Monday, September 17, 2007

Ham House and the Petersham Nurseries

There’s something about vintage civil war sites that makes for good tourism. This realisation came to me last Sunday when we visited Ham House near Richmond upon Thames with my cousins from North Carolina. These are the very same cousins who had recently taken us to Bentonville, the last major battle of the American Civil War and so I felt we owed them a good outing. Coincidentally, but unwittingly, we ended up taking them to a mansion that had played a major role in the English Civil War which got me thinking about civil war tourism and why these sites are unusually interesting.

We really hadn’t planned for civil war reciprocity. All we were trying to do was show our guests something that the average London tourist never finds that would not tie us up in London’s diabolical traffic. We ran through the options closer to home -
Osterley, Syon, Kew and Kenwood, but we had been to all of them recently and we were up for a change.

“What about Ham House near Richmond? It’s not far and we haven’t been there in years. We can see the house and gardens and walk along the river towpath. Let’s see if we can get a table at the ‘oh-so-fashionable’ Petersham Nurseries restaurant and make a day of it.”

Our well made plan came a cropper early on when we ran into the diabolical traffic we had been hoping to avoid and Jeff and I commenced our usual heated discussion about choice of routes and who chose the wrong route. We spend a lot of time in London doing that. The cousins thought it was pretty funny.

But we finally reached Ham House which is an outstanding 17th century mansion located on the bank of the Thames River run by the National Trust, a worthy charitable organisation that was formed in 1895 to look after places of historic interest for the benefit of the nation. As a rule, you can count on National Trust properties to deliver a quality experience and Ham was no exception.

Ham House was built in 1610 and was acquired in 1626 by William Murray who served as “whipping boy” to the future King Charles I. It seems odd today, but at the time, given the concept of the divine right of Kings, you couldn’t exactly spank God’s future representative on earth when he was naughty. Needless to say, Murray and the Prince became close friends and Murray prospered, undertaking major programs of lavish refurbishments throughout the house, much of which remains intact today.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Murray was rewarded for his loyalty by being made the first Earl of Dysart. After his death in 1655, the title passed to his eldest daughter who has been described as a beautiful, ambitious and greedy political schemer who spied on behalf of the exiled King. She also had a penchant for extravagant paintings, furniture and textiles and much of what she acquired can also be seen today.

After exploring the house we wandered around the elegant 17th century gardens and watched a short film which helped bring to life the role of the house and its occupants in the Civil War and Restoration. We saw no evidence on our visit, but Ham House is reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in Britain and much is made of this at Halloween when special ghost tours of the house are given. What we did see, which will be of interest to my relatives who live in Carteret County in North Carolina, were lots of paintings of members of the Carteret family because the eldest daughter of Lord Carteret, later the Earl of Granville and one of the Lord Proprietors of North Carolina married the 4th Earl of Dysart. Between the civil war and North Carolina connections, we were definitely on a roll.

Afterwards, we headed towards Richmond along the Thames River towpath looking for lunch. Jeff had tried to book a table at the Petersham Nursery Restaurant but on a Sunday in fine weather, or any Sunday for that matter, you can forget it unless you book well in advance. Knowing that there was also a teahouse in the garden centre where we could get something light, and determined to see what all the fuss was about, we were on our way. The walk from Ham to the Petersham Nursery takes about 15 minutes through some of the most beautiful and arcadian landscape to be found in greater London. Tucked away behind Petersham Meadows is a very trendy garden center and an even trendier restaurant. Just as I was telling my cousins about all the famous people who live in Richmond ( like Mick Jagger and Peter Townsend), the actor Richard Grant strolls by. It’s that kind of place.

And so is the Petersham Nurseries where Skye Gyngell, the stunningly beautiful, Australian, former drug addict, chef featured in Vogue Magazine prepares very expensive lunches in the middle of a ramshackle garden centre. Upon arrival we bagged one of the mismatched tables and joined the queue for the self-service teahouse. I know I sound like I didn’t love the experience, but I did. We had soup (delicious), cake (freshly baked and also delicious) and tea ( from leaves not bags) and eating in the middle of a fashionable garden centre filled with beautiful English people and their dogs is lots of fun. I highly recommend this place for tea and if you don’t mind being overcharged, I’ll bet the lunches are good too. In any event, my cousins were quite sure they had seen something that was well outside the realm of tick-the-box tourism and we all judged the day a big success.

Useful Addresses

Ham House
Ham Street
Ham (near Richmond-upon-Thames)
TW10 7RS
Tel: 0208 940 1950
The house is open from 31 March to 28 October. The gardens are open year-round.

Petersham Nurseries
Off Petersham Road
Richmond, Surrey
TW10 7AG
Tel: 0208 940 5230
Fax: 0208 605 3447

The Tea House is open Tuesday – Saturday from 10:00 to 4:30, Sunday and Monday from 11:00 to 4:30.

For Café bookings
Tel: 020 8605 3627
Photo courtesy of Vogue magazine

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