diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 13, 2008

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge

If ever a building was badly named, it's this three storey timber-framed grandstand on the edge of Chingford. It wasn't built for Queen Elizabeth, it wasn't used for proper hunting, and nobody lodged there. Apart from that, perfect.

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge - exteriorBack in 1543, King Henry VIII was getting on a bit and had become more than a bit of an obese lardarse. This made climbing onto a horse, let alone hunting the royal deer, rather difficult. What was Henry to do but construct a great big three-storey platform in the middle of Waltham Forest from which he could shoot at things. He called this building his Grand Standing, although it was probably more of a Grand SittingDown. Even the central staircase was built less steeply than usual to give Henry a fighting chance of being able to climb it. Out in the forest expert huntsmen tracked down deer, then penned them up, before letting them run loose across Chingford Plain past the monarch's steely gaze. One crossbow shot later and the deer would conveniently drop dead, whether the King had hit it or not. Damned fine shots, those covert royal archers. But not really proper hunting.

King Henry died a few years after the lodge was finished. It was Queen Elizabeth who later ordered that the decaying building be repaired, and that's how it came to be named after her instead. The lodge continued to be used for the 16th century equivalent of corporate hospitality, as a special hideaway where influential nobles wined and dined on the day's carnivorous spoils. The middle floor was the posh one, with lesser noblemen posted up top and the servants confined as far as possible to the lower floor. There were no glass windows at the time, this was very much a grandstand open to the elements, gaudily painted and draped with fluttering banners. Not a good place to stay the night, hence everyone having to lodge elsewhere after nightfall.

In the 17th century the building became a forest keeper's residence, with the local crown court installed on the upper floor. The Victorians insisted on slapping gallons of plaster all over the walls, semi-wrecking the place in the process, and then a tearoom moved in to cater for day-trippers from London arriving via the new-fangled steam railway. For most of the 20th century the building doubled up as a museum packed with stuffed animals and almost-thrilling historical artefacts. I think my uncle took me there once, back when I was quite little, although I don't remember the interior very clearly. So I thought I ought to go back.

No, that huge Tudorbethan mansion beside the golf course wasn't the hunting lodge, it was a rather large Victorian Harvester-type pub. So I tried the bijou limewashed building nextdoor, the one wth the Corporation of London sign outside. It's only open from 1 til 4 at weekends at this time of year (and attracts a mammoth seven visitors per hour, according to the tally chart on the desk inside). I'd like to thank the lady at the desk for her highly informative talk about the history of the house, and also for not commenting on my heavily mud-splattered trousers. It's damned squelchy out in Epping Forest at the moment, and I'd taken a rather ill-advised route through the woods from Buckhurst Hill to get here.

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge - interior, topOn into the kitchen/scullery, where there's a not quite convincing display of fake foods (such as fruits and spices) like what Elizabethan aristocracy would have eaten. And then up the stairs (ooh yes, very gentle) to the shooting room on the first floor. There are a couple of appropriately dressed mannequins in the near corner, as well as a box of clothes so that children (and childish adults) can attempt to dress themselves similarly. It's quite an empty room otherwise, and therefore not especially easy to imagine as the heart of the royal hunting party's festivities. At least the view from the window is pretty much as Henry might have remembered it (apart from the golf course where the deer would have been kept, that is, and a rather out-of-place suburban dwelling nextdoor).

And finally up to the top of the building, beneath a magnificent timbered roof. In fact if you like woodwork you'll really enjoy a visit to the Lodge, not just because it was assembled by master carpenters but also because a surprisingly high proportion of the exhibits and information panels are about joints and carving and superior timber-based craftsmanship. Up here on the second floor there are also a couple of stuffed deer left over from the building's more museum-y days - one just an antlered head peering beadily down over the stairs. And, of course, there are a few more displays about hunting. Seen enough? Spiral back down to the entrance, and don't think you're escaping without filling in one of the nice lady's photocopied questionnaires. It's a small price to pay for free admittance to this fascinating survivor from a long-gone era of violent excess.
by train: Chingford  by bus: 97, 179, 212, 313, 379, 444

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