Some of us are lucky enough to have a National Trust property within walking distance, perhaps in the most unlikely part of town. But Hackney wasn't always edgy and urban, in Tudor times it was a sweet country village just close enough to London for courtiers and the well-to-do to make it their home. One such aristo was Ralph Sadleir, a knight in the court of Henry VIII, who built a three storey brick house in meadows by the Hackney Brook. The river's gone, traffic clogs the bend in the road out front and a massive late-Blair academy looms opposite. But the mini-manor is somehow still there, now five centuries adrift, and opens three days a week for interior scrutiny.
You no longer enter Sutton House through the front door, which just shows how long it's been since I last went. Instead you enter through the yard up the side, of which more later, supposedly attracted by a chalkboard on the terrace. I tried the unsigned door on the rear porch which appeared to be locked, so was about to give up and leave when a volunteer emerged and told me I'd been turning the handle the wrong way. I mention this in case you too are unduly discouraged, and also in case someone at the NT is reading in which case your exterior wayfinding isn't as good as you think it is.
Visitors can either roam round independently or go on a tour, which isn't as strict as the arrangements on page 197 of this year's National Trust Handbook would have you believe. I suspect the pre-booked tours are the better experience because the guides have many layers of history to explain, but I opted for the solo wander.
There are two 'blimey' rooms, one downstairs and one up (although that's blimey on a Hackney scale, this is hardly Hampton Court). The downstairs blinder is the Linenfold Parlour, a fully-wood-panelled room with a roarable stone hearth. All the timber panels have been rippled to resemble hanging cloth, which in those days was a proper luxury statement, and some can be removed enabling you to see the painted version underneath. Elsewhere on the ground floor is a Tudor kitchen which smells like every other National Trust kitchen - a fake tang of musty spice - and a cosier Georgian Parlour. A number of the rooms here represent just one period in the house's complex history so walking around is a bit like time travel.
The upstairs blimey is the Great Chamber, another woody-walled blinder. The panels here are original even if the furniture isn't, with the light switches and the war memorial falling in the latter category. That's because for 40 years the building was used by St John's church as somewhere they called The Institute... and in its time it's also been a spinster's hideaway, a solicitors, a boarding school and two separate houses. The room nextdoor is naturally the Little Chamber and boasts the house's most Instagrammable panel/hearth combo, again amazingly mid 16th century.
The anachronism in the Victorian Study is a garderobe with possibly the house's most dubious claim, that Henry VIII maybe used the toilet here. It would have to have been during his less portly phase else he'd never have squeezed in. Elsewhere is a larger Gallery, an odd airy space whose original function still isn't understood. At present they're making a big fuss of a few scraps of restored wallpaper, which at first glance looked faded, floral and distinctly unimpressive but were actually painstaking restored by a conservator over several weeks last summer, such is the Trust's devotion to minutiae.
You can also explore further down and further up. The cellar is usually on-limits and so is a basement chapel where parishioners from St-John-at-Hackney sometimes worshipped. The attic is more of a surprise, kitted out as a Squatters bedroom to reflect the period in the 1980s when the National Trust took their eye off the ball and a group of agitators moved in. As well as graffiti and a scrappy bed on pallets, the joy is eyeballing such period props as a one-bar electric fire, a ghetto blaster and a pair of chunky headphones with a DIN plug. Without their plucky local campaign Sutton House could all too easily have become luxury flats.
There is a central courtyard with fabulous brickwork. There is a tearoom although I think it was closed, either that or terribly badly advertised. There is a Wenlock Barn, which I think is where events happens and weddings are celebrated. And there is a slave trade backstory, because that would be hard to avoid when one of the house's owners was a 17th century silk merchant working for the East India Company. The National Trust addresses the issue via a fabric artwork by the fireplace and an 8-page colour booklet you can pick up on the adjacent table. This is packed with background detail and reassuringly non-judgmental, because you can't just rip out the trompe l'oeil staircase if you don't like how it was paid for.
Which brings us back to Breakers Yard, the chief way in and out, which was part of the original Tudor garden and more recently a scrapyard. Last year it was reimagined as a Jarmanesque garden, admittedly with smaller pebbles than Dungeness but with a greater number of upcycled vans. One of the key influences here is the concept of Queer Botany, "an ecocritical project that studies and affirms connections between queerness and nature", hence the beds include sapphic violets, sea pinks, asters ("arguably queer and non-binary") and the inevitable lavender. The concept's either inspired or sheer bolx, but at least it makes for a pleasant place to linger (and anyone can get this far without paying).
Sutton House has just reopened after its winter break and is an excellent reminder that sometimes the extraordinary hides in plain sight. If you're lucky enough to have a local National Trust property it deserves a second look, or maybe even a first.