A couple of weeks ago I made a visit to Ham House, near Richmond in London. It was a very warm day but the walk up to the house from the car park was pleasant through an avenue of shady trees beside the River Thames. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking you were anywhere but London, so picturesque and genteel is the setting. Viewed from the front main gate the house is compact and symmetrical with a pair of bays at either side each having a covered area between it and the main house painted with trompe l’oeil. Around the middle of the walls are a series of niches, each set with a bust of a Roman Emperor or God except for two which feature Kings Charles I and II – a statement about the allegiance of the family who owned the house.
Front of Ham House with statue of Father Thames by John Bacon the elder
Built in 1610 by Sir James Vavasour, Knight Marshall to King James I, the house was at the centre of Royal and Political life for many years being at its most ‘active’ during the English Civil War years when the owners Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and her 2nd husband Lionel Tollemarche became members of the Sealed Knot; Elizabeth herself being a Royalist was also a close friend of Cromwell. Sadly inside there is not a great deal to see which gives the visitor an idea of how sumptuous and lavish the house was in its hey-day, although there are many interesting architectural details and some nice ceiling decoration.
Coat of Arms over the gateway and busts of Kings Charles I and II
The rear of the house is quite plain when compared to the front and this is due to alterations which took place in the 18th century.
Rear of Ham House showing several ‘Plats’
The gardens are not huge, but they remain largely as they were when they were at the height of fashion on the 17th century. The lawn is not simply a lawn but is laid out as a series of large rectangles each perfectly flat with uniformly very short grass, known as Plats. It was a statement of fashionability and wealth to have lawns such as these which would have been shorn by scythe. There is a vast gravel terrace to the rear of the house lined at the edge by identical terracotta urns each planted with aromatic plants and in Elizabeth ‘s day she would have taken great delight in walking her guests round the gardens to admire their design and planting.
Beyond the Plats lies a wilderness area which was a very popular garden feature in the 16th and 17th Century. Laid out as ‘rooms’ bordered by hedges the grass is left to grow high with a winding path cut through for the visitor to follow. Each of the corner sections features a small summer-house which the garden tour guide explained were very popular with guests seeking leisure activities such as meditation and contemplation – I think also that fornication should be added to that list!
Statues of Venus Marina and Mercury flank the entry to the wilderness
A pair of 17th century (repaired) oak shell back garden chairs and one of the “contemplation” houses in the wilderness
To one side of the house is a formal flag garden (planted in the 18th century these were popular to celebrate the creation of the Union of Scotland with England and Wales creating the United Kingdom); while the other side is laid to a functioning kitchen garden which supplies the cafe/restaurant.
Lavender, clipped box hedge and topiary mark the flag garden; a poppy bed in the kitchen garden
Ham House is owned and administered by the National Trust and there is a definite feel of their involvement. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I have noticed that privately owned/operated historic houses tend to feel more ‘homely’ and historic than many Trust properties which have all to often been striped bare from their original contents and fitted out in a generic style according the period in history that the house was at its most functional. There was the usual army of well-meaning volunteers reading from their crib-cards as they guide you round the house and garden (you can tour alone if you wish) casting their own romanticized version of the goings on from history. On the day I visited there was a small exhibition of embroidery which had been inspired by the house, its owners and its contents all created over a period of 3 years by Helen Bacon, one of the volunteers. The quality of the work was tremendous and also very interesting. It was a shame that the work was poorly displayed and somewhat swamped by A4 sized information sheets about the stitches used in each piece, these were repeated on a display stand along one wall. personally I think the work would have been better shown in the rooms that inspired each piece, and would also have been more visible to a greater number of visitors.
A visit to Ham House is worth an afternoon of time, particularly on a sunny day, parking is free in a car park beside the River Thames and there are a couple of nice looking pubs within a short walking distance. The only real downside is the deafening roar of aircraft as they fly in and out of nearby Heathrow airport!