There’s nothing like a good old National Trust property. With some of the finest country estates that the UK has to offer, the National Trust is a true beacon for Britain’s finest cultural heritage, offering visitors the chance to stroll around like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy…to relive the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth, Tennyson. Some of the best memories of my childhood flood back when I enter a National Trust shop – that most prized reward at the end of a visit, when the excitement of a souvenir – maybe a lavender filled drawer sachet, a candle or a wooden mouse – was heightened by the delicate fragrance of rose and lily of the valley which always pervaded these most gentile of English boutiques.
Now in adulthood, those halcyon days feel far removed, and in London, the idea of visiting a country estate is perhaps as exotic a concept as a trip to Thailand. So it was with some delight that on a recent weekend, a trip merely 20 minutes away brought us to the Royal Borough of Richmond, and just beyond the delights of Ham House.
The House from the River and the gardens
Set just inland from the meandering banks of the River Thames, the solid and grandiose symmetrical red brick facade looks from afar like a dolls house, whose perfectly apportioned facade might swing open at any moment to reveal the chequerboard floors and exquisitely painted ceilings within. Upon our approach, the very human scale of this grand mansion became clear, and Ham House revealed itself as one of the grandest Stuart mansions still standing.
While perhaps a little gloomy, the elaborate interiors hung with large scale mythological paintings and finished with exquisite balustrades and richly carved furnishings are a reflection of the tastes of the House’s 17th century owner, the Duke of Lauderdale, who transformed Ham after its original owner, a childhood friend of King Charles I, came to no good during Britain’s great Civil War.
Details of the interiors
For me, the greatest charm of Ham (the lavender-filled gift-shop asides) was not its house but its gardens. Expanding way beyond the house, the gardens offer a mix of the formal with the more tempered wilderness, as a beautifully trimmed topiary garden leads onto expansive lawns, a richly planted South terrace border, and walled gardens within which a wilderness of grasses and wild flowers is the perfect setting for a very philosophical stroll. Appropriately for England, the highlight comes of having afternoon tea in the garden’s very well appointed cafeteria, from whose tables the heady perfume of peonies and rose permeates a beautifully presented afternoon tea.
The formal gardens
We left, via the gift shop, feeling that much more gentrified after our interaction with history, and the finer things in life. Ham’s handsome house and gardens bid their farewell and led us gently onto the leafy riverbank between Richmond and Teddington… perhaps one of the finest of all stretches in the remarkably green capital city of England.
…and the less formal gardens
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