‘If On The First of March A Traveller’: Spring at Fenton House (A Hampstead Tale)

It was on a rainy day in Spring – just Spring – 1st March to be exact – when I turned my heels to the cobbled streets and winding alleyways of Hampstead. I really haven’t spent that much time in Hampstead before, which is odd because it is one of London’s largest and wildest green spaces, and its elevation above the city means its far enough away from pollution to breathe properly, so that’s always a bonus. My aim was to visit Fenton House, a beautiful 17th century National Trust property I’d spied in the guide book I get in the post every January. (Yes – I am 26 and a proud National Trust member – it is probably one of the best gifts you will ever buy yourself). I was lucky – it was their first day open this year and I had the house and gardens all to myself.

It was drizzling as I climbed the hill, past the picturesque Holly Bush Inn on the right hand side, which reminded me, like many pubs I spied in Hampstead that day, of the kind of place where history’s lovers met with visors pulled down for secret trysts, where highwaymen, camping on the hill unseen by London Town, would rent the rooms above and enjoy a tankard of ale and a slice of stale bread before slipping out into the dark night. A chilly wind whipped my cheeks, reminding me that winter was not long behind.

The entrance gate to Fenton House is imposing. Looking up at it made me smile – it reminded me of the similar shot in Beauty and the Beast where Belle stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, and hesitates before she goes inside. ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ – I can totally see how this would have looked pretty intimidating to a visitor on a chilly evening in 1686, when this beautiful red brick was first built, but I could see the house at the end of the path, and I knew I wanted to explore further.

The house waited patiently behind its long entrance-way, clouds huddled above. Its red brick exterior and ‘country manor’ look was lifted by the rows of snowdrops just poking through the strips of grass that lined the gravel on either side of it. I took my time as I ambled up the track, breathing deeply, glad to be away from the closeness of the air back in the city. Up here on the hill, the spring wind felt fresh, everything was quiet, and there wasn’t a soul around.

I paused in front of the house. Windows with blinds still pulled down and an expectant, shadowy darkness behind gave the impression that a ghostly face was due to appear in one of them at any moment. Instead, I saw nothing. An old atmosphere of calm and solid knowledge of one’s place in the world pervaded everything. It seemed to emanate from the bricks themselves. I followed a gravel path round a corner, through perfectly trimmed hedges, and found myself in the Spring stillness of the gardens, where Nature was just waking up from its winter slumber, where silken shoes had trodden hundreds of years before.

The gardens themselves are stunning. Ordered, well-tended, bursting with fresh shoots and smelling of greenery and new life. Nature has that wonderful ability to transcend time in a way that humans cannot – the trees in the orchard and lining the sides of the original kitchen garden walls are famous for being the very ones that would have been plucked from and cultivated to feed the inhabitants of the house throughout the ages. I touched their 300-year-old bark with my hands and breathed in their scent, feeling extremely grateful that such things existed still.

Rain-spattered benches; sharp, earthy smell of moss in damp Spring air and empty mazes – fountains in the orchard trickling to no stranger’s ears but mine. I felt the rain on my face and kept wandering.

The orchard in the kitchen garden is over 300 years old and contains 30 different kinds of apple trees. Every year in late September, the house opens its orchard for ‘Apple Day’ – where members of the public can visit the garden to enjoy its delicious apple harvest and other delicacies, such as apple-blossom honey. It is on my list of things to do this year! Check back here nearer the time for more information. At the time I visited, the kitchen garden was a sea of crocuses and daffodils. There is hardly anything more joyous than the sight of spring blooms bursting joyously through the earth.

Above this bountiful, wild space, the pleasure gardens, where the house’s owners and guests would take a turn before lunch or dinner, were well-groomed, neat, particular, and refined. A lone statue stood, genteel and aristocratic, overlooking the garden and the perfectly trimmed foliage around him – a life-size replica of the porcelain collections I was due to stumble across inside later on.

As I climbed the steps away from the gardens and back towards the house, I wondered at the silence and peace in the air. It must have been a sanctuary for its occupants over the years, as it was for me. I ventured inside.

The first thing that struck me as I entered the house was its silence – a warm, musty silence that made me feel as though I was walking in whilst the owner was upstairs sleeping! Friendly attendants met me at the door and ushered me inside, but I was left totally to my own devices as I wandered round – just the way I like it. Music was everywhere – from the priceless harpsichords that were present in almost every room to the sheet music left lying on windowsills and table tops, waiting for its player to come back and collect it. What was the story here?

It quickly became apparent that porcelain was a big thing. The figures displayed so lovingly in the glass cabinets all over the house were from every corner of the globe and the collections were truly astounding – from the most well-known shepherd and shepherdess scenes in their idyllic, heavily florid settings, to the blue and white, intricately hand-painted Chinese vases, to the ‘herds’ of deer and sheep, along with fairy tale Hansel and Gretel cottages that I had never seen the like of before – it was all here, displayed with painstaking care by its owner.

I have to be honest and say that I have never been the biggest fan of porcelain. However, the porcelain in the rooms of Fenton House made me strangely warm to them. They were exquisite and had clearly brought their possessor much joy. It led me to wonder at their origin, and the character of the lady or gentleman who collected them. Curious as ever, I sought out one of the smiling attendants on the first floor and asked him my questions.

This is Lady Binning, the last owner of Fenton House before she bequeathed it to the Trust in her will in 1952. Lady Binning was a widow, who never seemed to have any interest in re-marrying, and wore the austere black clothes of her status for the rest of her life. Her only family was an uncle, George Salting, who became a well-respected and wealthy Victorian fine arts collector, donating many of the paintings and porcelain he had curated throughout his life to the National Gallery, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where some of it can still be viewed today. The rest of his estate, as well as a sizeable amount of porcelain still on display in Fenton House, was left to his niece, Lady Binning. This explained the sheer variety of porcelain on display from lands much farther than Lady Binning ever travelled in her lifetime – George Salting was the son of a Danish merchant who had made his fortune in Australia, a wanderlust and adventure of the high seas that never left George and inspired him to visit distant parts of the world such as China and India in search of his precious collector’s items.

Now on to the music – I suspect your attention may have been drawn to the very noticeable amount of harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments, such as clavichords, virginals, and spinets, that graced every part of the house. Many rooms had more than two in them and there were three floors to this house! What was all that about? Another trip to the friendly storyteller.

These harpsichords were the proud possessions of Major George Benton Fletcher, who served as a Railway Staff Officer in the Second Boer War, receiving the Queen’s South Africa medal ‘with three clasps’ when he returned, invalided, to England. During the First World War, Fletcher served as a Railway Transport Officer once more from 1915 – 1920 at Waterloo Station. Fletcher loved music and had connections with several popular composers, such as Elgar and Grieg, composer ‘celebrities’ of their time (my Nana is a massive fan of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1), who he met between 1906 – 1908. Fletcher was adamant that his collection of early keyboard instruments should be preserved for future students to learn on – a determination that gave him the foresight to move the majority of his instruments from their residence in Old Devonshire House in Holborn to rural Gloucestershire during the bombings of that area of London in 1941. Thank goodness he did – Old Devonshire House was completely destroyed in the Luftwaffe raids and so were the few instruments he had not had time to move before they hit. The rest of his prized keyboards were saved, and now reside in Fenton House where they are played, tuned and maintained regularly by the resident expert in early keyboard instruments who is employed by the National Trust in the upkeep of these instruments. You can play these instruments (if you are of a certain standard of course) and listen to them being played on certain evenings in the week. Check out here for more information.

As I reached the top floor of the house, where the air was totally still and the wind whooped softly outside the windows, I took a seat in a wooden whicker chair and felt myself relax. I could see the metal skyline, grey and ethereal, in the distance if I craned my neck, but otherwise I could feel totally removed from the racing pace of the city going on below the hill. It was so peaceful here. I felt lucky I had come on the first opening of the year.

Probably one of my favourite things that I stumbled upon was this – a tea table set up right at the top of the house piled high with National Trust jams and lemon curds and juices and cards and meads. It was as thought they were waiting on a friendly giant to come to tea who hadn’t yet arrived. And so I sat and leafed through the books that were left on the table and picked a lemon curd to take home with me from the wares on display. It was surreal and quirky and homely and wonderfully British all at the same time.

As I gazed at the glass spikes of modern London poking through the trees on the way down to the city I knew I wasn’t ready to return to the real world just yet, but return I did. I wrapped my scarf around me and, clutching my lemon curd, I wandered back down the path towards home, touching the snowdrops with my chilly fingers in farewell. Until next Spring, Fenton House!

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