ENGLISH HERITAGE:Danson House Location: Bexleyheath DA6 8HL [map] Open: 10am-4pm (Sundays only) (but Thursdays only in winter) Admission: £7 (half price to EH members) Website:bexley.gov.uk/services/visitor-attractions/danson-house Four word summary: splendidly restored Palladian mansion Time to allow: a good hour
In 1995 English Heritage decided Danson House was the most at-risk property in southeast England and in danger of imminent collapse. Consequently they stumped up a £4m grant, repaired the roof and restored the interior, with the intention of creating a heritage attraction of which Bexley could be proud. Ten years later the Queen dropped by for the grand reopening, but local residents never flocked in the numbers hoped, and the building has been recently repurposed. Thankfully Danson House is still open once a week for guided tours, and I can confirm it's one of the capital's lesser known architectural gems.
This striking Palladian villa was built in the 1760s by Sir John Boyd, vice-chairman of the British East India Company and a rich sugar merchant/slave trader (delete as appropriate). His first wife died during construction, so the building contains several decorative flourishes in tribute to his second (considerably younger) spouse. 100 years later the house was sold to Alfred Bean, the engineer who brought the railway to Bexleyheath with a view to selling off most of his estate for housing. The 200 acres that weren't built on became Danson Park, Bexley's finest landscaped resource, and the council took over management of the house in 1924. Used for municipal offices and storage, it inexorably decayed.
After being restored, the building was placed in the care of the Bexley Heritage Trust in the hope they could make a go of it. But when their grant was cut in 2016 the Trust withdrew, leaving the council with a Grade I listed headache, which they solved by relocating the borough's Register Office. Now when you turn up you may find yourself holding the door open for a parent carrying a newborn, or eavesdropping on a bride-to-be mulling over which room to hire, or chatting with the registrar about how the morning's wedding went. It's brought the building to life, but as your volunteer guide leads you through the waiting area to the first room you may sense this isn't how things were intended to turn out.
The hall still impresses, as was Boyd's original intention. Take time to inspect the romantic detail beneath the architraves and look out for the recesses which once held classical busts. Access from outside is up an unnecessarily broad stone staircase, ideal for showing off bridal trains, and the hall is currently dressed with a Christmas tree to give December weddings a festive touch. If royalty is your thing, the Queen's signature has recently gone on display in a wooden case, along with photos of her signing the book and a brief account of her visit.
English Heritage's interior restoration has been based on a set of watercolours painted by one of the house's Victorian residents. These proved particularly useful in the Dining Room, a sumptuous space whose walls are once again decorated with bacchanalian paintings, gilt mirrors and fruity murals. I imagine many a wedding party guest goes 'wow' when ushered through into their venue. My guide, however, confirmed that the room had looked even more impressive a few years ago filled with period furniture rather than rows of plastic chairs.
Next around the piano nobile is the Salon, an octagonal room with striking blue Chinoiserie wallpaper and a central chandelier. The intricate decorative coving is original, having survived in much better shape than the plasterwork on the ceiling. The marble fireplace was one of several fixtures and fittings rescued from a container at Tilbury docks after the building's last leaseholder, a local builder, mysteriously relocated to the Caribbean. As for the painting hung above, that's a copy of a Claude-Joseph Vernet landscape commissioned by the house's original owner, the original of which hangs in a gallery in Baltimore.
The Library completes the first floor circuit. Those books may not be authentic, but all the cases are, and also the very fine plasterwork above the doors. The main focus of the room undoubtedly is the organ, installed to entertain guests to the original house, hence rather larger than the room deserves. The Bexley Heritage Trust enjoyed holding occasional concerts here, but surprisingly the organ gets even less use in the building's new incarnation because the noise might drown out ceremonies taking place in adjacent rooms.
The central ellipticalstaircase is a proper highlight, spiralling up to a gallery with eight Ionic columns on the second floor. Two upstairs rooms can be hired for ceremonies, so a lift has had to be punctured through alongside the stairs because wedding guests can't be expected to negotiate the narrow swirl of cantilevered steps. I can confirm that the view towards the lake from Sir John's bedroom is particularly fine. Visitors on the guided tour should expect to encounter the full-length mirror the council were asked to provide for the Queen's visit, but are not shown the stationery cupboard they temporarily converted into a lavatory, which was never used.
Topping off the centre of the stairwell is an oval dome, encircled with ornate wooden panels uncovered when the house was restored, and to dizzying effect. Then to end the tour it's all the way down to the basement kitchen, where the servants laboured, and which is much larger than you might expect. It's lightly scattered with the usual collection of Victorian sculleryware, but looked rather different on your TV screens last year when it was used for the Tom Hardy TV series Taboo dressed as a hospital mortuary.
You could top off your tour of Danson House with a visit to Fleur de thé, an independent cafe on the ground floor accessed from the park. Or if "afternoon teas amongst an array of beautiful shabby chic gifts and homewares" isn't quite your style, perhaps you'd prefer the pub in the former stables by the car park, called the Stables. Alternatively the National Trust's top Bexley attraction, Red House, is only a short walk away (although it closes for the winter after this weekend, so a joint visit won't be possible until March). But do add Danson House to your to-visit list... and if only we'd all done that earlier it wouldn't have become the Register Office it is today.