And there came a time when they tired of London.
It was in the 1700s that people in London realised they could commute: they upped stix and found a perfect tract of riverside land further down the River Thames from London at Richmond and Twickenham.
The Thames was the super-highway of the time and ensured swift access to the city.
They were all doing it: taking plots of land close to each other and building gorgeous residences in which to hang out with other fashionable types. Alexander Pope, moving in in 1717, listed his nearby chums: Lord Burlington (his neighbour at Chiswick), the Duke of Shrewsbury (Isleworth), the Duke of Argyle (Ham), Lady Rochester (Petersham), Mr Stonor (Twickenham Manor or Stonor Park near Henley), and Sir Godfrey Kneller (Whitton). He exclaimed happily in a letter: ‘all these have indispensible claims to me…living within 2 hours sail of Chiswick’.
The story of Twickenham and Chiswick at that time is filled with People Moving In. Essayist Jonathan Swift, Beggar’s Opera creator John Gay, and and illustrator Hogarth, for example; and the father of the gothic novel, Horace Walpole, had to snap up a little cottage – Chopped Straw Hall on one of the last available parcels of land at Strawberry Hill in 1747.
But I jump forward. In the midst of all this nest- making, a shrewd and clever woman was laying her plans to become the owner of a Twickenham property.
Henrietta Howard had a fancy title and a bluestocking background. She was born at Blickling in Norfolk, a gorgeous Hampton Court-like mansion, and her title was Countess of Suffolk.
But life was not kind to her. Her father was shot in a duel when she was nine years old, and her mother died a few years later. To provide for herself and her siblings she married a man who turned out to be a gambler and wife beater. Henrietta knew real poverty in the early years of her marriage.
Her wit and amiability were always her chef weapon. She saved enough to travel to Hanover, where she became a favourite, a Lady of Caroline of Ansbach’s bedchamber and later mistress of King George II.
A humourless boor, George did right by Henrietta. Though he tired of her eventually, he gifted her shares which made it possible to buy land between Richmond and Twickenham at a place called Marble Hill.
Reader, she built a girly house. White as a sugar-icing cake, a perfectly proportioned Palladian villa, Marble Hill House remains there today, though its history has taken many twists and turns since.
A fabulous hostess, she threw wonderful parties and was the life and soul of the creative set in Twickenham.
I know it well, because I work there now, and Marble Hill House has swallowed every waking hour of the last two months as I work with locals to find out how we might shape its next chapter.
I have been lost in the world of Marble Hill with an ever resourceful Celt at my side, and two children who are beginning to believe I will have to be surgically removed from my work laptop. Without the Celt, who has become as absorbed by Henrietta’s tale as myself, I am not sure I would have managed this at all.
And here in cyberspace, tumbleweed has been drifting through the corridors.
I have opened up the shutters and let the light in and I am hoovering and polishing to make it ready for a festive season.