Londoners love parks! These green, urban areas have become an indispensable part of their lives. Always popular, regardless of weather or season – parks are perfect for a morning jog, picnic on the grass in the early shafts of sunlight, or long autumn walks. The Royal Parks themselves (once used for hunting and owned by monarchs, now public) cover an area of almost 2,000 hectares, let alone smaller local parks, green squares and gardens. I love Richmond Park for the feeling of limitless freedom, seclusion, and for deer; Regent’s Park for its rose garden; Victoria Park for The Pavilion Café overlooking a pond, an ideal place to meet friends.
But it’s Hamstead Heath that takes up a special place in my heart. Not only because it is a green oasis in the middle of the city where I can have a picnic with a breathtaking view, but also because of something else…
First mentions of the park date back to the end of the 10th century; some of the trees growing here are a few hundred years old. Today, the park covers 320 hectares and has 30 ponds on its premises. Its enormity makes sure the land still holds a lot of secrets. One can easily get lost among all the forests, grasslands, glades, hills, and countless paths. I always get the feeling of being in the countryside, not in the center of London.
On the park’s northern border, looking from a distance, one can spot a majestic white façade of Kenwood House among trees. It’s one of my favorite places for a picnic. The view stretching out before me reminds me of scenes from Constable’s paintings.
The house originates from the beginning of the 17th century. Its owners had changed several times until 1754, the year William Murray (1st Earl of Mansfield from 1756 ) bought it as a rural retreat for him and his wife Elizabeth. At first, they came here only for weekends to rest from the hustle and bustle of living at Bloomsbury Square in London. Earl was one of the most distinguished judges in the country who contributed to the abolition of slave trafficking and later to the abolition of slavery in Britain. The couple did not have children; therefore, they willingly decided to adopt their niece Elizabeth Murray and their nephew John Lindsay’s daughter Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mother was a black enslaved woman Maria. Dido Elizabeth’s life in the picturesque interiors of Kenwood House was portrayed in the movie “Belle” in 2013.
Murray’s boosting career, growing social status and new members in the household made him decide to remodel the house (the whole process lasted from 1764 to 1779). The task was commissioned to a well-respected architect of the time, Robert Adam.
What happened to the residence later?
Kenwood had remained in the possession of the family until 1907, when Alan David Murray decided to lease the house and moved to Scone Palace (near Perth, Scotland, where the Murray family originally came from). In 1925, the residence was purchased by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, with a view to organizing an exhibition of his collection of paintings there. Two years later, after Guinness’s death, both the house and the collection were bequeathed to the nation. A year after that, in 1928, Kenwood was opened to the public, in keeping with the will of the deceased aristocrat. In year 2000, the building underwent a thorough remodeling and regained its design from the 18th century, the time when it was bought by the Earl of Mansfield.
It’s worth leaving your friends and picnic for a moment to walk under a tall Ionic portico, enter a completely different reality and get to know the history of those who used to live in the house. Distinguished guests, including King George III and Princess Charlotte, loved visiting Kenwood because of its location in the middle of an old forest as well as a unique view – rumor has it that, in the past, a panorama of London could be admired from here.
Architect Robert Adam, whom I’ve already mentioned, remodeled and adorned Kenwood according to the tenets of Neoclassicism popular at that time. Hence an abundance of references to antique edifices he used to admire on his numerous trips to Rome. The interiors kept in subdued, pastel tones of green, azure and pink look incredibly elegant in combination with the whiteness of columns and stuccos. Order and harmony pervade everything. Ornamental plafonds and medallions adorn ceilings while the walls feature portraits of house’s eminent residents. The Earl of Iveagh’s collection consisting of 63 masterpieces by famous painters is exhibited across the rooms.
An entrance to the library – the most famous part of Kenwood – is decorated with statues in the niches of walls. Even though I’m not a huge fan of this particular epoch and its style, I can easily imagine why this space has been enrapturing guests. I feel as if I was entering a temple. An unusually spacious one, covered with a barrel vault, with apses on both sides and Earl of Mansfield’s book collection in them.
Additionally, tall columns divide the space and give a monumental character to the interior. The library is adorned with 19 paintings by Italian painter Antonio Zucchi showing scenes from the life of Hercules as well as allegorical representations of virtues e.g. Justice. The works refer to Lord’s attitude and achievements.
A representative dining room acts as a background for the most valuable artworks such as Rembrandt’s late self-portrait (a guide suggested that the red color of walls in the room was chosen to match the color of the painter’s clothes), Vermeer’s “The Guitar Player” and portraits by Hals and van Dyck.
In the Music Room, where ladies used to meet after dinner to listen to music and drink tea, I stop by Gainsborough’s portrait “Mary, Countess of Howe”.
My attention is immediately caught by a staircase and a beautiful, metal balustrade painted bright blue. The stairs lead to the first floor where, at present, a set of portraits of the Elizabethan aristocracy from the Suffolk collection is being displayed.
What was it that won my sheer admiration? Thistle laid out on chairs and sofas – an easy but stunningly picturesque (so far unseen!) way of informing visitors that sitting is not allowed.
What was once the service wing now serves as a café. I recommend drinking a cup of coffee in a large kitchen (still full of original furnishings and equipment) where, back in time, cooks used to busy themselves with preparing exquisite meals for balls that gathered hundreds of guests.
Nevertheless, Kenwood House is not the only reason why I wanted to mention Hamstead Heath… A ten minute walk in the direction of Highgate Village suffices to find a perfect place to spend a carefree, sunny afternoon.
A narrow, bushy path leads to a pond hidden in trees in which it’s possible to swim with ducks. More precisely – only the fair sex can do it for it’s the body of water available only for women! It’s one of the eight ponds created in the 17th century. In the 1820s it was opened as a swimming pond for ladies – something that has remained unchanged to this day.
Glades covered with rose bushes spread around the water mirror. The atmosphere here is idyllic, women feel comfortable in their own company. Silence, peace. Harmony. A dream place to spend free time with your friends or favorite books, or simply to enjoy being alone.
Picture taking is not welcome so it’s best to visit this nook charmingly hidden from the rest of the world on yourself and immerse in history.
It’s open the entire year!
Alumni of History of Art at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Co-founder of an arts organization Deconstruction Project, active between 2010-2013, promoting polish culture in the UK. Makes jewellery under her own brand "bobbin & bow". For PURO she invites you to participate in her sensoric travels through inspiring cities and museums.
photo: Ola O Smit