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Pix & notes: South Kensington

My Professor and Mrs. Moriarty live in an end terrace in South Kensington, on a street I invented: Bellenden Crescent. It’s roughly in the location of the real world Pelham Crescent. 

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I spent a lot of time walking around in that neighborhood on my last trip to London, partly because I got a little lost, but also because I get into these moods where I can’t stop walking. One more block, I say to myself; I’ll just walk up to that corner and then I’ll stop for a coffee. But no, I walk on by. I don’t know what that’s about.

Boundaries

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A very Victorian view, if you mentally change the cars to horse-drawn cabs.

I tend to think of the whole stretch between Hyde Park and the Thames as South Kensington, but that’s not really right. London is more finely-grained than that. Google Maps says “South Kensington is an affluent district of West London in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is the most expensive district in London and one of the most expensive districts in the world.” No wonder it’s so clean and quiet! Rich people don’t hang out in public.

It looks like I cheerfully absorb Chelsea into my notion of Kensington. There’s no apparent seam; it’s not like you cross a street and find yourself in a less deliriously affluent neighborhood. I don’t have characters in Chelsea or much interest in the place, apart from the delightful Chelsea Physic Garden which I’ve blogged about and which you must try to visit if you ever can.

Looks like the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea runs from the Chelsea Physic Garden on the Thames in the southeast, north to Hyde Park and the big museum area, on along the south side of the park and then loop up to snag Notting Hill and then straight back down to the river roughly along the A3220.

Begin at the beginning

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Affluent Kensington cow

British History Online tells us “In Doomsday-book this place is called Chenisitun; in other ancient records, Kenesitune and Kensintune. Chenesi was a proper name; a person of that name held the manor of Huish in Somersetshire, in the reign of Edward the Confessor.”

Back in William the Conqueror’s day, the manor of Kensington was taxed at 10 hides. “on the demesnes are four ploughs, the villans have five, and might employ six. There are 12 villans, holding each a virgate, and six who hold three virgates jointly. The priest has half a virgate, and there are seven slaves; meadow equal to two plough-lands; pasture for the cattle of the town; pannage for 200 hogs, and three acres of vineyards”

This was still farmland in Francis Bacon’s time. With the expansion of titled courtiers in the London metro area under James I, a prestige house was built in 1607 by the father-in-law of Henry Rich, Earl of Holland. Baron Rich got himself earlified in 1624, by Charles I, then. He’s the son of Bacon’s contemporaries, Penelope Rich (sister of the Earl of Essex) and Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick.

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Holland House, from British History Online

 

Building booms

Although less than half of the Kensington area was under cultivation by 1840s, it was still mostly green: parks and paddocks and that sort of thing. But by mid-century, the Victorian building boom had spread into that district and the landscape changed rapidly. “Despite a severe hiccup following a financial crisis in April 1847, the transformation of a rural parish into a city suburb was well under way before the siting of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park…” (British History Online.)

“…throughout the years 1862–78 over 200 new buildings (the vast majority of them dwelling houses) were erected each year in southern Kensington…”

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Professor Moriarty’s Bellenden Crescent
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Mark Twain lived here 1896-7

 

One of the major attractions of the area from the mid-Victorian period are the amazing enormous museums and exhibition halls. My Prof. Moriarty and Angelina meet at the International Exhibition Hall here in Moriarty Meets His Match. That’s gone, but the Victoria & Albert Museum, a place you can never get tired of, was established in Exhibition Road in 1852. Enormous, endlessly fascinating, and with possibly the most amazing museum cafeteria in the world. When you go there, have lunch!

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Who lived here, back in the day?

I’ve mentioned London’s Blue Plaques before, right? They’re granted by English Heritage to identify buildings of note, meaning buildings in which a notable person spent some time. Kensington and Chelsea are thick with them, since the borough was favored by the creative class: theater people, like my Angelina Moriarty; scientists who might have worked at one of the big museums; writers galore.

Go here to see the full list of blue plaques for the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

I choose neighborhoods – and sometimes houses – for my Victorian characters from this list. They tend to be a bit far from the sidewalk to photograph well, alas. Not all the plaques you see in London are official English Heritage blue plaques, although I’ve never seen one that might qualify as a form of sedate fake news. Many entities issue plaques, most notably borough governments.

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Sir Nigel Playfair wrote plays you’ve never heard of. Great name, though.

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Pix & notes: Hall Place

Hall Place is a manor house in Bexley, southeast of London, neatly divided between the Tudor portion and the seventeenth century addition. The photograph here, showing the division, comesHallPlace1 from Wikipedia. It drizzled all day when I visited in November 2011. In fact, it was so dismal a day, that everyone else stayed home and the house-minders clung to their teacups in the office. I love the English drizzle myself, it being a rare phenomenon in Texas.

You can reach Bexley on the train with your Oyster card (I think.) It’s a pretty village in which I spent no time at all, heading directly off on the route described in Andrew Duncan’s Favourite London Walks. I’ve done several of Duncan’s walks now, though I prefer to copy the pages I want and leave the heavy glossy-paper book at home. (Must’ve gotten this book there, because they don’t have it at Amazon. They do have a similar one.)

The history of the house

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From St. Mary’s churchyard. If I were Sir John, this is where I’d want to spend eternity.

Sir John Champneys, a wealthy merchant, built this fine house in 1537. He was a member of the Worshipful Company of Skinners, who traded in skins and furs. I wonder if he traded furs from Russia and Scandinavia. He was active in City affairs, serving as Sheriff in 1522 and Lord Mayor in 1534. As I suspected, that’s when he was knighted.

That seems to be all we know: he was mayor, he built a house which still stands. But those were turbulent times. Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536, but Sir John was evidently unaffected by those political coils and tumults. He died of plague, they say, and was buried at St. Mary Virgin, through whose churchyard I walked on Duncan’s route.

Another wealthy merchant, Sir Robert Austen, bought the house in 1649 and added that strikingly unmatched second wing of red bricks. What was he thinking? He was created the 1st Baronet Austen on 10 July 1649, on the eve of the English Civil War. Charles I was beheaded in January… so how was this creation accomplished? Cromwell didn’t make baronets. Sir Robert must have been a cavalier or, more likely, a supplier of money to the king in exile. Handy to have a house not far from the mouth of the Thames.

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Denise Orme and Robert Evett in The Merveilleuses, 1906

I didn’t know these things when I visited. Even the booklet from the Heritage House merely noted that the family prospered. I choose to believe they prospered through those tumultuous years by giving money to both sides. Well, if you don’t want to be slandered by novelists in four hundred years, leave a decent biography!

In the late eighteenth century, Francis Dashwood inherited the estate. The Dashwoods came in through the last Sir Robert Austen’s wife. Francis Dashwood leased the place to Reverend Richard Jeffreys, who turned it into a school for young gentlemen. 80 boys lived there in its hey-day, judging by the number of beds sold when the school moved out.

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US Army Signal Corps at work

 

After some remodeling, the house went through a period of short-term rentals to “the aristocratic and the fashionable,” including musical hall actress Denise Orme and her husband, Lord Churston. Aha! That means this house is suitable for a Professor & Mrs. Moriarty story. Somewhere down the line, I’ll do a good old-fashioned country house murder.

Lady Limerick’s son-in-law bought the house in 1926, on her behalf, it would seem, because on her death in 1943 the Bexley Council took possession. In January, 1944, the US Army Signal Corps took over the house for an intercept station code-named Santa Fe. Cryptographers and Morse code operators lived there, passing messages on to the more famous Bletchley Park.

The interior

They left me entirely alone in here. Apparently, I do not look like a vandal. The rooms were mostly empty, except for very bright halogen lights. The great hall had an assortment of ordinary folding tables and chairs. They must use this nice big room for meetings. I always imagine meetings along the lines of those in The Vicar of Dibley.

The best part was the children’s area, near the old chapel. No kids and no minders, so I got to play with everything. They have little drawers you can open to smell lavender and rosemary, boxes with holes you can put your hands in to feel lambswool, displays of toys and a typical meal on a ship (not appealing) and pictures to give you the flavor of life in Tudor times. Great fun, if a little elementary. They should make such displays for novelists, with real pistols and recipes for contraceptives and political conundrums; you know, grown up stuff.

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The parlor. This is where all the oak paneling I use in headers and backgrounds comes from.

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The great hall. Minstrels can play in the gallery upstairs.
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Great hall windows.

 

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The exterior

Oh, it was a dark and drizzly day! Not too cold with a wool sweater and a rain coat. Thank Photoshop for brightening these up enough to show a bit of color. 

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Brick side

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The dark squares are flint, the light ones clunch, a sort of fine limestone. Stones were salvaged from Dissolved churches.

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The Great Green Teddy-Bear Garden

These are supposed to be heraldic animals, like dragons. Ha! They are fat, grinning teddy bears made of shrubbery. I love topiaries, the more fanciful, the better. Further proof that creativity knows no limits. Enjoy!

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