diamond geezer

 Monday, January 26, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Burgh House (Hampstead Museum)

Location: New End Square, Hampstead NW3 1LT [map]
Open: Wed, Thur, Fri, Sun (noon-5pm)
Admission: free
Brief summary: life by the Heath
Website: www.burghhouse.org.uk
Time to set aside: half an hour

Burgh HouseEver been for a proper walk round the heights of Hampstead? Not the grassy Heath-y bit, but the cluster of houses on the hilltop alongside? You don't have to walk far from Hampstead tube to find yourself amongst narrow lanes, intimate alleyways and asymmetric squares - quite unlike any other part of London. Those who live here don't get a lot of garden for their money, but they do get their choice of glorious Victorian townhouses and detached cottages and bold modernist infill, plus some of the capital's most famous neighbours. The rest of us are restricted to eyeing up this enclave via a jealous wander, and maybe paying a visit to a small museum which tells the area's story.

Burgh House was built in 1704, around the same time as Hampstead burst forth onto the London scene as an upmarket spa. Chief physician Dr William Gibbons moved into the house shortly afterwards, and it was he who encouraged visitors to gulp down the foul-tasting chalybeate waters. The spa's respectability didn't last, tarnished by drinking dens and vice, and it took several decades for Hampstead to regain its status as a desirable upper middle class haven. One of Burgh House's Victorian residents was Thomas Grylls, designer of Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner rose window, while the garden was later overhauled by legendary landscape architect Gertrude Jekyll. Quite a comedown after WW2, then, to end up as a crumbling Citizen's Advice Bureau, and only a concerted campaign by locals saved the building as a museum.

Burgh HouseIt's not the most obvious of museums, you have to look hard to be reassured it's OK to enter, but the volunteer on the front desk will probably smile broadly at the sight of a visitor. There's a small shop here - not the usual tea towels and tourist tat, but a proper collection of Hampstead ephemera and locally-sourced books. Off to the left is the creaky-floored Music Room - mostly empty apart from a grand piano, and bookable for weddings so long as the guests don't mind having nowhere to park. There are a couple more period rooms downstairs, again lightly furnished, connecting through to a modern extension at the rear. This is currently being used for a minimalist exhibition about artist John Constable, who lived out his last years a few doors up the road. Best not use the ladies or gents toilets to either side while there are visitors - the walls are rather thin and your flush may prove an embarrassing interruption.

The main Hampstead Museum is upstairs. Don't expect a lot, just a couple of bedroom-sized spaces decked out with Heritage Lottery displays. Room 1's the old stuff, including maps and models of the spa-time Heath. There's a bit more to see in Room 2. An Isokon long chair for a start, indicative of the modernist Lawn Road flats where Agatha Christie once lived. There's a section on wartime Hampstead, including a bed lifted from the deep level shelter on the platforms at Belsize Park tube station. You'll also see a few old High Street shopfronts, and a Mayoral chair, and a Scout flag (from the UK's first ever Scout troop). We're not talking proper exciting here, but at least a decent reflection of life beyond Hampstead's hilltop enclave.

There's one little interactive feature that ought to be quite fun, and that's an electronic map. Touch the screen and you can locate the houses of scores of famous people who've lived in Hampstead over the years (only the dead ones, obviously, it's no good trying to stalk Glenda or Esther). That blue circle on Christchurch Hill, who lived there? Press it, come on, try to press it, press it again. Who was it, ah him, never heard of him. Alas there are no names on the map, they're hidden inside an impenetrable indexing system, and trying to trawl through the anonymous coloured blobs soon gets rather tedious. Your lottery money would have been better spent on an ordinary paper-based map, perhaps of the kind available downstairs in the shop (Who Lived Where in Hampstead, £2.95).

A series of regularly-changed small exhibitions help to keep visitors coming back, but from what I saw all the genuine action is in the basement. Here you'll find the Buttery Cafe, packed out even in mid January, yet so poorly signposted that surely only local people know of its existence. Ideal for brunch or a slice of cake, so I'm told, but I slipped out through the shop without succumbing to either. Off to explore the streets and blue plaques on foot, my appetite suitably stimulated.
by tube: Hampstead

B is also for...
» Bank of England Museum (I've been, twice)
» Barnet Museum (I'm saving it for a jamjar moment)
» Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee (it's closed til later in the year)
» Brent Museum (I've been)
» British Museum (I've been, obviously)
» Bromley Museum (I got as far as the front door)
» Bruce Castle Museum (I've been)

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