Monday, 19 September 2011

Heritage Junkies

We have always promised ourselves that in our quieter years we would haunt National Trust tearooms. No doubt it was in that spirit that I suggested to my wife on the spur of the moment that we visit one of the ow NT properties closest to us. My wife is not terribly keen on the unreconstructed gloom and sparseness of the 17th-century Ham House and its formal gardens, so we opted for the gracious parkland of Osterley dating from about 100 years later.

Osterley House, as it survives, a redesign by Robert Adam (1728-1792), commissioned by the Child family.

As we had made a slow start, my wife having had a particularly tiring time getting our daughter settled into university yesterday, we arrived too late to go into the house itself. Happily we did manage a gentle walk among the mature trees in the grounds, making our way under the low-spreading branches of an oriental plane tree, planted in 1755 and still in exuberant leaf, to find ourselves in the walled Tudor garden, marvelling at the bright flowers and vegetables flourishing in these ancient surroundings: deep red beetroot, blue-green kale, fragrant rosemary, gleaming sunflowers…

A small example of the delights in the walled garden at Osterley.

Funnily enough, we did not feel like taking tea in the converted stables, but did pass some time perusing the basic history of the place. For most of their existence the house and park were owned by the Child family, of Child & Co., bankers. The bank is now part of RBS but still trades in its own right, holding some ancient accounts as well as presumably acting for what we now call “high net worth individuals” (i.e. Croesus and his pals). In the eighteenth century one Robert Child disinherited his daughter for running off with a particularly racy Earl of Westmorland and passed the estate to his granddaughter, who married the then Earl of Jersey, who in turn added the name “Child” to his own surname (a cunning plan). The property and banking interests then remained in the Jersey line until the 20th century, when social changes resulted in takeover of the bank by larger commercial interests and the passing of the property to the dear old NT, although it had to be managed initially by the then Ministry of Works (subsequently The Department of the Environment).

The formidable Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), who was the first to build a substantial house at Osterley. Brilliant with money, he acquired a substantial fortune both as a merchant and as financial agent for the Crown in the Low Countries. He sorted out Edward VI's debt problems as well. Looks bloody sharp, doesn't he?

In the meantime, our daughter seems to be enjoying her new surroundings. A Skype call will soon be in order.

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