diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 08, 2012

Disappearing London: Dollis Hill House

Mark Twain was very impressed. "I have never seen any place that was so satisfactorily situated, with its noble trees and stretch of country, and everything that went to make life delightful, and all within a biscuit's throw of the metropolis of the world." Indeed, some would say over-impressed. "Dollis Hill comes nearer to being a paradise than any other home I ever occupied." It's hard to imagine today that a hilltop near Neasden could inspire such praise, but many came to Dollis Hill House for rest, hospitality and a grand panorama over London. The view, at least, remains. But the house's days are numbered, possibly even in single figures. The bulldozers arrived last week, on the orders of Brent council, and demolition is underway.
Dollis Hill House - a brief history
200 years ago:
The Dollis Hill Estate is used for dairy farming and haymaking.
1825: The Finch family build a new farmhouse on Dollis Hill. The house is square, of two storeys, in yellow stock brick with a stuccoed porch and a verandah on the south side.
1861: Money problems force the Finches to rent the house to Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks (Liberal MP, and creator of the golden retriever)
1881: Lord Aberdeen moves in. Regular house guests include Prime Minister William Gladstone, who often stays for a recuperative weekend.
1897: Lord Aberdeen moves out, replaced by newspaper proprietor Hugh Gilzean-Reid... who, in summer 1900, invites Mark Twain to stay.
1901: 96 acres south of Dollis Hill Lane are bought up by Willesden Borough Council and opened to the public as Gladstone Park, named after the recently-deceased PM.
1915: The house becomes a wartime convalescent and open-air hospital, funded by local people.
1941: Churchill's War Cabinet meets at the house (rather than underground at nearby Paddock)
1974: Dollis Hill House is used for training courses for catering students.
1989: The catering college closes, and the building is left vacant.
1989: The Dollis Hill House Trust is set up to try to find a way to save the building.
Over the last few years, Dollis Hill House has slipped from abandoned to derelict. Two bouts of arson in the mid 1990s didn't help, and the building spent much of its time propped up by increasingly-important scaffolding. The stables nextdoor were opened as an art gallery, with a walled flower garden behind, but the main house slowly became a historic eyesore. Several rescue packages were proposed, the largest a £1.2m matched funding grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. But the funding was never matched, and a further arson attempt last year sealed the building's fate. Brent Council lost interest (if they won't save their libraries, what chance a crumbling Grade II listed building), and the government duly approved demolition.

Head to Gladstone Park today and the view is as good as ever [photo]. Mark Twain wouldn't recognise Wembley Stadium, perched not so far across the Brent Valley, nor the distant towers of the City of London. But the slopes are still high enough for a broad panorama, and the perfect spot for a dogwalk or taking the kids for a push. At the top of the hill is a curved ornamental pond, rippling with waterfowl and with an unlikely statue plonked in the centre. And then there's Dollis Hill House, or at least what's left of it, crumbling silently behind a green barrier [photo]. The wall facing down the hill has already fallen, opening the interior to the elements. An archway off the landing on the first floor can be seen, and the remains of walls which might have been Mr Gladstone's guest bedroom. For now the only residents are pigeons and the occasional seagull, perched on top of whatever remnants of upper masonry they can find [photo]. The northern side of the house is rather more intact, as derelict buildings go, although nothing substantial enough to keep the rain out. A large digger stands guard behind the fence, waiting to return to demolition duty on Monday morning. [photo]

Before long, definitely by the end of February, Dollis Hill House will have been fully levelled. Once cleared, the council aims to create an open-air legacy project on the site, which essentially means the floor plan of the original building being picked out in stone. Visitors to Gladstone Park will be able to walk from front door to hallway to dining room, maybe sit on a bench in the old front parlour, maybe have a picnic in the former kitchen. One brick window surround is being kept, but that's as three dimensional as the replacement memorial will get. There are also associated plans for "a community open air performance space", plus inclusion of seating and additional greenery to "ensure visitors can relax and unwind as they soak up the atmosphere".

It's a depressingly understated end for Dollis Hill House, which has had the misfortune to require funding at the precise moment that nobody in government is willing to afford it. If only local arsonists hadn't felt the need to practise within, perhaps this historic building might have survived in more useful communal form for a smaller outlay. As it is, the favourite spot of Gladstone and Twain will soon exist only as an imprint on the ground, and as a cherished memory.


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