If you fancy escaping central London for a day, and heading somewhere a bit more leafy, then I can heartily recommend Richmond in west London. You can even take a boat all the way there if you like, and if you do venture out that way, then I can also recommend taking a wander down the Thames and stopping off at Ham House, a magnificent 17th Century mansion and National Trust property.
Ham House was built in 1610, but was leased to a courtier called William Murray by Charles I, as a gift in 1626. What did Murray do to receive such a splendid gift? Well, he’d probably earned it, as William Murray had the misfortune (or fortune, depending on how you look at it) of being the young Charles’s ‘whipping boy’. A whipping boy, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, was a young boy who was chosen to be schooled alongside a Prince (in this case Charles) and receive any punishment, meant for the future King, each time he misbehaved. It all seems a little unfair, but that’s how things were.
The two men became life long friends, and Murray set about renovating and decorating his new abode. Unfortunately, his enjoyment of his rather grand home was reasonably short lived, as Civil War broke out resulting in King Charles I having his head chopped off. No doubt Murray was thankful that Oliver Cromwell did not apply the ‘whipping boy’ protocol to the execution, but as a devout Royalist, found it necessary to leave the country. Murray’s daughter Elizabeth managed to keep the house away from Republican hands and no doubt breathed a huge sigh of relief in 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne and all was well again with the wealthier echelons of English society. Her father unfortunately, did not live to see the restoration. However, Elizabeth wasted no time in returning Ham House to a place of entertainment and extravagance for all who moved in Whitehall circles and was rewarded by the restored King for her support during his exile with a rather handsome annual pension. Her first husband, Sir Lionel Tollemache died and Elizabeth married again, this time the Duke of Lauderdale, John Maitland.
Together, they transformed Ham House in to one of the finest Stuart houses in England and after Elizabeth’s death, the house was passed down through the children from her first marriage until it was passed to the National Trust in 1948.
That is a rather brief, whirlwind-esque appraisal of Ham House’s history, but if you have even the slightest interest in Stuart England, then it’ll give you a brilliant insight in to the life and times of 17th century courtiers.
The house itself is stunning. From the moment you step in to the aptly named Great Hall you really feel like you’ve rewound the clock 400 years. The equally aptly named Great Staircase, is just that and from then on you can loose yourself amongst the ornately decorated rooms, the furniture and textiles, wander down the Long Gallery and myriad of other assorted rooms and stroll around the gardens. The original walled kitchen garden still provides all the produce served up in the café.
The other thing I like about Ham House, is that you get a real sense of the ‘upstairs, downstairs’ life of the place, and can scour the kitchen and pantry and find out what life was like for those who served and worked behind the scenes to keep the whole place going. Whilst ‘upstairs’ you are guided through the secret passage ways, doors and staircases that pass discreetly between walls so that servants could move around the house completely unseen, popping out to collect plates or refill glasses with minimum interruption … as if they were ghosts.
Talking of ghosts, Ham House is also reputed to be haunted, by non other than Elizabeth herself and perhaps not too surprising for a Stuart mansion, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
So, if you’re in Richmond, why not pay Ham House a visit.
Each Friday, or at least, most Fridays, I do a Friday quiz over on the Bowl Of Chalk Facebook Page. Last Friday's question related to the statue below, of John Wilkes, which would appear to be the only statue in London that has a squint, because not surprisingly, John Wilkes did have a prominent squint.
It got me thinking, that I've discovered that many of London's statues which people wander past every day have interesting, strange or mildly absurd stories attached to them, so thought I'd share a few of my favourites with you here ... in no particular order.
This statue of Elizabeth I nestles up in the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street, and made in 1586 during the Queen's own life time, originally stood on the old Ludgate, but was saved during the Fire of London, and later placed in its current position. (It's currently hiding beneath scaffolding, and won't be seen again until the autumn). The statue however, in 1929 received its own income, when Dame Millicent Fawcett, an English Suffragist and early feminist left £700 to the statue in her will.
It is said that when this statue of George Washington (which stands to the north of Trafalgar Square, outside the National Gallery) was given to us as a gift in the 1920's by the people of Virginia, they sent with it, a load of American soil to be placed underneath, as Washington had stated that he never wanted to set foot in England.
This statue of Queen Anne stands very prominently outside the main entrance to St Paul's cathedral. It's not the original, made in the 1700's by Francis Bird, but a Victorian copy made by sculptor Richard Claude Belt. According to author Tom Quinn, Belt was forced to make the statue from prison after he was imprisoned for fraud having already been commissioned to make the statue. It could be entirely possible as Belt did spend 12 months behind bars at about the same time.
This statue of Charles I just south of Trafalgar Square is the oldest bronze equestrian statue in Britain, made during Charles' life time. After the unfortunate Monarch had his head chopped off in 1649, a metalsmith called John Rivet was ordered to melt down the statue and turn it in to trinkets, which people could buy as macabre souvenirs of the execution. However, Mr Rivet evidently melted down something else, realising perhaps that fortunes might change, and kept the statue hidden until Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and bought it back. Incidentally, you can see Nelson's Column in the background, which comes furnished with its own fascinating stories.
Prince Frederick, Duke of York
This 137 ft statue overlooks St James's Park and the Mall. Frederick was the second eldest son of King George III and when he died, every member of entire British army forewent a days pay to help raise the funds for the statue. Depending on which sources you read, they either did this gladly, or were forced to, as no one was willing to fork out the £21,000 needed to build it. Either way, when it was eventually finished in 1834 it was joked that the statue was so high up, so the Duke could escape his creditors. He died, £2 million in debt.
Even after the briefest of strolls around the area known as The City of London (or London in general) you'll very probably be struck (pun intended) by the number of public clocks, adorning buildings or hanging off churches. Quite often they're rather grand, ornate, pretty big and in many cases have their own unique history and back story.
Going back to the 16th century, clockmakers' tended to be members of the Blacksmiths' Company, as they worked with ferrous metals and utilised many of the metal work skills that were required as part of their own trade. With the growth of domestic clocks, requirements changed and as different and quite specific skills were essential to domestic clock and watchmaking the two groups separated and domestic clockmakers developed their own identity and market. Inevitably, resentment grew between clockmakers within the City and those from outside plying the same trade who threatened their monopoly. After many years of lobbying, they managed in 1631 to obtain from King Charles I a Royal Charter, recognising them as 'The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers' and thus protecting 'the Art or Mystery of Clockmaking of the City of London.'
Although the Clockmakers' Library was founded in 1813, the current museum is housed inside a modern annexe at Guildhall.
The original library of ancient manuscripts belonging to the Company gradually grew to include books, horological portraits and of course many examples of time pieces throughout the ages. It's all housed within one room, but never-the-less is chock full of information pertaining to the Company's formation and history, numerous 'celebrity' clockmakers and a collection which includes 600 English and European watches, 30 clocks and 15 examples of marine timekeepers, instrumental in the development of the science of navigation. In fact, you'll find yourself surrounded by the oldest specific collection of clocks and watches in the world, the earliest dating from c.1600, up until c.1850.
The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers' motto is 'Time is the commander of all things', so I'd suggest that if you find yourself in the area, you could pop in and see their museum for yourself ... but only if you have time of course. If not, then maybe you should make time.
The Clockmakers' Museum is situated in Guildhall Library -Aldermanbury, London, EC2V 7HH and is open Monday to Saturday (9:30am - 4:45pm). It's FREE to visit.
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