Suppose that you're a London council with a park called Valentines Park. And suppose that, within that park, there's a mansion called Valentines Mansion. And suppose too that this mansion has been closed for major renovation for the last two years. Well, on what date in February would you choose to reopen the place to the public? Yeah, obviously.
Valentines Mansion has a longhistory. Not a thrilling one, it has to be said, but impressive enough for somewhere just outside Ilford. The house was built in 1696 by the Archbishop of Canterbury's son-in-law (I'm sorry, but that's as nationally important as the place ever gets). In the early 18th century the place was expanded, and the gardens prettified to include an ornamental canal, the odd grotto and a big vine. The Valentines Vine is long dead, but a cutting made in 1769 was sent to Hampton Court and still thrives today (yes, indeed, thatvine). Various residents came and went over the succeeding decades, until Ilford Council acquired the building in 1912 and used it as (amongst other things) a hospital, a public health centre, and a housing department. And then it fell empty, and then English Heritage got worried about it, and then the Lottery chipped in with some money, and then it reopened yesterday.
The queue of would-be visitors stretching from the front door was half an hour long. I suspect the Redbridge council officials on site were jubilantly embarrassed by that. I passed the time chatting to the slightly deaf old lady in front of me, who remembered the times when she used to bring her children here to play in the gardens, and they didn't run on the lawns like this modern lot. Most of the visitors were of a similar age, although some of "this modern lot" and their parents were queueing too.
Once inside, the splendour of the renovation job was evident in every room. Nothing ostentatiously ornate, just smart wooden floors and period wallpaper and a rather swish stained glass window above the staircase. A film in the main gallery showed how builders and gardeners and artists had been involved in the restoration work, and even managed to make the process sound interesting. Various actors patrolled the house in character, one in a top hat, one in a lace bonnet, and one showing off his fine calves to all and sundry. In the Bird Room all the display cabinets were full of colourful origami animals, because that's art, while the Drawing Room contained a makeshift cafe doling out hot and cold beverages in non-heritage cups, because that's profit.
The good people of Redbridge crowded the rooms and passageways, taking a first opportunity to explore every nook and cranny. They swarmed round the single interactive history terminal so that nobody else could use it. They crammed into the tiny shop on the first floor, inspecting its stock of plastic rulers, honey and notelets. They allowed their uncontrollable offspring to bounce on the four poster in the bedchamber, much to the annoyance of the lady on duty. They trooped up to the attic to look round six brand new artist'sstudios, part of the drive to make the reopened mansion lived-in and sustainable. And I think they trooped down to the restored kitchen in the cellar, except I never found that particular room and only read about it in a leaflet on the way home.
The parkgardens look like they'll be rather lovely too, as well they should given the millions English Heritage have ploughed into their recreation. The walled Old English Garden is closest to completion, and already smells herby and pleasant. A formal Victorian rose garden (come back in June) leads down to the Long Water, a lengthy pristine pool with ornamental shell-encrusted grottoes at each end. Meanwhile an octagonal dovecote doubles as a rather posh gardeners' shed, and there are plans for a monthly farmersmarket on the site.
It's hard to believe that ten years ago the council wanted to turn the mansion over to Brewer's Fayre to become an anonymous steak-and-chips outpost on the Cranbrook Road. Thankfully public opinion (and £5m) changed their mind, and the result is a community heritage facility to be proud of. It's not worth travelling miles out of your way to visit, but East Londoners ought to pop in some Tuesday, Wednesday or Sunday for a free look round. And it's Opening Open Day part 2 today, if you fancy a post-Valentine's Valentines visit.