Travel for research


Victorian House-hunting: Far out

This is the second of a three-part series about looking for a house for my Moriartys to live in. I love visiting stately homes and house museums to imagine what life was like for their inhabitants. The first post looked at houses close to the social center of London. This one takes us out to the suburbs. The third one looks at the runner-up and the winner.

Keats House

Keats’ Housekeats house in Hampstead was built in the early nineteenth century. This small house is set in a pretty garden with some spectacular tulips. Keats shared half the house with a friend named Charles Brown. The rest of the house was occupied by their landlords, the family of Charles Wentworth Dilke. Keats got two rooms — a bedroom on the first floor and a parlour all his own on the ground floor. Perfectly comfortable for a bachelor who must have spent most of his time at his desk.

Keats lived there from December 1818 to September 1820. These were good years. Wikipedia says he wrotetulips “Ode to a Nightingale” under a plum tree in this garden. I doubt they had so many tulips then; that seems to be a modern obsession.

A modern revival of a recurring obsession, perhaps I should say. People have been driven mad by the desire for tulips. It was called tulipomania and was the first well-documented economic bubble. It’s the colors. I have long contended that looking at fields of brightly colored flowers really does change your brain chemistry. Mostly for the good, but I guess you can go a little crazy too. tulipsThis photo is from my Dad’s collection, tulip gardens in the Netherlands. Be careful! You might need to warn someone to come give you a shake in a few minutes, so you can look away.

Keats house, while pleasant, is no good to me as a writer. It’s too far from the theater district. Mrs. Moriarty would get itchy looking at all those beastly plants and long for the bustle of the London streets.




Hogarth House

hogarth houseWhen I give myself a mission, I stick to it until the very end. So I ventured far out into the western edge of the mighty metropolis to visit the home of the artist William Hogarth (1697 – 1764.) You know him from his most famous series of paintings, The Rake’s Progress, eight pictures that depicted the reckless life of Tom Rakewell, the son of a rich merchant, who spends all of his money on luxurious living and ends up in a madhouse. Or the ever-popular Harlot’s Progress, six paintings of a country girl who embarks on a career of vice and ends up dying from syphilis. Cheery stuff, what?

A Rake's Progress - the tavern scene
A Rake’s Progress – the tavern scene

It’s hard to imagine feeling so dour in this airy, pleasant house and neighborhood. Chiswick is originally a Saxon village, whose name means ‘cheese farm,’ so we should imagine green pastures dotted with contented cows in Bacon’s day and probably also Hogarth’s. By 1901, nearly 30,000 people lived there. As soon as the railways added a village to their ever-expanding network, Londoners started commuting from them.

To get here nowadays, you exit the Piccadilly Line at Turnham Green. Walking down the high street is fun, but crossing Hogarth Lane, aka the M4, is not agreeable. I don’t think many people bother — the guy at the desk seemed surprised when I turned up. Pleased, but definitely surprised. He went back to his book as soon as I paid my small entrance fee. It’s worth the walk though.

I remember this house as having a very ad-hoc sort of floor plan, with one room leading directly into another for quite different purpose. That would be typical for a seventeenth century village house. None of my characters would ever live here, so I didn’t try very hard to sketch rooms or even take notes about the many sketches and lithographs hanging on the walls. Onward.

Chiswick House

chiswick houseI walked from Hogarth House to Chiswick House, a stately home. It wasn’t far, but I had to walk along the Great West Road, which is several lanes of swiftly moving traffic. That noisy passage made it all the more delightful to turn into the Chiswick grounds on Duke’s Avenue, a shady, tree-lined lane leading toward the house

blue velvet room chiswick house
William Kent, the Blue Velvet Room, Chiswick House, c.1727–38; English Heritage.Photo: Richard Bryant

The grounds of these stately homes are beautiful, well-tended, safe, public parks, when they’ve been turned over to organizations like English Heritage or the National Trust and sometimes when still in private hands. You have to pay to go inside the house, but rarely just to enter the grounds. So I always find joggers, dog-walkers, and women with baby carriages alongside the other tourists as I roam around. The springy turfs inside these quiet places are ideal for toddlers, it would seem. Dogs on leash, please.

Here’s the introduction to the English Heritage booklet: “Chiswick House, built between 1726 and 1729, is one of the earliest and most important neo-Palladian villas in England.”  It was designed by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, aka ‘the architect earl.’

Villa is a better term than house, because this is not a place you could live in. This is a showplace, a banqueting house, a place for parties where the intention is impressing one another, not having fun. Angelina Moriarty strongly prefers the fun kind of party, but sometimes one must mingle with the haughtier sort to achieve some larger purpose. She spent book 1 pretending to be an American heiress in London for the social Season, so she might have attended a function here.

The photograph gives you some idea of how wild the interior is. What could you wear to keep from clashing with the house? I borrowed this image from The Frame Blog, who scanned it from the English Heritage booklet, which I have on my desk. Funny how that works. Oh, and yes, those walls are covered in blue velvet wallpaper. And now I’m thinking of that weird movie with Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper. Shivers!

I liked the garden much better than the house, not to mention the cafe. This is one of those places that has several fiendishly tempting layer cakes right there in front of you, after you’ve walked several miles and are feeling virtuous. I walk all every day in England and never lose an ounce. Museum cafes are entirely to blame.

Gardens have always been good places for people to stroll, not just for exercise, but also to have private conversations. To flirt, to plot, to confide, to console. The paths were made wide to accommodate women’s dresses. There might be walls (medieval, Tudor) or tall hedges to lend privacy, although hedges are great for eavesdropping. A good garden design will lead people toward something delightful, like a sculpture or a lovely vista. I’m just going to toss in a few pictures, for your scrolling pleasure, in lieu of strolling.

(Four pix with another house below – keep scrolling!)

chiswick garden chiswick garden 
 chiswick garden




Osterley House

Last one! Osterley Park is not that far from Chiswick House, although it’s easier to take the tube on toosterley house Osterley. It’s just a short walk from the station to the park, but a ways on in to the house. This is a National Trust property, given to them by the George Child Villiers, the 9th Earl of Jersey, in 1949. Its proximity to London and its general fabulosity make it a favorite of film producers. I’ll give you one example: The Grass is Greener, with Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, and Robert Mitchum. That one’s worth tossing into your Netflix queue, if you have one and you like light movies.

(Yes, I took the photo shown here and yes, it was that gorgeous a day. Late May, I think.)

This house started out in 1571 as a brick rectangle built by Sir Thomas Gresham, Queen Elizabeth’s financier. He deserves his own post, except that he died in 1579, to soon to forced into fictional servitude in one of my Bacon books.

osterley kitchen
A corner of the kitchen

The house had run downhill (not literally, you sillies!) by the late eighteenth century, when it fell into the hands of Sir Francis Child, a wealthy banker. He hired the architect Robert Adam to completely rebuild the place. The building is nice, yes, but the interiors are awe-inspiring. A Robert Adam interior is an extraordinary experience. I wish I could spend hours in one of these rooms, but they don’t want you to sit down in them and there were too many people on the day I went. Still, this is one of the rare places where the volunteers actually know a lot about the rooms themselves, instead of just bits of light gossip about the house’s last inhabitants.

If you go to London and only have time to see one stately home, go to this one. In the meantime, visit Classical Addiction for a well-informed tour.

osterley servants hall
The servants’ hall

This National Trust booklet has a floor plan, perhaps to help movie location scouts. I forgot it was there and made up something very loose for Moriarty Meets His Match, in which Osterley House formed a model for my villain’s country retreat. I made special use of a long gallery with tall mirrors and the Temple of Diana, a folly made for trysts. I couldn’t take pictures in the Adam rooms, of course, but I snapped a few in the servants’ domain, which was huge. I had a great time at this place.

osterley garden house
The garden house




This Temple of Diana is also a nice place to sit and catch up on your notes. English people have this daft desire to sit in the sun, leaving the shady spots for us sensible Texans. 

The Temple of Diana

Too hot to blog

So let’s pretend we’re going to spend a week on the Cornish Riviera. I took these pictures on my first trip to England in 1996. I had been doing linguistic fieldwork in rural Mexico for more than a year and wanted to go someplace different. Mission accomplished! England is very different from Mexico, from the food to the silence on the buses. (No blaring pop music! How do they stay awake?) And beautiful, my stars! Those Brits aren’t just bragging when they sing about their green and pleasant land.

I was also surprised and delighted to discover that Tolkein did not invent the Shire out of whole cloth. Evidently he took a walking tour of Cornwall and just wrote what he saw. Their bunnies really are hoppy and fluffy, not like rangy Texas jackrabbits. Their foxes really are red — bright red — with brushy tales. It’s all true, folks!

My first novel starts out in Cornwall, which is why I went there. (That’s the unpublished historical romance.) I’d go back in a minute, but my stories have moved on and there are so many roads I haven’t yet taken. Ah, well. Armchair travel is better in the hot season anyway. So let’s go!

A walking tour through time

The best thing about Cornwall, apart from the breath-taking beauty, is the depth of the historical context you pass through as you walk. Humans first reached the region in the Paleolithic period, and that’s enough history for today. It’s too hot to blog, remember?

(These pictures were taken by me, alas, with a pocket-sized film camera, in the days before auto-focus and jitter-control.)

Ancient standing stones
A holy well. I don’t remember which one, but Cornwall is full of them. They are ancient and fascinating, worthy of their own tour.
This is the southwest coast path, somewhere south of St. Ives.
Badbury Rings
Believe it or not, this is a Roman road running through Badbury Rings. We’re in Dorset now, sticking to historical time rather than the trip itinerary. I spent a couple of hours in the center of this Iron Age hill fort, doodling notes for my story and pondering the passage of time. Two major Roman roads intersect here, at the spot where I had my picnic.
Walking between the ramparts of the Iron Age hill fort, Badbury Rings.
Here come the Normans! This is Castle Restormel, back in Cornwall.
Inside Restormel Castle. Hard to imagine living here, even with tapestries hanging from walls.
For the Daphne Du Maurier fans.
Speaks for itself.
The southwest coast path. The whole thing is like this, folks. On the west coast of Cornwall in late May, the gorse bushes were blooming in great yellow masses that smelled exactly like Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil. Find a medieval way to describe that scent!
Can’t remember is this was for the tin or china clay industry. Both were important in the history of Cornwall. The hey-day of Cornish clay was during the long nineteenth century.
No English village is complete with its manor house. This is the gatehouse at Lanhydrock.
And we mustn’t forget the Church! I don’t remember which one this is. I’m hoping it’s the Church of St. Candida and Holy Cross in Whitchurch Canonicorum, which I went to some trouble to visit on behalf of my characters. (I walked a lot farther than I expected and got soaked in the rain.) It’s one of the few churches in England to survive the Reformation with its original relics. St. Whit had exceptional healing powers.
Old breed in the New Forest, Hampshire. For people who are serious about their paleo diets.

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