diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Random borough (29): Bexley (part 3)

Somewhere historic: Red House
Bexley's sole National Trust property lurks up an unassuming suburban sidestreet. Follow the Broadway half a mile from Bexleyheath shopping centre, no signs or anything, and two turnoffs will find it. The big red house on Red House Lane used to be owned by the great designer William Morris, although it wasn't surrounded by carports and semis in those days. 150 years ago this was the middle of the countryside, the only nearby settlement being four cottages across the lane at Hogs Hole. William thought it an ideal spot to live, so worked with his architect Philip Webb to create a 'Palace of Art' for himself and new wife Janey. Inside, the furniture, walls and windows reflected the burgeoning Art and Crafts movement. And outside, the steeply-pitched roof was supported by red-brick walls, from which the Red House earned its name. [photo]

The departing family I passed at the garden gate didn't sound terribly impressed by what they'd just seen. "Was that it?" they muttered, as if they'd somehow expected Morris's first family home to be a mansion. So I was pleased to be clutching my NT membership card, because that let me off the £7.20 admission fee for poking round inside. Entrance is down the garden path, via the back door, up the scullery passage. Before 1:30pm admission is by pre-booked guided tour, but after that you're on your own with only three laminated sheets to assist. Try to keep them in the right order, it gets very confusing otherwise.

The hall is high and dark, counterbalanced by a brighter passage leading off to the garden. Four seasonal stained glass mosaics fill the panes in the front door, part of the exceptional range of glasswork installed throughout the property [photo]. Most of these are originals designed by Edward Burne-Jones - not yet famous, but shortly to become a founder member of the decorative arts firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co (conceived in the dining room one evening in 1861). Today the downstairs walls are plastered with Morris's iconic wallpaper, even though that's an anachronism, and connoisseurs will find several samples to view and coo over in the sitting room.

I liked the wooden staircase with its spiky wooden banister, leading to a high raised ceiling above the upper landing. The ceilings are unusual throughout, with repeating dots and curves more 1960s Habitat than 1860s Bexley. Upstairs are the bedrooms and main study, almost entirely lacking in original fixtures and fittings so it's just as well the building's interesting enough in itself. A laddered bookcase, a reproduction embroidery, a porthole window - there's much to see. But not too much, five rooms maximum, so perhaps the grumpy visitors had a point.

But then there's William and Janey's garden, which they envisaged as an extension to the house divided up into thematic 'rooms' [photo]. A herb garden, a vegetable garden and two flower gardens, to be specific, now providing a useful strategic barrier against encroaching suburbia. The lawn's currently set out with croquet hoops and the fruit trees are bursting into fragrant blossom - Red House's 21st century custodians have done well. This was by no means the pinnacle of William's design career, merely an early staging post, but a visit here beats an afternoon at IKEA any day. [photo gallery, taken Saturday]
by train: Bexleyheath   by bus: 89, 96, 422, 486, B11-B16

Somewhere else pretty: Foots Cray Meadows
OK, so that's my seventh Bexley visit - I lost count. But I wanted to see something of the southern end of the borough before I finished. Plus I wanted to see the park where BestMate went to eat his lunchtime sandwiches when he used to work in Foots Cray. And I hadn't been to Sidcup before. Ghastly oversight, sorry. Largest open space in the borough, these meadows, lying either side of the River Cray on a floodplain no developer would risk developing on. At its heart is the Five Arch Bridge, which looks pretty much like you'd expect, but also pretty [photo]. It's the only route across the centre of the meadows, so most visitors pass over at least once with pushchairs, puppies or whatever in tow. The lake alongside may look natural, but in fact it's ornamentally dammed. Indeed the entire grounds are an artificial Arcadia, landscaped by Capability Brown on behalf of the owners of stately North Cray Place (long since demolished). Heading away from the lake I was surprised to bump into an old friend out walking his dog. Not half as surprised as he was to see me, though, and he queried what the hell I was doing this far out in the middle of nowhere. I considered explaining that my jamjar had sent me, but thought better of it, and quickly changed the conversation. I think I got away with it. Should have brought some sandwiches.
by train: Albany Park   by bus: 233, 492, B14

Some other Bexley places to visit:
» Crossness Pumping station (occasional steaming days) [previous visit]
» Lesnes Abbey (ruins) [previous visit]
» Danson House (closed Saturdays) [pencilled in for a future visit] [photo]
» Cray Riverway Walk (10 mile walk from the Thames to Foots Cray) [leaflet] [I'll be back]

www.flickr.com: my Bexley gallery
(24 photos altogether)

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