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Ham House, Richmond - historic Surrey homes

PUBLISHED: 00:09 16 May 2012 | UPDATED: 12:39 19 June 2014

Ham House, Richmond - historic Surrey homes

Ham House, Richmond - historic Surrey homes

Celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, Ham House in Richmond is an unusually complete survival of a 17th century mansion house that impressed its visitors back then and continues to do so today. MATTHEW WILLIAMS takes a tour

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2010


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It’s not often that you are met at the gates of a National Trust property by two burly security guards. But then, dressed for a chilly day, with gloved hands, scarf worn high and hat pulled low, I suppose I probably do look a little suspicious. I believe my annual Trust pass may have run out, too.

Fortunately, my business here is official. With Richmond’s Ham House celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, I have an appointment with collections manager Victoria Bradley to take a peek behind the scenes and learn a bit more about this fascinating place. Oh, and as it turns out, the security is due to the arrival of a film crew, I’m relieved to say, rather than me.

On the film set
As I walk up the drive, the Disney crew are busy transforming the house into the set for sci-fi movie John Carter of Mars, by the same people as Finding Nemo and Wall-E, and are painting the freshly latexed front door a more appropriate colour for the film.

“They did actually want to move the statue that sits in the middle of the courtyard,” says Victoria, who has been at Ham House for 12 years now, having started as a volunteer house steward. I turn around to look at the colossal stone river god I’ve just passed, which would surely take an industrial crane to shift, and gaze at it with a bemused expression.

Really? “They are incredibly resourceful,” she laughs. “We did look into it, and approach every query to see whether it’s feasible, but if there’s too much risk involved then we put a stop to certain ideas.”

It’s always a balancing act, because while filming brings in a huge amount of money to the National Trust, which helps pay for essential maintenance of properties, the demands that come with setting up a scene – such as door painting and statue removal – can sometimes raise tensions.

“They, of course, need to adapt things, to make it look right for the film and try to transform the location, and inevitably there is wear and tear however careful you are,” continues Victoria. “But there is no point in tempting fate, and there are certain rooms in which we never have film crews as they are just too important.

“We’ve had a lot of filming in the past, such as The Young Victoria, and you do get used to the way it works. We get some really strange mementos from the films. I can’t recollect how we came about them, but we’ve still got a pair of Ray Winstone’s boxer shorts here.”

A step back in time
Built in 1610 for Sir Thomas Vavasour, who was Knight Marshal to James I, Ham House became part of the National Trust portfolio in 1948 and remains one of the most complete surviving mansion houses of the Restoration period. Indeed, while many tales are woven into its long history, none are more prominent than the eccentric 17th century life of the Duchess of Lauderdale, or Elizabeth to her friends. Her personality still permeates the entire house – some say she killed her first husband to marry her second and that her ghost still walks the halls today.   

“She was a big noise at the time,” says Victoria. “And I think sometimes when you get a big character like that, and so much of their personality remains with all their furniture and pictures, that atmosphere can inevitably give rise to these stories.

“People really feel a sense of her when they walk through the house. I’ve got to admit, I’m not so sure myself, although I do have a friend who jumped out of her skin saying she’d seen the ghost dog, which was a little disconcerting.”

To put some perspective on the power held by Elizabeth at the time, she was renowned as a political schemer during the Civil War and is believed to have used her influence with Cromwell to save the life of her soon-to-be second husband, John Maitland, the future Duke of Lauderdale. Apparently, she also belonged to the Sealed Knot, the secret organisation that worked to restore Charles II to the throne.

A family portrait of the Lauderdales, which can be seen in the White Closet, seems to indicate just how highly the family thought of themselves, showing as it does their impressive home in the background and the family standing in the picture’s centre with guests gathered somewhat reverentially to either side.

Meanwhile, the building itself, which the famed diarist John Evelyn once described as being furnished like ‘a great prince’s’, still bears many signs of their illustrious status.

“For example, in the Queen’s antechamber, you can still see their amazing silk wall hangings,” says Victoria. “At the time of the Restoration period in the 1600s, the best possible thing you could have was silk, rather than the more common wool tapestries. These were the absolute best you could buy – unbelievably expensive. There’s one with silver thread – it literally glimmers in candlelight – and they are really quite extraordinary. It’s the only house in the country that still has original silk hangings such as this, and they are incredibly rare.”

Despite the obvious trappings of wealth that remain, the huge expenditure couldn’t last forever and, after her husband’s death, the Duchess was forced to take out mortgages, even selling her jewellery and court dresses. Crippled by gout and embittered by years of legal wrangling with the Duke’s relatives, she died in 1698.

Highlights of Ham
Today, of course, the house is in the safe hands of the National Trust, and when I visit, just prior to it reopening for spring, volunteers are hard at work, methodically tidying and checking each and every room. As I take my own tour, I pass conservationists equipped with their own vacuum backpacks and pages of annotation on every piece of furniture, to ensure that any knocks and scrapes aren’t getting worse and high class woodworm haven’t found a new home.

“Without the benefit of having items behind glass, like you would in a museum, it means that you have to work that extra bit harder,” says Victoria. “So, we attempt to keep the humidity and temperature levels as even as possible, and dust levels really low, to help preserve every item in the collection.”

Certainly, no trip to Ham House would be complete without stopping to admire the outstanding 17th century furniture you’ll find throughout the property, all of which is beautifully preserved. Another highlight is the Duchess of Lauderdale’s private quarters downstairs – a tiny almost closet-sized room, where she kept her Bible, books and tea-making paraphernalia. At this time of year, it’s also worth taking the time to enjoy a stroll through the beautiful grounds, too, which feature orchards, a maze-like planting of hedges and some pretty impressive topiary. 

One on its own
“The house has this very special personality; it’s very exotic, a little
far out and definitely not your normal old country house,” adds Victoria. “Very few houses have a significant amount that pre-dates the 1800s and that certainly sets us apart and gives us a little added value.”

As I leave, I overhear one of the film crew mentioning how much he loves working at Ham compared with some of the country’s other famous houses. Strange to think that the next chapter in its 400-year history will see it have its own starring role in a Disney sci-fi set on Mars. 
 

  • Ham House, Ham, Richmond TW10 7RS. For more information, call  0208 940 1950 or visit the website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk

***

A slice of Ham

As part of the 400th anniversary celebrations, visitors are being asked to pick their favourite piece of Ham. Here, staff offer their suggestions

Dave Howard, gardener
The two carved benches at each end of the main house door
“I chose these benches not only because they are beautifully carved but also for the natural grain of the oak, which is also beautiful. Whenever I sit on them, sheltering from the rain, I try to imagine all the other people who have used them, from gardeners like me to lords, ladies and maybe even royalty.”


Cathrien van Hak, assistant visitor services manager
The Wilderness, a formal maze-like planting of hedges in the grounds
“I like how there is always something new to discover in The Wilderness. Following the winding paths, you suddenly come across a little hidden summerhouse, a gorgeous view of the house or some spring flowers in the grass. I have got lost a few times, but that only adds to the magic!”


Patrick Kelly, gardener
The patterned squab bench in the museum room
“I have always really liked the fabric on this squab bench because it looks very much like a modern design from either the Fifties or the Sixties. It makes you think more about how 17th century artists thought, and I think it also helps to bring them closer to the present.”



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