diamond geezer

 Friday, September 12, 2014

Having once decreed Sutton London's least interesting borough, I'm always on the lookout for something that makes me change my mind. And so I trotted down to Carshalton at the weekend to tick another heritage attraction off my list. It had to be the right weekend, in this case the first Sunday of the month, because a lot of Sutton's sightseeing spots open only infrequently. But you can still do half of what I'm about to describe on the next three Sunday afternoons (and on two of those for free).

Carshalton Water Tower
Location: West Street, Carshalton, SM5 3PN [map]
Open: Sunday afternoons from 2.30pm to 5pm (from the end of April to the end of September)
Also open: for Open House on Saturday 20th September
Admission: Adults £1, Children 25p

You may have learned about the South Sea Bubble at school, an unprecedented stock market crash caused when shares in a speculative trading company collapsed. One of the chief protagonists lived in Carshalton, then a small Surrey village (and still with an attractive cluster of weatherboarded cottages at its heart). Sir John Fellowes was made bankrupt by the Bubble busting in 1721 but continued to live at Carshalton House, and the mansion was passed on to a succession of other wealthy types. Enlarged and landscaped, the house was later used as a prep school for military cadets, and finally bought out in the 1880s to create a Roman Catholic girls' boarding School. They're St Philomena's College, no longer with boarders but still going strong, and whose gates are occasionally unlocked to allow visitors to explore some mighty fine buildings within.

The most notable of these is the Water Tower, Grade II listed, the top of which is easily visible from outside sticking up behind the brick wall. But what's less obvious until you walk through the sidegate is that the tower is merely the ornate top of a high-ceilinged one-storey building, and that there's genuine treasure within. The long airy room across the front is the Orangery, within which some of the Friends of Carshalton Water Tower will be waiting to meet and greet and inform. It becomes more obvious why they volunteer once you pass through the door at the end. A sequence of further rooms includes a decorated Saloon, decked out with historical info and memorabilia. The Pump Chamber has recently been restored and includes a Victorian water wheel which used to lift spring water into a cistern at the top of the tower. And then...

And then there's the plunge bath, or Bagnio. An 18th century creation, this deep tiled pool was used for private bathing - a luxury in its day - and is an exceptionally rare survivor. It's really very deep, more like one end of a swimming pool, not that you'd ever want to dive in. It's not immediately obvious how bathers did enter the water, but rest assured there are steps down, in marble, obscured from the prescribed viewing position. A trio of recessed arches provide places for those out of the water to perch, and the walls are emblazoned with an impressive selection of blue and white Delft tiles. It's no surprise to discover that Lucinda Lambton loves the place, and a recording of her Sublime Surburbia visit is screened on a portable TV outside. You'll not get in as close as her, nor will you officially be allowed to take photos, but you will I think be impressed.

It's also possible to go up top. "Only 37 steps to the roof" says a sign at the foot of the staircase, presumably to encourage those less fleet of foot who might not otherwise bother. This gets you much closer to the tower itself, and perhaps to some pigeons perching in the central void. Ignore the adjacent primary school and look further across the grounds to the main house, as symmetrical as was the fashion at the time. You should also be able to see down West Street into Carshalton Village, except that the tower's only open while trees are in full leaf, so probably not. You'll be doing well if you spend half an hour looking around, that's upstairs and down. But for a one pound visit, it's worth every penny.

Additional Attraction: The Hermitage
Open: the first Sunday of each month from May to September
Admission: Adults £1, Children free

So no, you can't follow in my footsteps here until the weekend before next year's General Election. But for an extra quid on the right date the Friends will throw in a guided tour of the school grounds, and that's an even better deal. Sunday's tour guide was just the right mix of personable and informative, leading us off round what was once an ornamental lake. This drained away many years ago and is now a swampy expanse of brambles, but apparently it filled up again briefly during this year's unseasonably wet spring, and even the pump chamber beneath the water tower saw a light trickle. The path leads past the Sham Bridge, which is really a dam, but pimped up on one side to look impressive from the house. And the house is impressive too, with its Corinthian porch and symmetrical façade, even if somewhere behind the windows are staffroom coffee cups and piles of textbooks.

The highpoint of the 45 minute tour is a visit to the Hermitage, tucked away behind the main lawn on the banks of the former lake. It's a single-storey folly, built 250 years ago from flaky chalk and brick, half-buried beneath a turf-topped mound of earth. Restoration has been expensive but means we can now go inside, to a space designed for getting away from it all. One niched opening leads directly to a circular chamber with echoing recesses, and a rather more modern cross tiled into the floor. And another leads to a dark curved passage, leading eventually to the same point, with 18th century graffiti carved into the rock. It's not what you expect to find on a school field, but then Sutton is full of surprises.

Interesting places to visit in Sutton
Honeywood Museum: Lovely and local, and recently restored, a short distance from the Water Tower [I've been] (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Whitehall: Tudor timber-framed house in the heart of Cheam village [I've been] (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Little Holland House: DIY Arts and Crafts home in Carshalton Beeches [I've been] (open on the first Sunday of the month)
Mayfield Lavender: Picturesque purple farm on the Surrey border [I've been] (open June to mid-September) (closes this weekend)
Carshalton Water Tower: as above [I've been] (open Sundays from the end of April to the end of September)
Carew Manor: Tours of the Tudor Great Hall and dovecote run four times a year (still to go this year, 14th September, 12th October) [I've not gone yet]

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