Cheek by jowl with the hoi-polloi: an old English mansion


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.


32 thoughts on “Cheek by jowl with the hoi-polloi: an old English mansion

    1. The space can only get less over time, Roger. Yet when I see instances of Palladian mansions being packed with explosives in the twenties, and blown up to the cheers of an audience, I can only be thankful that these places are still in existence. And: I am red as they come. To see places like this in the hands of a privileged few has always infuriated me. At least this building – like an old long-cuddled Teddy – is battered but loved.

  1. I accept that landscapes evolve, and that in any case we tend to accept the environment we have inherited and then experienced during our lifetime/s. It’s a shame however when the past gets blotted out (contours changed, skyline obscured, old names and architecture expunged). I reserve my ire mostly for people who take over a landscape to partake of it permanently, and by plonking themselves and their second- or third-rate buildings in it (in possible perpetuity) destroy the beauty that was there in the first place not just for themselves but for visitors and future generations.

    Oh sorry, was I off on a rant again? I’m a peaceable soul, really!

    1. I am in total agreement, Chris. It is vandalism, plain and simple, when beautiful lines and vistas are destroyed. Yet I refer you to my comment to Roger above: it is miraculous that so many of these places have survived. Evelyn Waugh was sure they were doomed, wasn’t he?

  2. Meant to say, my Ancient Greek teacher (as opposed to ‘ancient Greek teacher’) was quietly amused by the phrase ‘the hoi-polloi’: ‘hoi-polloi’ literally was ‘THE many’, meaning ‘THE rabble’ or ‘THE common people’) and so the addition of English ‘the’ to the phrase was superfluous. But he had his tongue in his cheek.

    And I did fail Greek O-level. Ho-hum.

    1. I love such picky pedantics. So it is like calling the old South African national anthem the Die Stem, which would mean the The Voice. Without having a title as an excuse, though.

  3. When I lived in islington, i was fascinated by the low cost ugly as sin, hidious tenement buildings built right next to gracious oldy worldy city houses with their high ceilings, gracious lines and solid doors. Fascinated and kind of uneasy at the same time.. but we all rattled along together.. c

  4. It’s a beautiful place, but I gather from ‘them wot know’ that Arts Council funding has been withdrawn from April this year. I do hope they manage to fund it in other ways. It would be a shame to see it go the way of other venues…. Lovely photos.

    1. Thank you 🙂 I spoke to the centre’s director a couple of days ago, Myfanwy, and he says they have managed to claw back much of their Arts Council funding tied to specific projects. Their restaurant is fabulous these days – well worth a try.

    1. Thank you, Andra. It’s how I feel. When you think of how many of these places have been destroyed, or lie behind great barnes-wire-topped fences, it’s good to know everyday folks can enjoy this one.

  5. I think you’ve captured a disequilibrium many of us feel, Kate. We don’t have the antiquity or castles here in California, but we have urban sprawl continually creeping into our more pristine natural settings, and the debate between conservancies and urban planners is heated and at times borders on violent. The homes are creeping up the mountainside displacing plant and animal species. There are a few Victorian and late 19th century (modern by your tally) gorgeous homes with valued gardens preserved and open to the public, and I visit frequently to just imagine life before the population soared. I wish you could visit sometime, Kate. You want to talk population numbers…you’d probably be a bit overwhelmed. I am, and this is all I’ve ever known! 🙂

  6. Those huge, rambling properties and mansions do intrigue. I’m glad that it’s had many lives … rather than getting older and more decayed. That would be a sad lot.

    My folks once had 66 acres in the country. It was wonderful to just traipse along where I wanted and enjoy the wild animals and forests. In Florida, where I live now, such expansive properties – especially in the Everglades – are eyed greedily by developers. I hope they never get their way and disturb that pristine beauty.

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