You can see it from the M25. Between junctions 26 and 27, where the orbital skims the edge of Epping Forest, a Palladian mansion is visible across the fields. This is Copped Hall, built in the 1750s on a historic site with links to royalty and Shakespeare, and whose frontage hides the damage wreaked by a great fire within. But a band of volunteers are putting the house and garden to rights, and every so often they open up and invite the general public inside. Top trip. [12 photos]
Where was King Henry VIII while Anne Boleyn was getting her head chopped off? Pacing the yew avenue at Copped Hall listening for confirmation from cannon fire at the Tower, if the story is to be believed. Where was Catholic Princess Mary quarantined during the reign of her brother Edward VI? Copped Hall again, for sure. And where did the very first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream take place? Many believe it was in the long gallery at Copped Hall, on the occasion of the wedding of the owner Sir Thomas Heneage, one of Queen Elizabeth's favourites. That's a pretty impressive line-up of Tudor hearsay.
By the 18th century the estate had passed to the Conyers family, who demolished the original hall and built a new one, and it's this that motorway drivers espy today. The final owners were the Wythes, who went off to church one Sunday in 1917 expecting a small fire to be put out, and returned to find their house ablaze. The building and estate were left to decay, suffering neglect and vandalism as well as the carving of the M25 through the edge of the estate. Then in 1995 the shell was bought up by the Copped Hall Trust, and their long term goal is to restore the house to its Georgian splendour. With a lot of help from donations and volunteers, against all the odds, they're getting there.
Guided tours of Copped Hall take place on the third Sunday of every month, except December. The front gates open at 10am and close at 11am, so you have a very narrow window to arrive, but the subsequent perambulation takes the best part of three hours, which is damned good value for the £8 fee. First you get an hour and a bit's tour of the house, then a brief refreshment break, and then an hour and a bit's tour of the garden. All three parts are great, and the garden's clearly at its very best in summer.
The restoration of the house is an amazing example of what can be achieved long term by a dedicated group. When they started work there were trees growing inside and unstable chimneys tottering in the wind. Today the building's weatherproof with replacement wooden floors, and all the rooms on the lower levels have been at least part restored. The kitchen in the cellars looks very much like a kitchen, the lady's bedchamber looks good enough to be used in modelling shots, and the high-ceilinged saloon is once again an ideal space for entertainment.
But it's an expensive project. Every replacement window costs in the order of £2000, and the same for the flagstones of the cantilever staircase now being reinstalled, while the expert plasterwork is thanks to a participant on a previous tour who said "oh I could help you with that" and now does the lot.
Our guide on Sunday was excellent, and led us through the rooms with a mix of knowledge and good humour. We had to rush through a few on the ground floor because they were being used by a local Shakespearean company preparing to deliver some outdoor theatricals, just one of the many events that take place in this splendid setting. If you fancy some jazz, or a lecture, or a wildlife photography course (the latter heavily oversubscribed), Copped Hall has something for you.
They also do a lot of educational work - it's easier to get grants that way - and some of the rooms in the north wing are given over to a fascinating series of exhibition panels. We could have lingered longer there, indeed probably in every room, but that three hour deadline was ticking away. Goodness knows how they'll fit everything in when the second floor is opened up, rather than being accessible only via a couple of rickety ladders.
The tea was nice, and the cakes were excellent. Sometimes at these places you get pre-packaged muffins or limp sponge, but this spread was diverse, lush and home-baked (including two gluten-free options). Refreshments are served in the Racquets Court, a precursor of squash, where a small gift shop helps supplement the Trust's income. Rather more money comes from the private apartments around the stable courtyard, leased out to some very fortunate residents as a financial kickstarter at the beginning of the restoration period.
The Trust own 24 acres of garden surrounding the house, and that's in remarkably good shape. This is thanks in no small part to a further phalanx of volunteers, who prefer to serve in the borders rather than on the fabric of the building. Each appears to have their own appointed empire, one doing fantastic work in the rock garden where the original Elizabethan mansion used to stand, another single-handedly laying down a gravel path to a recreation of Henry VIII's yew avenue.
But the finest achievements are in the Walled Garden, at four acres the largest walled garden in southeast England. The Trust almost didn't buy it, which would have been a terrible loss, but over two decades they've turned an overgrown quadrangle into a place of diverse beauty. One corner is mostly orchard and topiary, another bursting with beds and blooms, with a pear-arched pergola leading down to a central pool where dragonflies dart. As we walked around we frequently bumped into the individuals responsible for each separate blaze of colour - I suspect they're always here - and the plant sale in the rusting greenhouses did a roaring trade. I'm no gardener but I could tell this was something special. If horticulture is your thing, garden-only tours are also available once a month.
Getting toCopped Hall is easiest if you drive, indeed walking there is a bit awkward. I hiked from Epping station in about an hour, taking the scenic route via the top of Epping Forest, but you can walk along the road to Ambresbury Banks, where the pavement only fades away for the last stretch down Crown Hill. This way you get to see the hall's pine and rhododendron drive, dramatically severed partway along by an eight lane cutting. Or you can walk in from the foot of Bell Common, taking a small footpath where the M25 emerges from tunnel along the edge of two fields and along a gravelled lane. This way you also get to spy on Wood House, a white-gabled mansion which Rod Stewart is currently moving out of.
You've missed this month's Copped Hall openings, but there are a couple of opportunities next month, including a day with even longer tours than usual. Stick a visit in your diary for sometime in the future when the weather's nice, which is what I did months ago, and I'm delighted to have finally made the effort to go.
Guided Tours: 3rd Sunday, arrive 10-11am, £8 Extended Tour Day: Sunday 17 July, arrive 10am-1pm, £8 Garden Afternoons: 1st Sunday (Apr-Sep), arrive 2-4pm, £5 Open Days: 29 May, 28 Aug, arrive 11am-4pm, £8 Apple Day: 9 Oct, arrive 11am-4pm, £8