Can you imagine the landmasses of Britain populated by only one million people?
What a wilderness the Romans must have encountered when they landed to make their mark. Because back then, only one million natives were living out their lives here. The population grew, of course. And by 1650 there were six million of us to speak of. We had bustling cities, and centres of comparative civilisation.
But you could still swing a cat, so to speak.
It was at this time that someone put a fence around a tract of land in Windsor forest.
They did this illegally. Local history detectives say a survey map of the forest in 1607 shows no sign of the enclosure, but by 1683, Ann Bagley was leasing a mansion on the spot to William Samrooth, whoever they both may have been.
So somewhere in the murky years of English Civil unrest, some opportunist land-grabbed and found themselves with a large property at their disposal.
Maps show it there, a great house in the middle of wooded tracts of land, gloriously isolated.
But over the next 300 years things boomed. Life expectancy and conditions improved and Britain got jiggy. By 1950 we had 49 million inhabitants. And everyone needed to live somewhere. So little, utilitarian houses became the order of the day. Space is tight, see. Diminutive Victorian villas like the one belonging to Charles Pooter in ‘Diary of a Nobody’ were everywhere. And by 1949, despite wartime casualties, we had 49 million people to house.
Consequently, England is covered in small, humble estates of utility housing. And whilst some great stately homes have preserved their splendid isolation, others have had to swallow their airs and graces, and go cheek by jowl with the hoi-polloi.
Just such a great house is a near neighbour of mine. I live in an impudent Swedish end-of terrace, the work of some mad designer at the end of the 1980s. And I can hitch the dog to an extendable, call Felix to fetch his scooter and walk through a maze of council houses, past the neighbourhood shops, to that same enclosure bagged by someone in the mid 1600s.
Of course, that was its inception, and the great and the good have passed through, between Ann Bagley walking out and me walking in.
There was Brice Fisher, who wanted the place smartened up and named after him: ‘Fisher’s Lodge’. And William Watts, who land-grabbed another 30 acres in return for building poor houses for the parish. There was Foreign Secretary George Canning, who had to resign after duelling with the War Minister, but enlarged the house; and in 1853 England’s shortest-serving Prime Minister took up residence there, Sir William Goodenough Hayter .
It was a vast place by now, peopled only by those of Hayter’s choosing.
The house had its wilderness years. It was a war repository in the first war and housed the evacuated Royal Sea Bathing Hospital, from Margate, during the second war. Then came a spell as luxury flats, next it was a base to house 1,000 BBC staff in the event of national emergency, then offices: and finally, in 1972, they gave it to artists.
And over the past 75 years the houses have crept up its drive, and into its gorgeous gardens, and encroached on its beautifully landscaped vista. Orange street lamps light a road which sends cars scurrying past its door. The house is hemmed in on all sides by humanity.
Somehow it doesn’t seem to mind. It has a lived-in feel.
Its lights blaze deep into the night seven days a week. The house has a pottery, and theatre, and a print studio, and stained glass lessons, and local clubs use it as their base. It is shabbily chic, but at pantomime time it is impossible to get into the large sprawling car park which was once its forecourt. The council has grandly restored its grounds and one can once more stroll gracefully across landscaped vistas,.
If one is content to ignore the small red-brick houses on the hill.