When you're an outer London borough without much major history, when you have some, you grab hold of it. And so it is in Redbridge, where the jewel in the crown is Valentines Mansion. It's proper 17th century, a big house from the time when the surrounding estate was agricultural rather than housing. Big enough to have had an ornamental lake and a grotto, both of which survive, even though the surrounding gardens have long since been subsumed into a councilpark. Nobody especially famous ever lived here, and the house wouldn't stack up against the finest National Trust treasures, but Valentines Mansion's rather lovely anyway.
The house reopened three years ago, courtesy of council and lottery cash, on Valentine's weekend (which, obviously, was the most appropriate time to launch). Crowds snaked out across the lawn and the building was rammed, which didn't make for the best experience, but it was clear Redbridge had a hit on their hands. Three years later they threw a special weekend of anniversary events and the crowds were rather thinner on the ground. But I went back for another look to see what had changed, and what was different, and what was going on.
Valentines Park was still in winter's icy grip at the weekend. The Long Water canal was frozen over, with small holes in the ice where local kids had hurled heavy stones into the water. All the geese had waddled off to peck at a snowy lawn, while squirrels hunted for sustenance on any patch of thawed-out grass. The Old English walled garden was covered in a layer of white, the sundial redundant, with a bush of premature blossom frozen in one corner. There was rather more life in the Gardener's Cottage Cafe, serving up a selection of "light bites and tasty snacks" to folk taking shelter from the sub-zero temperatures. It was all a world away from the marquee staked here in the summer inside which the Great British Bake Off was filmed. You thought that was located in some stately rural hideaway? No, it was in a municipal park, just down the road from the Gants Hill roundabout.
Inside the mansion, a variety of activities as well as the run of the house to explore. They'd cleared out the old dining room for a Social Foxtrot, with couples holding close as they grinned across the floor. The local archivist had laid out maps and newspapers from the turn of the century, including tales of Ilford's Titanicsurvivor. Meanwhile upstairs, in a former bedroom, members of the Ilford Operatics& Dramatics Society had laid out an optimistic number of chairs for a choral concert of Edwardian classics. And on the second floor, a series of artists' studios were open for business, with the opportunity to look, and to admire, and to chat to those responsible. I loved Yvette Rawson's wire figurines inside vintage tins, and Sarah Partridge's ceramic orbs. Nextdoor Julian Walker's text-based art raised a smile, while Amanda and Lisa's stained glass brightened up my day. The collective body of artists will be holding their next Open Studios on Sunday March 11th, if you're looking for a good excuse to visit.
And I finally made it into the house's Victorian kitchens, which I'd somehow missed on my last visit. A large stone-floored room with range and Dutch Oven, then a whitewashed scullery, and finally a dairy room where jellies and blancmanges were left to set. Nothing over-showy, nothing worth travelling miles out of your way to see, but all very nicely done for a council-run gaff. And I bet it looks even better in the summer.
Location: Emerson Road, Ilford IG2 [map] Open: Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday Website:valentinesmansion.com by tube: Gants Hill
Valentines news: Residents will have the chance to see the Queen as Redbridge has been chosen as the first place Her Majesty will visit on the Diamond Jubilee Regional Tour. Her Majesty The Queen will be accompanied by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh on the visit to Valentines Mansion and Gardens on Thursday 29 March. It is one of a series of regional visits throughout the UK this year. The Queen last visited the Borough on 9 May 2002 for her Golden Jubilee celebrations, where she visited Redbridge Lane West allotments.