diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Open House: Swakeleys

The finest Jacobean mansion in Middlesex is up for sale, should you have £45m to spare. Swakeleys was built in 1638 as a country residence for a City merchant, later to be Lord Mayor of London. Built from English Bond brick, and properly imposing, the H-shaped building features several wood-panelled rooms, numerous marble fireplaces and a fine oak staircase leading to the upper floor.

The tale of its slippage from private to public to private ownership is an intriguing one, kicking off in the 1920s when much of the surrounding estate was flogged off for Metro-land housing. A public-spirited gentleman managed to buy Swakeleys rather than see it pulled down, and arranged for the Foreign Office Sports Association to use it as a clubhouse. After WW2 the Foreign Office passed it on to the London Postal Region Sports Club, who couldn't really afford the upkeep, and in 1980 three local men stepped in with a restoration proposal which saw pharmaceutical offices built in the grounds. They negotiated a 25 year lease, but when that ended a new owner snapped up the property for his prime portfolio, and he's now seeking to dispose of his asset after doing the place up.

Under previous agreements, members of the public were given access to Swakeleys three days a year, including the day of the annual Ickenham Festival which took place on the lawn. The new owner cut things back, persuading Hillingdon council to agree to just one day, as well as imposing so many restrictions that the festival organisers gave up and went elsewhere. Access is now only permitted on Open House weekend, from ten til four, and even that isn't as generous as it first looks. A map attached to the gate shows which parts of the 25 acre estate you can perambulate, and white ribbons have been tied to trees and posts to reinforce the borderline. Just one gate is unlocked, and once you've traipsed past the car park to the front door, it appears visitors aren't entirely welcome.

The hallway is divided from the Great Hall by a triple-arched screen topped off with two gold lions and a bust of Charles I. The floor is stone and black marble, and a couple of classical heads adorn the oversized fireplace. A particularly nice touch is a quartet of small stained glass roundels marking the house's 20th century saviours, my favourite marking the Postmaster General's visit in 1956. But don't expect to wander at will. The owner has laid down a red carpet to protect his floor, and roped off its edges, even along the nearside wall, so you can't step off and scuff the surface. Might the rest of the house be less constrained? Alas, no.

The oak staircase is surrounded by mythological oil paintings depicting Trojan heroes and Greek goddesses, on all flanks including the ceiling, but all are temporarily lit so somewhat dark. The stair carpet has been covered with clear plastic to prevent visitors from soiling it, which tempers the overall effect. The Great Chamber at the top of the stairs is the largest room in the house, but a volunteer is stationed at the half-closed doorway to prevent anyone stepping inside, and peeping past isn't easy. And every other door in the building is firmly closed, concealing whatever the remainder of Swakeleys looks like. We have been permitted to see one dazzling hallway and some stairs. Someone doesn't really want us here.

It's OK to wander around the extensive grounds, so long as you don't cross the tape and stray too close to the house. A ring of spotlights and security cameras buried in the grass suggests a constant paranoia. The fast-growing conifer hedge around the perimeter no longer has any of the gaps it had in 2013 when I last peered through. The lawns are less than pristine, but nobody lives here at present so nobody complains. Only two potential buyers are in the running, I was told, one of whom wants to turn Swakeleys into luxury retirement apartments and the other an opulent spa. But whether public access will continue isn't yet clear, so you may never get the opportunity to see what I almost saw. [7 photos] [virtual tour]

Open House: Uxbridge Lido

Uxbridge Lido is part of Hillingdon Sports and Leisure Centre, and beloved, and dazzling even in the pouring rain. It was opened in 1935, with typical British timing on 31st August just too late for the summer. The outdoor pool is 50m long, with a curved swoosh of offices at one end and some shallow square pools for paddling at the other. Halfway down one side is a Moderne Art Deco pavilion, with steps on either side leading to a roof terrace which used to boast sunloungers but is alas now closed. The stepped fountains at either end of the pool are officially termed cascades, and are part of the filtration system. It's all very white and very blue, and very sleek, and was used by thousands in its Fifties heyday.

But the lido closed in 1998, and was only reborn in 2010 following substantial restoration, and the sympathetic addition of an indoor pool alongside. Boris Johnson came along to open it, but in his role as Mayor of London, this being a few years before he became Uxbridge's MP. There was no sign of him at the weekend, just a handful of brave souls doing lengths outside and a lot of towel-bearing families heading to the pool within. I could tell this hadn't been a busy Open House venue because the lady at the front desk casually handed me a free Open House guide along with my information leaflet, making a mockery of the £9 I'd paid for mine. But "ha!" to everyone queueing to see inside office blocks in the City - sometimes the best looking buildings are on the outskirts, and solely yours to enjoy. [6 photos]

Open House: Uxbridge Quaker Meeting House

Quakers have met in Uxbridge since the 17th century, although the current Meeting House on Belmont Road is of 1818 vintage. A plain brick building in a prime location, it better resembles a church hall than a place of worship, and quite deliberately so. Half used to be for women and half for men, with wooden shutters inbetween which could be lowered so one could hear the other. A fire damaged the women's side in 1988, and this has never been fully restored. But the Large Meeting House is much as it was, with tall windows and a raised bench along one side, although rest assured the walls weren't originally that shade of green - somebody recently had an unfortunate mix-up with the paint.

In this case Open House isn't so much about the building as what it represents, and an opportunity to meet the people who gather here. I had a long chat with one gentlemen who explained about the importance of sharing silence, how every Quaker Meeting has its own character and how much easier it is to maintain the building now the nursery has moved out. He also pointed out that everything has to be a collective decision, which made picking the design of the carpet unexpectedly troublesome. By dropping in I've followed in the footsteps of William Penn, Elizabeth Fry and the baker who helped found Huntley and Palmers. And I also count myself much better informed about yet another shade of Christianity who normally meet behind closed doors.

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