diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 27, 2012

London has more stately-type homes than you might think. Some are still very stately. Some have been thrown open to the public. And some now perform a completely different function. Such is the case at Trent Park, a mansion in deepest Enfield parkland just to the north of Cockfosters. It started out as a hunting lodge, grew into a grand house and eventually mutated into a teacher training college. Today it's part of Middlesex University, the campus where all the arty drama students hang out. But at the end of July they're all moving out, as the university "rationalises its property portfolio", so this summer's the grand finale. In celebration Trent Park is throwing open its doors for a series of Open House weekends, some of which you've missed, and one of which is this weekend.

It's a bit of a trek to reach, as university campuses go. Cockfosters and Oakwood stations are both closest, if close is the word, although the university runs a minibus from the latter to rest students' legs. I walked from the former, up a long avenue of lime trees, through the grounds of the local country park. The squealing I could hear in the woods turned out to be safety-harnessed youth swinging from a Go-Ape zipwire, while their parents chilled out at the cafe up the drive. The view to the north is gorgeous, a rolling haymeadow speckled with buttercups dipping down to an unseen stream with verdant slopes beyond. In heatwave conditions the grounds are ideal for a stroll or a slouch, and it's easy to see why the rich and famous might have wanted a close-to-London bolthole here.

The area hereabouts, and for miles beyond, used to be part of an enormous woodland called Enfield Chase. George III partitioned it off and gave this chunk to his royal physician as quite an ostentatious way of saying thanks. The house started off small, then subsequent owners added extra wings and ornamental gardens, often bankrupting themselves in the process. The penultimate owner was Sir Philip Sassoon, MP and socialite, who became immensely rich on the death of his father in 1912. He cheated hugely by rescuing doors and windows from the demolition of a grand house in Piccadilly, and using them to reface the exterior of Trent Park classical style. A visit to Sir Philip's estate was always a glittering affair. You'd have enjoyed sumptuous cuisine. You might have bumped into George Bernard Shaw or Charlie Chaplin on the terrace. There were penguins in the ornamental lake. Even the deer had gilded antlers so they looked good from a distance.

We heard all about such fripperies on the Open House tour of the house. Once round the ground floor and then, if you waited really (really) patiently, down into the cellars too. One of the students took us round, all genned up and providing a most professional presentation. He pointed out the original front of the house, now the rear wall at the front of reception. He pointed out the bedrooms where Edward and Mrs Simpson stayed, separately allegedly, in the years when their relationship was a clandestine affair. He pointed out the obelisk on the hill opposite, seemingly ancient but imported specially in 1934 for the honeymoon of the Duke and Duchess of Kent (it lined up perfectly with their bedroom). And he pointed out the room in the basement where German-speaking spies listened in on conversations in the rooms above when this became a prison camp for captured WW2 officers. It's had a quite a history, this place.

The ambience was deftly augmented by the subtle appearance of further drama students in period costume, representing former inhabitants, wafting around between the rooms. One in a wig, then three ladies engaged in a deportment class - a very nice touch. But it was a little bit strange being taken on a tour of a mansion that's a university because all the rooms now have very different functions. The main saloon has a clunky overhead projector attached to one wall. A stack of municipal plastic chairs are stacked up next to a priceless fireplace. There are music stands lurking in the front porch. A long-abandoned stationery shop lurks in a messy alcove in the cellar. A nasty 1970s annexe has been tacked onto one wing. But much of Sassoon's sense of showmanship survives.

After today two more Open House weekends are scheduled. One's the 23rd and 24th of June, and the last is the opening weekend of the Olympics, if you're looking for somewhere entirely non-sporting to escape to. And then the students move on and the staff move out, which must be gutting, given the alternative accommodation is a purpose-built campus in Hendon. It has no rolling haymeadows, no Japanese Water Garden, no outdoor pool and no room once painted by Winston Churchill. Instead the entire fifteen thousand square metre estate is up for sale, which'll make the university a tidy profit, such is austerity funding. There are no clues yet as to who'll buy the place up. Enfield council's hoping for a major educational or institutional use, but my money's on a very very posh hotel. The place was used for entertaining before it was a college, and could easily slip back into luxury spa experience mode. So if you want to see historic Trent Park, get down sharpish, else you can always wait three years and come back for cocktails.

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