diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 01, 2016

One of the grandest houses ever seen in Britain was built in Wanstead (E11) in the early 18th century. A pioneer of Palladian style, Wanstead House boasted mighty Corinthian pillars and a 200ft-long symmetrical frontage. The gardens were landscaped with tree-lined avenues and ornamental waterways, creating a spectacular estate likened to the palace of Versailles, much favoured by the nobles and gentry of the Georgian era. But almost 200 years ago Wanstead House was completely demolished, leaving only the surrounding parkland as evidence of magnificence lost, and the tale of its disappearance is worthy of a modern day soap opera.

Wanstead once had a Tudor manor, snapped up in 1667 by the extremely rich Governor of the East India Company, Sir Josiah Child. He was succeeded by his son Richard who knocked down the old house and built an ostentatious replacement, in a successful attempt to improve his social standing. Anyone who was anyone came to Wanstead House to admire, to socialise and to marvel. So far so good. In 1750 the house passed to Richard's grandson John - a dapper individual with a love of fine art. John never married (they didn't allow civil partnerships in those days) so the estate was eventually inherited by an unsuspecting nephew. And when his son died at the tragically early age of 11, Wanstead ended up in the possession of teenage heiress Catherine. Poor Catherine. She was courted by many men, but in the end discarded the portly Duke of Clarence in favour of raffish young William Pole-Wellesley. As mistakes go, this was a monumental biggie. The Duke went on to become King, and William turned out to be a womanising gambler with venereal disease and an irresponsible lifestyle. 10 years later, in 1822, William's creditors forced the sale of Wanstead House and all of its contents in an attempt to pay back a quarter of a million pounds of debt. But the house, alas, failed to attract any bids whatsoever and so was demolished and sold off piecemeal, brick by brick. Catherine died soon afterwards, tragically young, while her miserable husband lived into old age to wreck several more lives. Roll credits.

There is a second episode to the story. Half of the land was bought up by the City of London Corporation in 1878, who used some for a cemetery and opened the rest to the public, while the other half was sold off in 1920 and is now mostly golf course. The footprint of Wanstead House lies inside the latter, alas out of bounds, close to where the clubhouse now stands. But the remainder survives as Wanstead Park, a vast acreage of landscaped woodland and water, where clues to the past abound if you know where to look.

The Lakes: My word there are a lot of these. Nine significant bodies of water were originally landscaped, of which around half survive. The Basin is a large octagonal reservoir, now part of the golf course, the Heronry Pond is long and serpentine, and the Perch Pond a fraction more municipal. But most impressive is the Ornamental Water, a sprawling artificial finger of water carved out parallel to the River Roding. It's here that you can sense some of the estate's original grandeur, with sinuous inlets facing broad avenues carved through the woods, the occasional strategically-planted cedar, and a series of geometric islands once ideal for cruising by boat. Various geometric indentations make for a surprisingly lengthy perimeter, so be warned that a single circumnavigation takes at least forty minutes, with no alternative footpaths to make your escape part-way round. But it's a great walk, enlivened by geese treating the long canals as their own private runway and, at the right time of year, carpets of bluebells.

The Grotto: Every showy Georgian estate needed a folly, and this decorated arch dates back almost exactly 250 years. Facing the main lake it was secretly a boathouse, lit from above through a dome and with shells, crystals and mirrors embedded in the walls. Opened to the public in 1882, the grotto was destroyed by fire only two years later when a bucket of tar boiled over, and now only the façade and the inner dock survive. Major renovation works in 2011 cleared away the surrounding vegetation, leaving an atmospheric skeleton overlooking the water.

The Temple: The main house may have gone but this single outbuilding survives, a grand long classical shell with a series of rooms inside. Its original function was purely decorative - a long avenue of sweet chestnut trees aligns with a view of the frontage - but over the years it's also been used to house a menagerie of exotic birds and as a parkkeeper's cottage. What's more it was wholly restored a few years ago so, if you turn up during the right ten hours at the weekend, you can take a look inside. In the entrance hall the volunteers will welcome you, then direct you off into four other rooms that act as a small museum. The history of the estate and temple feature strongly - there's quite a lot to read - plus several old maps, even the sales catalogue from the 1822 auction. One cabinet is full of Roman remains, dug up on site centuries ago when the tree-lined avenues were being laid, while downstairs are the chunky remains of three statues thrown into the lake. Intelligent, illuminating, and free.

The Tea Hut: It may be more modern and a lot smaller, but this refreshment kiosk has been deliberately modelled on the Temple across the park. Drop by for sub-£2 coffees, hot dogs, toast and cake, plus dog biscuits and bags of bird seed at 70p a time. Rightly popular with the residents of Aldersbrook fortunate to live close by.

To explore the delights of Wanstead Park, don't take the Overground to Wanstead Park, because that's badly named and almost a mile away. The nearest station is Redbridge on the Central line, except there's no direct access in that corner of the park so in fact your best bet is Wanstead. Alternatively the 101, 308 and W19 buses stop close by, and be warned that if you walk in from Blake Hall Road the muddy bridleway is currently only borderline-passable in trainers. But do consider exploring one day, to explore a fascinating slice of national history now hemmed in by the northeastern suburbs.

Wanstead Park linkage:
» The Friends of Wanstead Parklands (and their detailed history)
» The Temple Over Time exhibition boards (18 page pdf)
» The Lake System of Wanstead Park
» Wanstead House timeline
» Jean Rocque's map, 1745
» The Temple, Wanstead Park (City of London information pages)
» nine photos

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream