diamond geezer

 Monday, April 14, 2008

Random borough (17): Redbridge (part 2)

Somewhere historic: Wanstead Park
Wanstead ParkOne of the grandest houses ever seen in Britain was built in Wanstead in the early 18th century. Wanstead House was a pioneer of Palladian style, with mighty Corinthian pillars and a 200ft-long frontage. The gardens were landscaped with tree-lined avenues and ornamental waterways, creating a spectacular Versailles-like estate. A mixture of Blenheim Palace and Hampton Court, if you like, and much favoured by the nobles and gentry of the Georgian era. So why have you never heard of Wanstead House, let alone visited? Because it's been completely demolished, that's why, leaving only the surrounding parkland as evidence of magnificence lost. And the tale of its disappearance is worthy of a modern day soap opera.

Wanstead once had a Tudor manor, snapped up in 1667 by the extremely rich Governor of the East India Company, Sir Josiah Child. He was succeeded by his son Richard who knocked down the old house and built an ostentatious replacement, in a successful attempt to improve his social standing. Anyone who was anyone came to Wanstead to admire, to socialise and to marvel. So far so good. In 1750 the house passed to Richard's grandson John - a dapper individual with a love of fine art. John never married (they didn't allow civil partnerships in those days) so the estate was eventually inherited by an unsuspecting nephew. And when his son died at the tragically early age of 10, Wanstead Park ended up in the possession of teenage heiress Catherine. Poor Catherine. She was courted by many men, but in the end discarded the portly Duke of Clarence in favour of raffish young William Pole-Wellesley. As mistakes go, this was a monumental biggie. The Duke went on to become King, and William turned out to be a womanising gambler with venereal disease and an irresponsible lifestyle. 10 years later, in 1822, William's creditors forced the sale of Wanstead House and all of its contents in an attempt to pay back a quarter of a million pounds of debt. But the house, alas, failed to attract any bids whatsoever and so was demolished and sold off piecemeal, brick by brick. Catherine died soon afterwards, tragically young, while her miserable husband lived into old age to wreck several more lives. Roll credits.

Wander around the vast acreage of Wanstead Park today, through the bluebell woods or across gorse-blown heathland, and only a few clues remain to its splendid past. That series of umpteen artificial ornamental lakes for a start, they don't look very municipal. And that crumbling stone grotto by the water's edge, it could only have been built on the orders of an 18th century aristocrat with a sense of the theatrical. And that low pillared building on a grassy mound at the end of a long chestnut avenue, it looks far more like a classical temple than a tea hut.

Wanstead Park Temple

Yes, it's a 'temple', and I was delighted to discover this folly open to the public (behind the scaffolding) when I arrived on Saturday. The park is now maintained and run by the City of London, and two of their finest volunteers were in duty to show me (and a handful of other visitors) around inside. The place is run as a small museum which tells the story of Wanstead Park, and there's no shortage of interesting exhibits. Old maps, information panels, rescued statues, and even the sales catalogue from the 1822 auction. There's also a cabinet full of Roman remains, dug up on site centuries ago when the tree-lined avenues were being laid. Oh yes, there must have been a Roman villa somewhere in the grounds once, but its precise location has long been lost. The extremely enthusiastic guide told me everything I needed to know about the house's history, and more, and I know she'd be glad to welcome you too. Really, this fascinating park ought to be seen and enjoyed by far more than an audience of local dog walkers.
by tube: Wanstead


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