Its original purpose was to grow medicinal herbs as a training facility – the river provided handy transport for plants and people. In 1680 an Irish apprentice Hans Sloane (later knighted) began his studies at the Garden. Little did the Apothecaries realise he would become its saviour and set it on the path to 21st century survival. The Irishman would later found the nearby Cadogan Estate, lending his surname to golden real estate such as Sloane Square and Sloane Street. Oh, and there’s even an upper class caricature that borrows his surname: Sloane Ranger.
Horticultural historian Sue Minter relates his rise to fame and fortune: “After qualifying in 1687 Hans Sloane travelled to Jamaica to serve as private physician to the 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Two years later, he returned to London armed with a special recipe for milk chocolate and the compound was quinine – a medicine capable of preventing and curing malaria.” He purchased the Manor of Chelsea (which included the Physic Garden) in 1772. As a thank you for his training, he rented the Garden to the Apothecaries in perpetuity for £5 a year. The same rent is still paid to his descendants.
Paths radiate from a centrally placed statue of Sir Hans Sloane. Despite the Garden’s relatively small size – 1.6 hectares – it is a cornucopia of historic delights from the 18th century Pond Rockery, the oldest in Europe, to glasshouses built in 1902 of Burmese teak. One of the glasshouses, The Cool Fernery, rejoices in Pteridomania, or fern madness. The Chelsea Physic Garden is now home to 5,000 different medicinal, herbal, useful and edible plants. On that note, anyone for Piedmontese peppers, aubergine caponata and braised artichoke in the restaurant marquee?
A little along Gallery Road, opposite Lovers’ Lane, stands a distinguished villa. Belair, whether two words, hyphenated or a portmanteau is a class signifier from Los Angeles to Wicklow to Dulwich. Pure class. Belair House in the picturesque perfect postcard pretty prestigiously pristine village of Dulwich in southeast London was built in 1785. That’s a fact. Or at least it’s the date proudly painted on the pediment over the entrance door. But all is not how it seems. What is rather more certain is the original name of house was College Place and the client, John Willes. A wealthy corn trader from Whitechapel, he first leased 20 hectares known as Home Farm from Dulwich College some 14 years earlier. The house would be renamed Belair by a later owner, solicitor Charles Rankin, in 1829.
Local shopkeeper and historian Brian Green records in his 2002 book Dulwich: A History, “Belair is a fine example of an Adam style Georgian house. For many years it had a model farm in its 48 acres of grounds… In the lodge, still standing at the front entrance, lived the under-gardener who was responsible for looking after the grapevine hothouse, the cactus hothouse and three other large greenhouses. The coachman lived next door in the coach house… After the death of Sir Evan Spencer, the last occupant, in 1937, the contents were auctioned and the house fell into some decay. During World War II it was first used by the Royal Army Service Corps as a depot and later by the Free French forces. The grounds were used by the local platoon of the Home Guard for grenade practice.”
Over to Ian McInnes, Chair of the Dulwich Society, “No one knows who the original architect was for Belair. Despite many articles suggesting it was the Adam brothers, there is no information in the Dulwich Estate archives to support that. We have quite detailed background on the owners in the 19th century but nothing on the original architect(s) – what you see today is of course an early 1960s ‘impression’ of what a late 18th century house in a park ought to look like.” So it is “Adam style” as Brian Green points out but probably not Robert, James or William Adam. And what an impression!
In 1961, under the ownership of Southwark Council, Belair was radically stripped back to its original form, more or less. A villa reborn. A vision reimagined. A variation on a theme recomposed. Rationalised single storey bow ended wings were added either side. Behind a blind bow window, the north facing wing is actually hollow and conceals a staircase winding up to a first floor terrace which embraces the mother of all views. In the distance, a serpentine lake nestled in the pleasure grounds radiates in the early summer heat, red mace, yellow flag and purple loosestrife erupting in a blaze of colour.
“The architects for this reconstruction,” explains Ian, “were Austin Vernon + Partners, most probably Malcolm Pringle, but the elderly Austin Vernon may have also had a hand in it as he had done quite a bit of good neo Georgian in his career. All of the practice’s records were destroyed in the 1990s.” Returning to the identity of the original architect, Henry Holland is sometimes mentioned. “The Henry Holland connection comes from Thurlow House in West Norwood, also southeast London,” Ian says, “which he did design and was built roughly at the same time. But that’s supposition and there is no proof he was the architect of Belair.”
The period between 1785 and 1961 saw Belair House swell and deflate like bagpipes. In the 19th century the building was transmogrified under the direction of then owner Charles Hutton, Deputy Lieutenant for London. Wings and glasshouses and attics and grandeur were added to accommodate the Huttons and their 11 children and 10 servants. In 1980, the Dulwich Society Journal declared, rightly so, “One has a better idea now of the simple elegance of the original Georgian design than would have been the case a century ago, when it was obscured by Victorian wings and outbuildings.” Belair is now a restaurant and wedding venue. Mark Fairhurst Architects were responsible for sensitively extending and converting the former late 18th century stables building and early 19th century gatelodge into fully residential use.
“The brief,” explains Mark, “was to restore the existing stables building, which had been poorly converted into flats, and create a modern, flexible living space suitable for a young family.” An enticing blend of old and new architecture was the result. “The concept was to create an open, fluid ground floor living area by introducing a linear glass and steel pavilion linking the rooms created within the narrow existing building, and visually linking the accommodation with the surrounding landscape. Random outbuildings were replaced by a new single storey guest wing linked to the listed building via a glazed winter garden in the entrance courtyard.” The gatelodge is used as a studio linked to the house.
The Dulwich Society Journal concludes, “Belair was the first of many imposing mansions to be built in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the only one to have survived in anything like its original form.” Mireille Galinou records in The Dulwich Notebook, “The architectural historian John Harris referred to the ‘exceptional survival of Belair, a house of 1785 in a designed landscape, in his 1990 essay on London’s 18th century gardens.” She continues, “Survival is the right word. Local historian Patrick Darby discovered in the Minutes of the Dulwich Estate’s Governors’ Meetings a ‘serious proposal to demolish Belair, fill in the lake, and cover it with 200 small villas – a proposal only thwarted by the Charity Commissioners!” Further down Gallery Road, as its name would suggest, lies Dulwich Picture Gallery. A fading banner clinging to the railings advertises a British Surrealism exhibition. The gallery is closed due to a pandemic. The name of the exhibition? ‘Season of The Unexpected’. Surreal, indeed.
One of the stalwarts of the London restaurant scene, Le Caprice, has sadly closed. It was the all stars favourite, or at least was for the earlier decades of its 40 year lifespan, hosting late and living legends from Diana Dors to Princess Diana to Diana Ross. A little bit of 20th century glamour vanished with its closure. Even more sadness saying farewell, adieu, goodbye to nearby Indian Accent. There was nowhere better to savour soy keema, quail egg and lime leaf butter pao than in this intimately luxurious luxuriously intimate hideaway. Relative newcomer Hide, a scallop’s throw from Le Caprice, has been steadily growing its presence since opening on Piccadilly in 2018. Hide at Home – the same Michelin starred food delivered to your doorstep – is Chef Ollie Dabbous’ latest innovation. It comes with Hide at Home Culinary Instructions which boil down to “eat and enjoy”. Our Saturday evening meal arrives:
Each course is an individual explosion of taste, texture and colour with a common aesthetic theme of Hide’s signature edible flowers. Hide Restaurant has three spaces denoting floor level: Below, Ground and Above, the latter with sweeping views across Piccadilly to Green Park and its latest addition, The Queen’s Meadow. Eating on our terrace, we add a new fourth space: Outside, which has sweeping views across laurel and bay trees to our obelisk topped trellis. Ollie Dabbous’ aim is, “To make food taste as good as it possibly can by respecting the integrity of the ingredient through a style of cooking that is organic but refined.” This rings true, whether enjoying his food in Below, Ground or Above or best of all, Outside.
Sometimes you just gotta hunt a little harder, dig a little deeper, look a little longer, to see the wood and the trees. Beauty isn’t always served up on a plate, not even in glorious Blackheath. Its Georgian terraces and Regency villas facing the Heath are on full display for all to admire but, to employ a military analogy, the army that is architecture can’t be just about majors. Lieutenants are required too. Where is the hidden charm, the understated elegance, the stuff that scenery is made of? Ryculff Square.
But first, a race through literature celebrating the neoclassical, the Georgian, the neo Georgian and the hooley. Deputy Chief Architect to the Ministry of Health Housing Department Manning Robertson, who owned Huntington Castle in County Carlow, penned Everyday Architecture in 1924. He states in his preface, “The necessity for economy is forcing us into honest expression, and the new style, although based upon past tradition and especially upon Georgian work, is not a mere copy, but bears the stamp of the present day; we are in fact continuing the sequence of English architecture from the point where it was rudely interrupted by the industrial materialism of the last century. More and more we rely for our effects upon good plain brick and tile work, of pleasing texture and varied colour, and upon the elusive quality of proportion emphasised by the play of shadows.”
Ryculff Square once more. The scheme is about as streamlined neo Georgian as is possible. Sir Albert Richardson designed a series of apartment blocks placed around leafy green squares. Completed in 1954, plain brick elevations are subtly relieved by string courses and mildly projecting porches. Low pitched concrete tile roofs rest on deep eaves. Almost 65 years after its first brick was laid, Ryculff Square remains largely unspoiled. The plethora of plastic framed double glazing and galaxy of satellite dishes are both reversible. A few kilometres south of the Heath, Lourdes Close is the latest residential development in Blackheath. Designed by Thrive Architects, the nine townhouses are neo Georgian.
Sir Albert Richardson lived in the Georgian gem of Avenue House in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. Gavin Stamp lamented the sale and dispersal of its contents in 2013 while extolling the architect’s virtues in Apollo Magazine. “Richardson may have adopted a pose in Ampthill – refusing to install electric light, dressing up in Georgian clothes and being carried through the streets in a sedan chair – but he was a seriously good modern architect,” Professor Stamp argued. “He began by promoting the Edwardian rediscovery of neoclassicism and the works of people like Soane and Cockerell. After the First World War he intelligently adapted the abstracted classical language of Schinkel and other neoclassicists…” Avenue House was bought by Tim Knox, Director of the Royal Collection, and garden designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who are restoring the house to its future glory.
Long before Milton Keynes, there was Eastbourne. “Planned new towns” may possess more than a lingering whiff of the late 20th century but over 100 years before that, four hamlets – Bourne, South Bourne, Meads and Sea Houses – were engulfed by the major landowner 7th Duke of Devonshire’s masterplan. Drawn up by His Grace’s architect Henry Currey in 1859, this blueprint for a seaside resort would develop over half a century. Earlier Italianate stuccoed terraces contrast with later red brick Edwardian buildings. A new railway branch line from London to the south coast acted as a catalyst for the development. Promenades and esplanades and parades and a pier portray coastal town planning at its finest. While the Duke of Devonshire was the main promoter of the resort in the 19th century, a second landowner Carew Davies Gilbert built an eponymous housing estate inland to the north of the railway station. The 1880s Queen’s Hotel on Marine Parade, still splendid despite losing its original verandahs wrapping around each floor, is Henry Currey’s largest building in the town. The hotel furniture was supplied by Maples of Tottenham Court Road, London: walnut on the first and second floors; pine on the third; and oak on the top two floors. A hot food dining room and a cold food dining room were in the basement. The double entry Grade II* Listing of the earlier Burlington Hotel and Claremont Hotel on Grand Parade affirms, “This is the best series of buildings in Eastbourne.” Dating from the mid 19th century, the seafront stuccoed terrace now hotels, with its giant Ionic columns framing the first and second floors of the central nine bays, is a very late flowering of the Regency style.
It’s amazing how an 85 year old building can look so modern, so contemporary, so now yet of its time. Vast swathes of void, bold expanses of solid, and that epic bow window bulging seaward combine to form one forceful architectural statement. Architects Erich Mendelsohn + Serge Chermayeff won a design competition championed by the 9th Earl de la Warr, Bexhill-on-Sea’s Mayor in the 1930s. It was on engineer Felix Samuely’s advice that the frame was changed from concrete to become the first welded steel public building in Britain. Not only is the structure groundbreaking; so is the architecture. De La Warr Pavilion is one of the highlights of early International Modernism. Unsurprisingly, the building is Listed Grade I.
There’s more to Bexhill-on-Sea than the De La Warr Pavilion, y’know. Yes, the Modernist masterpiece might reign supreme but don’t forget about the string of red brick Dutch gabled bay windowed Queen Anne on speed beauties lacing the coast and the Little Athens promenade pearls. What would Lady Sybil Grant have to say? Writing in her 1912 literary curio Samphire: “Provided that we are a star we should not trouble about the relative importance of our position in the heavens.” And more to the point, “Yes, today will be fine.”
It may not be as obscure as Donegal’s Murder Hole Beach but Cooden Beach is certainly lower profile than its better known Sussex coast neighbours Bexhill-on-Sea and Eastbourne. The Cooden Beach Hotel, a half timbered Tudoresque pile on a butterfly plan with wings, takes pride of place along the seafront. Set back on a grass bank also overlooking the shale beach is a row of white painted timber beach huts. Some have names: “Seagulls”; “Shanti”; “Tilly”. Quintessential English seaside. On a late spring day, Cooden Beach is as defined as a Mondrian, displaying tripartite horizontality under an endless sky.
Hummingbird Throated Shirts Plus Jean Barthet Saucer Hats
Lady Cybil Grant, 1879 to 1955, was the daughter of the 5th Earl of Roseberry. She was a voracious writer and determined designer of ceramics. In later life, she spent much of her time in a caravan or up a tree, communicating with her butler through a megaphone.