. Its warm glow, now made possible by the quick flick of a switch, would have once held wax candles in its outstretched arms, and each evening, before the family came down to dine, would be ceremoniously lit by the servants.
Before we move onwards, through to the family’s private chapel, the room steward, another well informed volunteer, urges us that before we ascend the staircase, be sure to peek behind the stairs, and down into the tiny secret room. With scarcely room for one person at a time, I step down into the minute space where I discover a wash basin with three faucets instead of two: one for hot water, another for cold, and a third, rather bizarrely, for soft. Perhaps this was the preliminary design for the invention of the modern-day single faucet? Down another step I spy a highly decorative blue and white porcelain toilet, one of the first of its kind during the 17th century.
We are guided up the elaborately carved dark, wooden staircase by original brass floor candelabras, whose dim, atmospheric light must have illuminated the way for Elizabeth as she made one of her many grand evening entrances. We passed countless family portraits, pale faces in dark and brooding settings glare out at us as we shuffle by. The opulence continued to unfold as we wander through the myriad of rooms on the second floor, each one surpassing the last in luxury. On a wall in the Sitting Room, where Elizabeth would once have greeted her aristocratic guests for tea, hangs a panel of the original, more feminine wallpaper that would have graced the walls during this era. The original design of flowers, cherries, and pomegranates was later covered by a male ancestor during the Victorian era in a more austere and monochromatic style.
Small details began to delight; a piece of time-worn coral, its once blood red colour now faded with time and age, was positioned atop a rich mahogany dresser in the room where Elizabeth would have once slept. The regal four poster bed, swathed in heavy silk taffeta in red and black, and dressed in pure white hand embroidered cotton linens, though freshly made, looked as though Elizabeth had only momentarily awoken and left the room.
Below Stairs, with access from the side of the house, is the kitchen, wine cellar, the icehouse, and Elizabeth’s own private bathroom. Accounting for her personal needs and taste, Elizabeth had her Bathroom built in 1672. Since bathing was only beginning to gain popularity at the time, it is the earliest surviving bathroom in England. Elizabeth’s mornings were spent bathing, hot water poured over her alabaster skin by her lady’s maid, followed by a short rest on the nearby silken bench. The original features of the space remain, though one descendant, the 9th Earl, added his own touches during the Victorian era, by installing a combination shower and bath.
Entering the cool confines of the downstairs area was a welcome reprieve from the ostentatious style above. Down here the walls were thick and sturdy, and remained bare of fanciful decorations and bold colour. This was the engine room of the house; a place vital in keeping things operating calmly upstairs. The kitchen is thoughtfully preserved, and strikingly beautiful in its rudimentary ambience. This was a place for work and preparation, totally functional where nothing was displayed for mere decorative purposes. I found it amusing, as I poked around the room, how much had changed since those lavish furnishings upstairs were so painstakingly arranged. Here, in this pared back kitchen, I was able to find more in common with my own domestic life than anywhere else in the entire house. The cooking utensils, charred black from constant use, reminded me of my own well-loved collection of antique wooden spoons. The earthenware mixing bowls, with their chipped rims and pouring spouts, were almost identical to a set that I so carefully carried back from a long-ago trip to rural France.
It seemed an appropriate time to re-enter the 21st century as we exited through the servant’s entrance. I shieled my eyes from the early afternoon glare as we abruptly ended our journey back in time. The wind gained momentum and brought with it the sharp scent of lavender which washed over me like an elixir and gently wrapped us like a soft warm cocoon. It seemed a shame to emerge back into the real world, but the memories of Ham House and its tranquil atmosphere will remain forever.