An Empire Under Cover

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-lightedΒ 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 accountΒ 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.


39 thoughts on “An Empire Under Cover

  1. Hope this rain abates before it causes much damage! I thought of you yesterday when we went to the stone circle here in the Highlands πŸ™‚

    1. You have been in my thoughts, Tandy πŸ™‚ There are some incredibly beautiful old traces of earlier times up there. Enjoy, and I hope the rain clears up for you soon…

    1. It closed in 1805: I believe it had a spell as Fulham’s football ground; and these days it is a park once more, part of the grounds of Chelsea Hospital – and part of the grounds for the Chelsea Flower Show πŸ™‚

  2. Rain back today but I had one glorious day of sunshine yesterday for my birthday – I am with you on cabin fever – decades ago when I nannyed in London (with very small children) I dreaded these endless days of rain! G. Heyer was a great favourite of mine when younger and I was intrigued with these pleasure gardens, she mentioned Vauxhall the most but Ranelagh was mentioned as well. I would wear a posh frock if it meant I could go visit and gawk at it all – thanks for the coffee:)

    1. Wow! I never knew Georgette Heyer mentioned Ranelagh! She must have been so immersed in that world, Alberta! I am deplorably late answering these comments but Happy Birthday in retrospect πŸ™‚

  3. So, it’s a 24/7 Party House it seems. What a fun way to spend a dreary rainy day. I would share what the weather here is in lovely Charleston, but, you would then be mad at me.

  4. I always wondered how it was possible for Vauxhall to be so perennially popular despite the English weather! I’d never heard of Ranelagh Gardens, let alone this gorgeous covered party room. Thanks, as always for captivating me and taking me right into the people and places of history. It’s been a fantastic journey ever since I first stumbled upon your blog, and is now the way I like to start the day: A cup of tea and Kate.

  5. Perhaps the precursor of shopping malls and indoor water parks?

    It rained here yesterday but, thus far, hasn’t decided whether today will bring more of that or a hint of sun. On the plus side, it IS already 52 degrees just after 8:00 a.m. πŸ™‚

    Sometimes there’s just no choice but to grab the umbrellas and slickers and head out into it anyway….little boys and terriers don’t mind the rain nearly as much as we do! Wishing you a sunshine break or two, Kate. I suspect you could use one. πŸ™‚

  6. Ah, the enchantment of it all! Thank you for weaving us into the tale, Kate…and holding thumbs for some sunshine over there πŸ™‚

  7. I thought this would be a geopolitical essay on USA . We don’t care to have a territorial empire just a military one. 800 out of country bases around the world.

  8. I can get cabin fever with just a few days of rain, so I am all sympathy! With your sense of story on the grand historical stage I think you are better than most at doing some kind of time travel/astral planing, Kate. If it gets too bad, I suggest you get back to making costumes for the pets! I still laugh when I remember you talking about that…I could use another chuckle. Debra

    1. Two careers in one comment, Debra, thank you! So many options to choose from. Life is a grand thing. (Loved your foodie post, by the way – inspiring!)

  9. Dear Kate, . . . first let me thank you for visiting my blog and commenting during April. I so appreciate your words as they always seem replete with appreciation.

    And then let me say how contented I felt when I clicked on your bookmark on my computer and discovered today’s posting. I look to you for new ideas and an appreciation of history and the foibles of human kind. You are a born teacher.


  10. I have never visited England but through this post, I feel the first visit is going to be less toursity and more informed…

    1. Jas, you truly have made my day. What a lovely comment! Though Ranelagh is long gone, you can stand where it used to be in the grounds of the Chelsea Hospital.

  11. When I think of the dull gardens by Putney Bridge, and in fact nearly any stretch of the Tidal Thames, it’s hard to imagine such a wonderful spectacle. We don’t seem to have gained a great deal as far as elegant and wondrous spectacles go. Another proof that modern Britain appears not to have much talent:)

  12. Isn’t Project Gutenberg fantastic, Kate? The upside of rain is that it makes us feel less guilty about staying indoors, writing

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