If you're looking for a day trip out of London, why not visit Hever Castle in Kent? Its rich and varied history spans over 700 years, but is probably most famous for being the childhood home of King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Originally built in the 13th century as a defensive castle, Hever was home to the Boleyn’s throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, was later passed on to another of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne of Cleves and from the mid 16th century onwards was home to numerous families.
By the early 20th century, Hever Castle had fallen in to disrepair, but was given a new lease of life by the American born businessman, politician and newspaper publisher, William Waldorf Astor, who invested millions in restoring Hever Castle and constructed the impressive lake and gardens, which can still be visited today.
Visitors hoping to experience Hever Castle as Anne Boleyn would have known it will be disappointed, as much of its interior was restored in 1905. Never-the-less, the building oozes history and many rooms and corridors which you can wander through maintain original features or aspects the Boleyn family would have known, including Anne’s own bedroom. Henry VIII’s bed chamber for instance still boasts 16th century panelling and a mid 15th century ceiling and the gatehouse still contains a 13th century toilet, which emptied directly in to the moat.
The building is festooned with intriguing artefacts and paintings, particularly the Long Gallery which extends across the entire width of the castle, displaying an exhibition of 18 original portraits hung in dynastic order of the Tudors.
Once you’ve finished touring the castle, you can, as we did, while away an afternoon exploring the 125 acres of gardens (which when we visited was resplendent in autumnal colours), take a boat on the 38-acre lake, get lost in the maze or promenade through the Italian garden. We were lucky enough to fit in a spot of archery, before it closed until February.
Hever Castle is located 30 miles from central London. For those without a car, trains run from London Victoria or London Bridge stations to Edenbridge Town station. After that it’s a 3-mile taxi ride to the castle. If you’re happy to undertake a 1-mile country stroll, then head to Hever Station (unmanned and no taxis) – a map of the walk is available on the Hever Castle website.
Please Note - In the photos below you'll notice a lot of cobwebs in the rooms. It was a spooky Halloween feature, rather than a lack of cleaning on behalf the people at Hever Castle.
I meet many people on my walks who are visiting London and have either already been or are about to visit Windsor Castle, which as you might know is one of the Queen’s official residencies, that lies about 25 miles to the west of London. For that reason I thought I’d write a brief post about what to expect from your visit and how to get there. It is expressly forbidden to take photos inside Windsor Castle, so you’ll have to make do with a few exterior shots.
Windsor Castle was founded at the end of the 11th century by William the Conqueror (also responsible for leaving us The Tower of London) and is the oldest royal residence in the British Isles to have remained in continuous use. It has served as home to 39 monarchs. Not bad.
The castle dominates the whole area (which was of course the idea) and when you enter, you’ll find yourself in The Middle ward, (there are 3 main wards) with the Norman motte (or mound) on top of which you’ll see the Round Tower. It probably makes sense to head towards the Upper Ward and explore the State Apartments and royal apartments, which are arranged around the Quadrangle in the centre. As you leave through the Lower Ward, you pass the incredible St George’s Chapel, which is well worth a visit before you go.
What to expect from your visit to Windsor Castle?
Without going in to minute detail about each room, I suppose that if you happen to visit during the height of summer you can expect a vast amount of people. Aside from that, be prepared for a whistle stop tour through 900 years of British Royal history, opulent and richly furnished interiors (many of which date back to Charles II in the 17th century), although a number of monarchs have been instrumental in Windsor Castle’s alterations throughout history. As this year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo there are specific exhibitions dedicated to this event and those involved, including the Duke of Wellington. You’ll see an array of arms and armour and through the medium of King Henry VIII’s armour (made in about 1540) it’s possible to see just how fat he really was towards the end of his life ... if you like that sort of thing.
You can also see Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, a model of a London town house built in 1924 by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and filled with thousands of objects made by leading designers, artists and craftsmen of the day. It even has electricity and running water.
Windsor Castle is chock full of treasures with an exceptional collection of paintings and drawings including works by Holbein, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Canaletto to name just a few. In 1992 a fire broke out destroying many rooms including St George’s Hall, the Grand Reception Room and State Dining Room, amongst others. Reconstruction work took five years and cost £37 million.
In my humble opinion, one of the highlights of my visit was St George’s Chapel. Work on the chapel began under Edward IV in 1475, the Quire (choir) was completed in 1485 and the chapel finally finished during the reign of Henry VIII in 1528. As well as being able to marvel at the stunning medieval stone and woodwork, the chapel is also the final resting place for Henry VIII, Charles I, King George VI & Elizabeth (the Queen mother). St George’s chapel is a fully functioning chapel with at least 3 services taking place each day, which visitors are of course welcome to attend.
I took a train from Paddington Station to Slough, then at Slough you change on to a train that just goes to Windsor & Eton Central. The return journey costs £10.40 and if you get the fast train can take 30 minutes, but I’d leave 45 minutes to an hour just to make sure, as you could have a 10 to 15 minute wait at Slough. Once you arrive in Windsor, you’ll have no problems finding the castle, it’s literally a couple of minutes from the platform and the town itself is quite pleasant, if not geared towards tourists (as you’d expect), but worth having a look around. I'd allow a couple of hours for visiting the castle itself.
On Sunday’s walk, Gail and Bob from Canada were telling me that they’d visited Hampton Court Palace and how much they’d enjoyed it, which reminded me that I‘ve been meaning to write about it since I visited myself a month or so ago.
Visitors to London are spoiled with a choice of Historic Royal Palaces to visit and Hampton Court Palace can be found about 12 miles west of central London in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and in my humble opinion is well worth a visit and allocating the best part of a day to do so in the process. It effortlessly encapsulates a vast swathe of Royal history, buildings from numerous periods, a roll call of intriguing characters that have wandered its corridors and feasted in the Great Hall (where William Shakespeare and his troupe 'The King's Men' performed for King James I in the early 1600s) and the stories that inevitably accompany them.
Although the seeds of the site were sown much earlier, I’m going to begin my brief sojourn through its history with Cardinal Wolsey who had a palace built for himself in 1514. He held many influential posts, perhaps most significantly Lord Chancellor of England and as a close friend of King Henry VIII (reigned 1509 – 1547) served as his chief minister. Despite his considerable influence, Wolsey was unable to secure the King’s divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, which was ultimately his undoing. Hampton Court Palace was passed to King Henry VIII.
Henry didn’t hold back when it came to houses and had about sixty of them, but undoubtedly Hampton Court Palace was the most important, and the residence he held most dear. Not surprisingly, this period plays an important role in the experience given to visitors today, including the substantial kitchens, the Great Hall, the Royal Chapel and even the Royal Tennis Courts, which when I visited, was lucky enough to see people playing. Yes, it’s still used today.
It’s not all about Henry VIII of course, as there are still many more centuries of occupants to entertain, including the Stuarts in the 17th century, the arrival of William & Mary at the end of that period and the substantial alterations undertaken by Sir Christopher Wren which has resulted in two very distinct and contrasting styles of architecture; Tudor and Baroque.
After the death of Queen Anne in 1714 we have the arrival of the Hanoverians from Germany, who having a soft spot for the name George, kick-started the Georgian period (currently the subject of a series of events and exhibitions – The Glorious Georges). The Royal family ceased using Hampton Court Palace as a residence in 1737 and it was divided up in to apartments until Queen Victoria in the 19th century ordered that the palace be thrown open to the public.
As ever, this concise roundup doesn’t remotely begin to do Hampton Court Palace justice. Upon arriving it can be a bit daunting knowing where to start, but I’d recommend using the audio guides, which you can pick up as part of the ticket price. The palace is split up in to areas, or bite sized chunks of history and the audio information is really good, allowing you to pause or if you’re particularly keen, provide you with even more detailed information on particular subjects. I began in Henry VIII’s kitchens which fed over 600 people twice a day, then through to the Great Hall, then the apartments, followed by a wander around the gardens before returning for the Baroque additions. You might want to plan how to get there before leaving, but probably the simplest route if you’re in central London is to take a train from Waterloo station to Hampton Court. It takes about half an hour and Hampton Court station is only a couple of minutes walk from Hampton Court Palace itself. There's something to interest everyone. There were a lot of kids there when I visited, and I guess the maze is popular with the little people, keen gardeners will enjoy the gardens and a 240 year old grape vine, those with a sweet tooth will be thrilled with the Chocolate Kitchens and for people like me, there's everything else. Definitely worth a visit.
When I told my father the other day, that I'd been to The Jewel Tower in Westminster, he said "Aaahh ... the place you see on the news next to Parliament", which is quite true. College Green is where news reporters stand to interview MPs and do their straight to camera pieces with the impressive backdrop of Charles Barry's Houses of Parliament behind them. Quite often you can see the Jewel Tower creeping in to shot to the left, but largely spends its time in the shadow of its more famous, but much younger neighbour.
Built in 1365 within the private palace of King Edward III, the Jewel Tower began life as a huge safe, a secure repository for the most valuable possessions of the Royal Household. The palace took up the whole area, now occupied by the Houses of Parliament and Parliament Square, with the Jewel Tower, situated in a secluded garden to the west and hemmed in by a moat, encroaching on land owned by Westminster Abbey. You can get a good idea of the layout of the area from the picture below.
In the same way that the Queen today travels between her different homes, her predecessors would move between palaces, Royal manors and castles dotted around the country, or indeed visit friends and courtiers in their own houses. Such trips would have involved taking a huge retinue of people, but also items like plates, bowls, cups, goblets, tapestries and other decorative objects and things that might be needed. The job of the 'keeper of the Wardrobe in the Privy Palace of Westminster', sometimes known as 'keeper of jewels and gold and silver vessels' was based at the Jewel Tower and had the responsibility of making an inventory of everything that left, supervise the goods being loaded on to carts and barges and most importantly, to make sure that everything was returned.
When Henry VIII became King and the Royal Household moved away from the Palace of Westminster, the Jewel Tower effectively became a big junk store. On his death in 1547, an inventory was taken of 'tholde Juelhous at Westminster' and was found to be full of old clothes, bed-hangings, linen, gaming tables and old children's toys and dolls. In the 17th Century, the robust ragstone building became a store for Parliamentary records and by the early 18th century it was decided in a meeting chaired by Sir Christopher Wren that the Jewel Tower needed some serious repairs, which also included protection from fire.
The Jewel Tower managed to survive the fire of 1834 that burned down the Houses of Parliament, causing the loss of pretty much all of the old medieval palace. The new buildings, which you can still see today took about 26 years to complete and as we move in to the Victorian period, the the Jewel Tower gained its third use. A larger building was required for the storage of records, which Charles Barry accommodated in the design of the new Parliament and more specifically, the Victoria Tower, which still stands directly opposite the Jewel Tower today.
In 1864 the Standards Department of the Board of Trade, sometimes known as the 'weights and measures' moved in to the Jewel Tower and set about trying to determine the definitive values of units of size, weight and volume. Basically, these are the people who decided exactly how much beer goes in to a pint of beer ... amongst other things. They remained there until 1938, and in fact on the ground floor of the building today they have a display case showing the different measures or 'standards'.
The Jewel Tower was badly damaged by incendiary bombs during WWII, and the surrounding area has changed quite radically since then, meaning that the building itself, now an 'English Heritage' site, has been excavated, preserved and opened to the public. If you do visit, each of the three floors give you an insight in to the building's incredible 650 years of history, and next time you're watching the news, keep an eye out for it behind the reporters on Abingdon Street Gardens, otherwise known as College Green.
Over fourteen years ago, when I first arrived in London, I was wandering around exploring (as I still do), and found myself on a strange private road with a church that had an intriguing name. The church was called St Etheldreda's and although I had no idea where in London I was or anything about the church, found myself entering, walking along the small corridor and up the stone steps to the chapel. As I was about to enter, a wedding had evidently just finished and I had to make myself scarce as the newly married couple burst out of the chapel, pursued by a photographer and the congregation.
I've since been back on numerous occasions as like many places in London its intriguing-ness goes further than the name and reveals much about the area, a relic from a by-gone era and a story that begins 700 years ago.
The chapel of St Etheldreda's is the only surviving fragment of the medieval London palace of the Bishops of Ely, which originally encompassed vast grounds. It is apparently the oldest Catholic church in England (although of course hasn't always been Catholic) and one of only two buildings in London, remaining from the reign of Edward I. In fact, a strange London quirk, is that when you walk down Ely Place where the chapel can be found, and the tiny alley leading off that houses Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, you will officially be in Cambridge ... even today.
The first license to build a place of worship dedicated to St Etheldreda was granted back in the 13th Century to John le Francis (Bishop of Ely), and in keeping with church building of the day still featured one chapel built upon another. The palace also included a great hall, evidently a popular place for feasting, as in 1531, Henry VIII and his soon to be 'not' wife Catherine of Aragon attended a feast there that lasted for five days. It was the termination of this particular couple's marriage that had such a devastating effect on the Catholic church and their land, not just in London, but all over the country. The final nail in the coffin was dealt by Elizabeth I when she forced the land (or a great deal of it) to be handed over to a courtier she had the hots for. His name was Sir Christopher Hatton, and you'll notice the name still lingers on today in nearby Hatton Garden, London's jewellery quarter.
In the 17th Century, for a while at least, the chapel was presided over by an Anglican Bishop of Ely named Matthew Wren, perhaps now most famous for getting his nephew Christopher his first ever building commission. Christopher Wren could now easily be regarded as 'the daddy' of modern London, having spent a great deal of his life rebuilding it after the Great Fire of 1666 ... a fire which spared St Etheldreda's.
The upper chapel, although small is perhaps surprisingly more spacious than you might have guessed from outside and is dominated by an abundance of quite remarkable stained glass. The west window (above), created in 1964 is said to be the largest stained glass window in London, covering an area of over 500 square feet. The east window was installed in 1952 to replace the Victorian version destroyed in WWII. During the Victorian period incidentally, which is when the chapel reverted back to its Catholic roots, the surrounding area was a slum, and in fact Bleeding Heart Yard which you can reach by stepping through a secreted door at the far end of Ely Place is mentioned in Charles Dickens' 'Little Dorrit'.
If you do pay a visit, see if you can have a look at the crypt or undercroft, as although it's not known for certain, is thought to date back to the 6th Century. The lower part has rugged 8-feet thick walls, topped by huge darkened timbers, a simple altar, frescoes and a model of how the whole palace would have looked originally. It's perhaps not surprising that local residents took refuge in St Etheldreda's crypt during the bombing raids of WWII. Today however, it's used more frequently for wedding receptions.
It seems that not a day goes by when I don't hear or read about something in London, be it a bar, restaurant, museum, building, house ... or whatever, heralded as one of 'London's hidden gems'. It is true, there are many of them, and it's just one of the long list of things I love about this city. One place however, which must surely have an incredibly valid claim for actually being such a place (and near the top of the 'hidden gem' charts), is the Charterhouse in Smithfield, or to refer to it by its official name ... Sutton's Hospital in Charterhouse.
To say that the experience of walking through Charterhouse is 'magical' would be an understatement, as testified by the amount of film producers that have used its buildings, courtyards and rooms as film sets. Although, you can join occasional tours, Charterhouse is not commonly open to the public. In essence, it is a retirement home and 'the brothers' who live there ... actually do live there, enjoying the peace and tranquility of a life that seems almost protected from the outside world.
The current buildings (many of which are ancient) occupy the site of a former Carthusian Monastery, first established in 1371. The order was founded by Saint Bruno in the 11th century, who had his first hermitage in the valley of the Chartreuse Mountains in the French Alps, which is where the word 'Charterhouse' is derived.
Until the 1530's, vast tracts of land belonged to religious orders (just a short walk away, you can still pass through St John's Gate, once part of the area belonging to the Knights Hospitallers). All this came to an end when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, but the Carthusians refused to conform to the King's 'Act of Supremacy' and many of them were executed at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) as a result. The Monastery buildings were turned in to a fine Tudor mansion, passing through various owners during the remaining years of Henry VIII, throughout the reign of Elizabeth I (who visited Charterhouse on a number of occasions) and through to the early 17th century when James I became King. It was during this time, in 1611 in fact, when the current story of Charterhouse begins. It was bought by a self made man, an incredibly wealthy and not to mention generous and philanthropic individual called Thomas Sutton.
Sutton set up a Charitable Foundation to educate boys and to care for elderly men, known as 'brothers'. The school, Charterhouse, still exists today, but moved to Godalming in Surrey in 1872, whilst the 'brothers' (and I think there are currently about 45 of them) still reside in the buildings you can see pictured. There was perhaps not surprisingly, considerable bomb damage during WWII (the 40 acre site, obliterated at the same time and now houses the Barbican Centre is just a few minutes walk away), but was faithfully restored and has seen new buildings added as recently as 2001. The tour I went on, began in the chapel, which was largely saved during the Blitz, due to the huge oak door (fortunately closed at the time) which absorbed a substantial amount of bomb impact. You can see on the photo below (left) that the door still hangs there today as a reminder, albeit about half the size.
As I mentioned, the Charterhouse still houses 'the Brothers', and two of them showed us around on the tour I joined, and it really did feel like we were being let in on a secret, a true hidden London gem, as we saw the Great Hall where they eat together each day (and have done for over 400 years), the only surviving part of the old 14th century Norfolk Cloister where the monks had their cells, courtyards, corridors and of course sprinkling the whole thing with the site's incredibly rich and intriguing history.
As far as I know, tours take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and every other Saturday and cost £10. If you are able to join one, I can highly recommend it. It seems as well, that plans are afoot to open a more permanent museum in a few years time, which is great news.
If you find yourself in Covent Garden, which let's face it, is quite likely if you visit London ... then to the west side of the piazza is the grand entrance to a church. The church is St Paul's and upon closer inspection, you'll discover that there is no discernible way in. The rather large door, set back behind the portico is completely blocked up. The area, instead serves as a daily haunt for circus and street performers.
To understand why, involves unraveling numerous historical threads, right back to when the land was a walled garden, belonging to a Convent in which vegetables were grown for Westminster Abbey. Convent Garden, over time became Covent Garden. When Henry VIII took away land belonging to the church in the 1530's it was given to one of his advisors, John Russell, the Duke of Bedford. Almost 100 years later, the 4th Duke of Bedford decided to use the land to develop an area where the wealthy of London could reside. He enlisted the help of Inigo Jones, who fashioned an Italian style piazza (a complete anomaly in those days) to the west of which would be the church. Not wanting to waste too much money on the church, the Duke of Bedford is said to have asked Inigo Jones to provide something "not much better than a barn", to which the architect replied "Then you shall have the finest barn in England". However, tradition dictates that the Altar be placed at the east end of church, but Inigo went against convention, placing his front door there instead. The church was finally consecrated in 1638 (the first new Anglican church built in London for 100 years), but at the request of the Bishop of London, the door was blocked up, the Altar placed in its rightful place, and to this day, the back door, is the front door.
Access to St Paul's now is through a rather tranquil garden on the other side of the church, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the piazza. At night (and even during the day sometimes) you'll be greeted by an array of twinkling gas lamps, leading you up in to the church. The garden of course, was once a burial ground and in fact, during the fatal year of 1665 when 60,000 Londoners are thought to have died from the plague, the first casualty of that epidemic, was buried there. With that cheery thought you'll enter in to a church, often (and perhaps more frequently than it's actual name) referred to as 'The Actors' Church'. The building is of course slap bang in the middle of the West End or theatre land (as it is often known) and has for centuries been affiliated with actors and those working in the profession. As I have mentioned before, many churches, like St Clement Danes, (further down the Strand towards Fleet Street) have associations with particular groups of people.
The inside of St Paul's was badly damaged by a fire in 1795, but rebuilt to Jones' designs and as you wander around will undoubtedly spot numerous plaques and memorials to actors, playwrights, designers and the like who spent much of their careers entertaining either on the stage or screen. There are many, like Sir Charles Chaplin (above) who will be familiar, and many who will not, but are never-the-less remembered here inside The Actors' Church. At the front left of the church, you can see a model of a theatre, made in the 1920's and used by members of the Actors' Church Union (ACU) to illustrate talks promoting the workplace of actors and theatre staff. The talks were in effect a fundraising effort, to drum up support for a hostel the ACU ran for the children of actors away on tour.
One of the many things I like about London is the fact that you can pretty much always guarantee that there is a reason why streets, pubs and areas have their name. You've just discovered how 'Covent Garden' got its name, but this short post will also shed some light on why you approach the church via 'Inigo Place' and you have 'Bedford Street', 'Bedford Place', 'Bedford Court' and of course 'Russell Street' all in the vicinity. If you stand under the church portico and look out across the piazza, in front of you is the Punch & Judy pub. On the 9th May 1662, diarist Samuel Pepys noted that he saw on the same spot the first performance of an Italian puppet show, now known as 'Punch & Judy'. Also, if there are any fans of the musical 'My Fair Lady' out there, it derived from a play by George Bernard Shaw called 'Pygmalion', the opening of which is set under the very same portico.
St Paul's, the Actors' Church in Covent Garden is of course open for prayer, reflection and services, but they also host a massive amount of events, concerts and theatrical productions throughout the year.
The experience of walking along a busy, bustling and noisy Fleet Street and stepping through an innocuous gate in to the quiet, calming courtyards and lanes of Temple, is (I think at least) ... rather magical. If you spend some time exploring this area, you'll find many fascinating historical trinkets but before long you'll find yourself standing in front of the 12th century Temple Church.
The church was originally built by and belonged to the Knights Templar, a monastic order of Knights that became one of the wealthiest and most powerful orders in Christendom; a fact that ultimately proved to be their undoing. The Round Church, modelled on the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (considered the site of Christ's death, burial and rising) came first, consecrated in 1185, whilst the rectangular Chancel or 'Hall Church' came in to use in about 1240. The Chapel once formed part of a much larger compound that comprised of halls, cloisters, domestic buildings, butteries and a kitchen. The whole ensemble sat conveniently next to the medieval waterfront, as at that time, the Thames invaded inland rather more than it does today.
On a date in 1307, which is now forever associated as a day of ill fortune (Friday 13th October) the mighty Templars were finally toppled on the orders of King Philip the Fair of France. The accusations of blasphemy and heresy brought against the Templars are generally considered to be a convenient excuse for King Philip to seize the order's vast wealth and treasures, so as to pay off his own substantial debts. Either way, it marked the end for the Knights Templar, and the church was passed to the Knights Hospitallers, an order which still survives today in the form of St John Ambulance. They in turn had the land confiscated by Henry VIII during the Reformation and the church and surrounding area reverted to the Crown. For centuries now, the area nestling between Fleet Street and the Thames has accommodated the legal profession, housing two of the four Inns of Court in London; Inner Temple and Middle Temple. In the early 17th century, James I formally granted the area to 'those studying and following the profession of the laws' and even today, as part of the same arrangement, the two Inns are responsible for maintaining the church and ensuring that its priest, the Master of the Temple has a splendid mansion to live in.
The church survived largely unscathed during the Great Fire of London, but almost inevitably, succumbed to German incendiary bombs during the Blitz. On the 10th May 1941, Temple Church was struck during an attack and badly damaged. It was to be seventeen years before it was fully repaired, and despite this it is amazing to think, that aside from the pews, a few Victorian alterations and the post WWII stained glass windows, the church is much as it would have looked to the Knights Templar all those centuries ago. If you're familiar with your William Shakespeare, then there is a scene in the play 'Henry VI, part 1' which takes place in the church garden; the plucking of two roses, one red and one white, representing the War of the Roses.
More recently, the Temple Church has seen a bit of a renaissance in the interests of tourists visiting London (and perhaps why they began charging a modest fee to enter) which can probably be attributed to a visit from Tom Hanks whilst filming the film version of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code'. Either way, it's a beautiful area, an incredible church and is one of those places that often, people who have lived in London for many years don't even know exists.
You don't really expect to find a Tudor mansion nestling amongst the suburbs and council estates of Tottenham, but there is one, and it's called the Bruce Castle Museum. There has been a house on the site since medieval times and in 1514, it became the property of William Compton, who held the position of 'groom of the bed chamber' to Henry VIII. This meant he had the dubious honour of assisting the King with going to the toilet, amongst other things.
Much of the house was rebuilt in the 17th century, but a curious Tudor hangover still survives to this day, a round tower situated just to the left of the main house as you enter. The exact use for the tower is not known, but one of theories is that it was a 'hawks mews' a place to rear birds for hunting and was made using local clay, at a time when the whole surrounding area would have been open space, something that is hard to imagine when you visit today.
In 1626 the house was owned by Hugh Hare, 1st Lord Coleraine, a man who suffered an unfortunate death in 1667 by choking on a turkey bone. His son, Henry Hare took over the building with his wife Constantia Lucy, whose death at the mansion is shrouded in mystery and is said to haunt Bruce Castle to this day. It was Henry Hare, who in the 1680's was responsible for the drastic re-modelling of the house, much of which survives to this day.
In 1827, Bruce Castle was bought by the Hill family who turned it in to a progressive private boarding school, adding an extra wing to house the school. Unusually for the time, Rowland Hill and his brother Arthur (who were joint headmasters) did not approve of corporal punishment to discipline their students. Rowland Hill is now remembered, not for his school, but for inventing the Penny Black postage stamp and the postal system which occurred later, when he left to join the Post Office.
The school closed in 1891 and was sold to Tottenham Urban District Council. The grounds became the first public park in the area, and the building, Tottenham's first public museum, which opened in 1906.
Bruce Castle is now a Grade I listed building and houses a small local history museum, the London Borough of Haringey archives, permanent and temporary exhibitions and a small cafe. It perhaps doesn't boast the splendour of a National Trust property, but never-the-less is a wonderful historical gem that has somehow survived through so much change and development in the area, and is also free to look around. If you do visit, you might like to nip across to All Hallow's church behind Bruce Castle. It was first founded in 1150 and the earliest parts of the current church date from the early 14th century.
Bruce Castle Museum is open Wed - Sun (1pm - 5pm), Lordship Lane, London, N17 8NU.
If you've ever been down (or up) Clerkenwell Road, you would have passed a big gate way just up the hill from Farringdon Road, and if you'd spied it, would have probably thought 'Jeepers ... that looks like it's straight out of a film set ... of a period film of some sort ... like a film that's set ages ago, maybe one that Cate Blanchett's in.' You would be quite correct in this assumption, because it's been there since 1504 and for me is just the tip of the iceberg. The metaphorical iceberg is formed of the rich history of the area that has so many stories, so many facets and such a wide reach spanning centuries, that to write about it here would do it an injustice. Instead, I shall furnish you with a few bits of information and leave it up to you whether you visit or not. Oh yes, the gate is called St John's Gate and looks like this.
So, in an unsatisfactory nutshell ... up until the point when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and began taking away land that belonged to them (often referred to as the Dissolution of the monasteries) much of London (and the rest of the country for that matter) was dotted with huge swathes of land that belonged to various monastic orders. The area around Clerkenwell belonged to the Order of St John, the Hospitallers, whose origins date back to the late 11th century in a role caring for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. The gate I just mentioned was a later addition, which lead in to a Priory that included a couple of large halls, dormitories, buttery, refectory, counting house, kitchen, stables, orchards, gardens, fish ponds and unusually for a monastic precinct, an armoury (those pilgrimages often got violent). After the Dissolution, I think Henry VIII used the Priory as a store house before giving it to his daughter Mary, who used it as a private palace.
The Order of St John, the Knights Hospitallers, had an unexpected renaissance in the 19th century, when it became apparent that there was little or no provision for the aid of injured people in civilian life, particularly those succumbing to fatal injuries in the work place, at public events or indeed at home. For this reason, in 1877, the St John Ambulance Association was founded, continuing the same ethos that the original order begun, all those centuries earlier. As you know, St John Ambulance still very much exists today, continuing to carry out what the Victorian's called rather aptly 'Ambulance Crusades'.
You can uncover this fascinating history over two sites. St John's Gate houses a museum (free to enter, and free to exit) detailing all of this stuff, and if you cross over the road you will find hiding beneath the facade of a reasonably modern building, the 12th century Priory crypt, one of London's few remaining Norman structures along with another small museum, garden and church, which was rebuilt after being completely destroyed in WWII.
Also, just as an aside, William Hogarth (well known pictorial chronicler of debauched 18th century London) lived for 5 years in the east tower of St John's Gate, as his father ran a coffee shop there. Samuel Johnson wrote parliamentary reports there long before anyone approached him with the idea of compiling a dictionary, Charles Dickens visited the Jerusalem Tavern which popped up there in 1760 (of course he did) and the west tower currently houses one of the few remaining Tudor spiral staircases in England (although you can only see this if you join one of their tours at 11am or 2.30pm on Tuesdays, Fridays or Saturdays). Also, if that's not enough name dropping, in the 16th century, the Priory housed the office of the Master of Revels (which sounds like a pretty cool job) responsible for licensing and organising all court entertainments and plays, and 30 of William Shakespeare's plays were licensed there.
The museum is open from Monday to Saturday (10am - 5pm), so if you're in the area or work nearby then why not pop in.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.