The National Trust run only a dozen properties in London, and not always in the most likely locations. One of these reopened last week after a lengthy restoration, in a large village on the Thames Marshes in deepest Havering. It's Rainham Hall, a particularly fine example of a Queen Anne house, and £1.5m has brought it back to life in a community-tastic manner.
Rainham Hall was built in 1729 by Captain John Harle, a seafaring merchant from County Durham who married an East End lass. He bought up the local wharf, then connected to the Thames by creek, and used it successfully as a base for trade. His house was upwardly mobile but not upper class, hence not the National Trust's typical stately home, and all the better for it. Three storeys tall, plus basement, its square frontage stands proudly (behind particularly ornate iron railings) beside the parish church as befits its local status. Plus outside there's an orchard, plus private gardens, plus public gardens, plus a stable block, plus a giant Victorian dog kennel - at least one of which houses the new cafe. So it's a winner, obviously.
I'd been to Rainham Hall before, back in 2011 when it was open only intermittently and awaiting a much-needed injection of cash. In those days a guide took a small group round, apologising for the fabric of the interior and pointing out aspects of interest. In the refurbished building the emphasis is different, as the National Trust branches out and tries a rather different approach. Now you're allowed to wander round unbidden, and the focus has switched from the building itself to its inhabitants. A wide cast of characters has lived at Rainham Hall over three centuries, and the NT proposes to focus on a different resident in turn, each for a year or so, in an attempt to bring their story to life. In the future we're promised an insight into a 18th century Methodist preacher, a postwar nursery child and a photographer for Vogue. But first out of the personality brantub, and rightly so, is the Hall's first owner, John Harle.
John's bewigged wife was waiting at the front door when I arrived. This may have been an opening weekend special, or it might be normal, it's hard to tell. My visit on Sunday coincided with a community fete designed to welcome those who live nearby and help make them feel part of the project. Rainham Hall was thus teeming with people, a wholly atypical experience hereabouts, but which'll have delighted the general manager sitting out back on a sunny bench. If you visit you'll be able to explore three floors but we were only allowed two, the attic floor being too weak to support a torrent of freeloaders. But you might also miss the animated atmosphere, and a sense of collective exploration, as the over-50s of almost-Essex swarmed all over, and enjoyed.
The most impressive room is the entrance hall - as would have been expected in the first area seen by guests - dark and wood-panelled with a coat of arms above the fireplace. There are then three ground floor rooms to explore, the idea being that if you see a door you open it, and who knows what surprise you might find behind. For example nobody'll be expecting one room to contain nothing but a video of the rolling sea projected onto all four walls (won't be expecting unless they've read this sentence, sorry). The front room houses a board game played with gloves inside a perspex box, this because the counters are actual 18th century coins, though I fear the rules are too complex for the average visitor to want to engage. Meanwhile out back is the kitchen, the ideal blank canvas for historical invention. For this opening exhibition it's become a Lloyd's Coffeehouse, as merchant Harle would have been a regular visitor, with fact-packed freesheet to read or take away.
Upstairs follows the same minimalist pattern, one concept per room. John's wife is imagined through what might have been her wedding dress. John's trade is celebrated in a cabinet of splendid shiny seafaring equipment loaned by the National Maritime Museum. A front room contains nothing but a table to practice Georgian handwriting, spurred on by the Great Vowel Shift John would have experienced in his journey south. The bath has been filled, somewhat playfully, with solid blue water and a fleet of ships. And then there's the house's pride and joy, an artefact by rights it shouldn't own, namely John Harle's will. This was discovered completely by chance by Rainham's postmistress, stopping off at a car boot sale half way up the A1, and her tale is engagingly told behind the sealed vellum she donated.
I liked the garden, especially the long herringbone path leading directly from the back door. Out back, on a long terrace, the house's orchard is currently dripping with apples and sweet-smelling pears. And you won't get this, but on Sunday a handful of stalls were laid out across the lower public garden, the lady from local hospital radio clearly wishing she'd set up her fleamarket closer to the path. Other stallholders had taken over the top floor of the stable block, including a representative of thecraftgroup commissioned to sew something appropriate for each regeneration of the hall's display (for example a Delft tile, to match the rare ones in the fireplace). And the stable block is also where you'll find the cafe, doing a roaring trade on my visit, as an army of volunteers got to grips with how precisely the till and (more importantly) the milk frothing machine worked.
The cafe's going to be open daily, with the upstairs space available for community groups, which sounds like an excellent local resource. The Hall will be open every day except Monday and Tuesday, so don't head there today, and avoid Wednesdays and Thursdays too once the winter season kicks in. But that's still hugely more accessible than "the occasional Saturday afternoon", which was the building's previous fate, as befits the impressive transformation wrought beneath its roof. I'm not entirely won over by the focus on characters at the expense of architecture, and some of the minimalist displays underwhelmed, but the fine detail is excellent, and the chance to tell a variety of stories over the forthcoming years is an inspiring idea. And Rainham Hall's a really easy walk from the station, and only two stops past Barking, assuming you've never been out this way before.