Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Visiting Ham House and an Afternoon with Stephen Tomkinson

Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Richmond, Surrey

It seems as if I am sleeping longer as the days are getting longer. This morning, I awoke at 7 am--not too bad at all and a far cry from 5 am. which had been my usual wake-up time for months! It left me enough time to write my blog, read 40 pages of The Order of the Phoenix and catch up with email.

I got out of bed after 10 am, showered, had my breakfast and left the house for my long bus ride to Richmond. I ran two quick errands before I boarded the bus--I had to return a battery I had bought from Maplin for a refund and I had to hand in a refund form to London Underground--I had bought a Day Travelcard on the day I traveled to Norwood and not knowing that it was also valid on the bus network, I had spent 4 pounds buying two separate bus tickets for which, I was told, I was entitled to a refund--which the clerk told me would take 21 working days! Don't you just marvel at the way British bureaucracy works??!!

Well, I used the time aboard the bus to grade papers on what was another fabulous day. Warm sunshine and the slightest hint of a breeze made it particularly lovely. I made swift and easy connections and arrived at Richmond Tube Station at 12. 15 pm at which point I connected with another bus (the 371) that took me to Ham Street. On the bus I entered into friendly and enlightening conversation with a lovely lady from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who has lived in London for 35 years. She told me of other places to nearby visit but I simple did not have the time.

My idea was to try and squeeze in a quick visit to Ham House, also in Richmond, that is run by the National Trust. Since I have a membership to the Royal Oak Foundation (the American equivalent), I get free entrance to all National Trust-run properties which have only recently re-opened for the season. Since Richmond's Ham House is one of these, I figured I would see it today.

It was a 10 minute hike from the bus stop to the gate of Ham House which looks far less impressive on the outside than it is within. It also has extensive formal gardens but since I had only an hour in which to check it out, I made straight for the house. Two very helpful female volunteers provided me with the brochures that would make my visit more enjoyable and suggested I go to "the Dairy" to watch the 10 minute film that gives a brief history of the house. This was exactly what I did and 15 minutes later, I made my way to the upper floor past a very small chapel, having acquired a good background about the house and its former inhabitants.

The wooden staircase is richly carved and very impressive indeed and on the upstairs landing, you are greeted by a number of 17th and 18th century members of aristocracy who gaze at you from the gilded frames of several oil portraits. The same large number of oil portraits, many by Peter Lely, are to be found in the Long Gallery, as also a large number of cabinets in ivory, Japanese lacquer and marqueted wood. The grand rooms on the ground floor speak of the wealth of the house's inhabitants, prime among them being Elizabeth Murray whose parents originally owned the house. She married well (I forget the name of her first husband) and her husband's wealth helped her maintain the grand home.

But Civil War broke out and very shortly, she was widowed. During Cromwell's reign, she acted as a spy for the supporters of Charles II in exile in France (placing her life in jeopardy) and was richly rewarded for her loyalty to him when he returned to the throne in 1660 to make her a Countess. This led to her second married to the Duke of Lauderdale which furthered her power, prestige and wealth and allowed her to extend Ham House adding the opulent rooms that we see today. However, she died in poverty, easily and quickly forgotten by the royal circle within which she had revolved. Her descendants approached the National Trust, a few years ago, to maintain the house for them and visitors today are led into the intrigue and prestige of the 17th century in the rooms that were created for the visits of Queen Catherine of Braganza and her entourage.

I would dearly love to return to Ham House and Gardens and perhaps shall do so when I spend a night with Stephanie at her place in Richmond. The banks of the Thames outside London are strewn with such grand estates (Syon House is one other) and now that the weather is changing and I am free of teaching duties, perhaps I can try to see the National Trust ones.

But I had other plans for the afternoon, so by 1.45, I made my way outside, back to the bus-stop and arrived in Richmond in time for my 2. 30 pm show of Tim Firth's Sign of the Times that starred only two actors--Stephen Tomkinson (whom I was delighted to see in the flesh after having seen him on TV in Ballykissangel) and Tom Ward. They played each other off very well in a gently amusing comedy in which Tomkinson showed his versatility by playing a character that was very different from his role in Ballykissangel where he played Fr. Peter Clifford. I munched on an apple and a peach and some pistachios in the theater--my lunch--until I bought myself a Scotch Egg at Tescos after the show and had myself a very nice afternoon at the theater.

Then, I was on the bus again headed for the city--using the drive to continue grading my papers and getting a neat batch done. But when the bus passed through Kensington High Street, I could not resist the temptation to alight and on impulse I entered Holland Park to take some pictures of the Kyoto Garden and the Orangery as I had my camera with me. I spent the next hour in these lovely environs, surrounded by flowers and twittering birds and the fragrance of wisteria and lilacs in every possible shade of purple. The Kyoto Garden has become one of my very favorite parts of London and with the azaleas in bloom in shades from soft pink to hot magenta, I was enchanted. I took my pictures, then sat on a bench overlooking the small waterfall and graded more papers as I enjoyed the perfect temperature of this gorgeous day. I had waited all winter long for days like these and now that they are here with us, I want to enjoy as much of them as I can out-of-doors.

By 7. 30 pm, I was back home, chatting with Llew on the phone and proofreading a bunch of travelogues I had written before I mail them off to my friends with my April newsletter.

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