When it rains, there is only inside.
I speak from experience: I have developed cabin fever on land, staring outside and inventing new ways to occupy the under twelves.
One can buy oneself out of cabin fever. All it takes is access to somewhere gloriously large. Like the old galleries the nobility would build onto their houses- great indoor walkways where one could walk up and down and get a bit of exercise. The one at Lanhydrock House, Cornwall, is one of my favourites, with gorgeous plaster ceiling. And I expect that in Cornwall, it got plenty of use.
London took that principle to its nth degree; a covered playroom for the rich and famous, a city temptress which barely made it into the nineteenth century: but oh, how it glittered in its heyday.
I speak of Ranelagh Gardens: a forgotten jewel on London’s social scene.
When my eye witness visited this place it was a veritable enfant terrible: an upstart pleasure dome created by theatre folks to dazzle kings and princes and best the glory of Vauxhall Gardens.
It was the management of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane which formed a syndicate to buy Ranelagh House in Chelsea to build pleasure gardens there.And the gardens were run with every bit as much theatre as Drury Lane.
My witness was once a hatter. Karl Philippe Moritz, born into a humble family and a failed actor, he became a society writer and poet. Later he would be a friend of Goethe.
But as we join him, he is just another interloper to London, looking for the gardens so that he might compare them with the great gardens at Vauxhall. He might as well have been carrying an eighteenth century A-Z in his hand, one balmy June night in 1782.
He must have looked clueless- he had overshot, all the way to Chelsea: but it was all right because he met a man with a wheelbarrow who not only showed him the way but talked companionably to him all the way.
You pays your half-crown and you takes your choice, as they say. He coughed up, and then found himself in the most disappointing of gardens: “a poor, mean looking and ill-lighted garden where I met but a few people.”
A dodgy young lady grabbed Moritz by the elbow. Here was the underbelly of the tourist trade: she asked him why he was walking all alone? Reading between the lines, Moritz looked wildly about for an escape, spotted crowds heading for a doorway, disengaged himself and shot off gratefully in its direction.
Surely, he thought, this could not be the magnificent, ‘much-boasted’ Ranelagh?
The evening could have gone downhill from there but for that door. And what he found,he compared to walking into a living, breathing fairy tale.
A great round building lit by a thousand lamps, more splendid than anything he had ever witnessed in his life before. And everything in it seemed to be round: a gallery skirted the dome in which sang an angelic choir accompanied by organ. Underneath were brightly painted boxes in which people could sit and eat and drink and take in this glorious sight. In the middle were four black pillars where fireplaces enabled refreshments to be prepared. And around the pillars were tables at which to eat.
“Within these four pillars,” wrote the star-struck Prussian, “in a kind of magic rotundo, all the beau-monde of London move perpetually round and round.”
The organisers knew what they were about: for after watching the sea of beautiful faces wander round and round in the twinkling lights he sat down and ordered refreshments.
But when he tried to pay for them, the waiter politely declined: it’s all in the half crown entry fee, sir, he said. You could give me a tip if you like, though.
Which the delighted Prussian did.
If you have a moment, read his account in Travels In England, the chronicles of his time here. He seems to sum up the heady mix of that great concourse of the fashionable and the beautiful, walking round and about, moving ‘in an eternal circle to see and be seen.’
“I could easily distinguish several stars, and other orders, of Knighthood; French queues and bags contrasted with plain English heads of hair, or professional wigs; old age and youth,nobility and commonality, all passing in a motley swarm,” he tells us.
An Englishman stopped to point out divers princes and lords; and then Moritz decided he would go outside to the gloomy garden, that he may experience the delight of coming in all over again.
A great covered cathedral of pleasure where even our torrential rain cannot find us.
Oh, for a time machine and a posh Georgian frock.