Kent DA5 1PQ
Kent DA5 1PQ
Monday May 19th 2014
Today’s trip was strictly speaking an unofficial visit to this South East London gem but as Jo had been last year and Mary J has ‘previous’ with the project having joined us on various Sutton area buses we decided it could count on the record. We went by car but it is of course accessible by nearby bus routes including the 229, 492, B12 and 132 to the foot of Gravel Hill. This outing could easily take all day and there are very pleasant picnic places within the grounds.
This site with its extensive grounds is managed by Bexley Council. The house itself and more formal gardens are between Bourne Road and the River Cray – the wilder ‘parky’ bits extend across the Cray up to the A2, which is noisy but less intrusive than the planes at Kew Gardens.
Entrance to the outdoor attractions is free and we were in a constant state of amazement at the excellent condition of all the gardens. Close to the entrance is a set of eight model gardens – this means they are small plots set out with easily managed and appropriate planting and child or disabled friendly layouts (2 also include parking spaces) – in other words they are ‘model’ plots to offer inspiration for the residents of Bexley, where there are large swathes of inter-war housing of the 3 bed semi variety with front and back gardens.
Suitably impressed we moved on to admire the other different plots offering vegetables and cut flowers, the orchard and the Timeline garden. This last was intriguing – planted with different non-native species that we now take for granted each with a black plaque giving the date of its probable introduction to the UK with white plaques highlighting the political events of the time. It was quite surprising to see the early arrival of some species and the later import of others. Mary J, of course, being a garden historian, was previously aware of some of these incomer plants.
A walk through the pleasantly situated cafeteria or crossing the weir and wisteria bridges across the River Cray and back again will lead you to the gardens that surround the house. Further away from the house itself we found both the Sunken and Hidden gardens were shut to the public as still flooded, while a large Eucalyptus tree had caused some damage falling across the ’Really Useful’ garden. As you might guess the gardens closer to the house are of a more classic formal kind including a grass maze and an extensive rose garden. If topiary is your thing Hall Place is for you as the gardeners have managed to maintain a series of the Queen’s Beasts since their planting for the 1952 Coronation – admittedly the dragons and griffons look rather more like little bears and squirrels but they still have a certain ‘wow’ factor.
Entrance to the house carries a small charge, which actually buys you a year’s admission (reduced rate for National Trust members). It is really two conjoined houses, a Stuart extension of mellow red brick greatly expanding the original Tudor building of chequerboard flint and stone partly recycled from a dissolved monastery. Unexpectedly for a Monday there was a wedding (reduced rates?) which meant no access to the Great Hall or Minstrel’s gallery, but that still left much to see. The original owner, Champney, had been Lord Mayor of London during Henry VIII’s early reign and wanted a place of his own not too far from town. What remains of his building has a very human scale as befitted middling gentry with servants – a small Great Hall, a ‘not very’ Long Gallery and pocket sized chapel.
Mostly the rooms are empty, giving you time to enjoy the plasterwork ceilings, the wood paneling and the views over the garden. The ground floor chapel, and its extension built probably as storage, now house the children’s inter active exhibits. Today we had them to ourselves and could be really indulgent trying on mob caps, finding our place at the dining table (well below the salt) and contemplating a diet of pottage and vegetables in the end probably healthier than endless roast and fatty boar’s heads reserved for royalty and nobility… Impressively, all the exhibits were robust (most of them reassuringly ‘analogue’) and in good working order – there is nothing worse than a ‘children’s area’ in a museum or house where half the stuff is either missing or broken and the other half are non-responsive computer terminals – full marks again to Bexley.
The first floor space above the hall adorned with excellent plasterwork is where the original family would have lived. Eventually the house was sold to a family called Austen who organized the Stuart era extension; some of the upstairs rooms dating from this time are galleries celebrating the history of Bexley, though not currently open. We do not usually mention special exhibitions (see the Project rules) but did enjoy the display of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for the Nightingale Project, a series of colourful, tranquil and so humane and compassionate work for mental health resources catering for both the elderly and the younger age groups: this is a touring show to catch if you can.
Later owners/tenants used the house as school premises and during World War II there was some enemy signal decoding type activity linked to Bletchley Park.
We finished our afternoon with a stroll round the park, noting that the flood channel was still holding water, and enjoying the excellent colour scheme of the rockery. Even during a visit of nearly three hours there were areas we had missed – the Poplar Walk and Spring Garden and extensive glasshouses. For additional payment you can also enjoy weekend owl demonstrations (they want a shorter working week and the minimum wage) and a butterfly ‘jungle’. We would recommend to those folk shy of penetrating South East London that Hall Place will more than repay the effort of negotiating the route there.
and in Dementia Week...