Rainham Essex RM 13 9YN
Thursday 30 June 2016
Today we were doing a double trip and the two experiences gelled quite well...
We left Eastbury Manor having been pointed to the right bus stop by their helpful guide; we had decided on our favoured form of transport – a BUS (though Jo has defected to bicycling on her home patch) – in the face of TFL’s peculiar insistence on a lot of changes and a C2C train via Dagenham Docks (a station where I once spent a miserable 40 minutes) to get from Eastbury to Rainham Hall. In fact we had a very straightforward trip on the Number 287, which whizzed past quite a lot of new builds and large supermarkets to get us to yet another Tesco stop – this time in Rainham. From here it was a gentle walk through the ‘old village’ of Rainham to the Hall,
We popped briefly into the church, just tidying after a funeral, and the volunteers showed us the two prizes of their building – some old graffiti in the plaster of a sailing ship and the beautiful chancel with its small windows. The church well pre-dates the destination of our main visit.
Ticket and guide book buying is combined with the new café just opened in the very recently refurbished stable block and the volunteers seemed somewhat flustered at having to deal with three separate tasks. Talking of volunteers – they are dotted throughout the house and grounds and their enthusiasm knows no bounds.
What one does not realise when surrounded by its supermarkets, library and railway station is that Rainham sat on a quite sizeable creek where the smaller River Ingrebourne runs into the Thames, and it was this position close enough to London but not too pricy that led the Durham-born John Harle, already a seasoned shipowner ( the family business was shipping coal down the East coast to London) to set up home with his new bride. His London based income also came from shipping but more from the import/export trade between England and both the Baltic and Mediterranean states (sounds familiar?) than coastal coal. The house went up in 1729 or thereabouts (the only date comes from the water down pipe hopper) and was built to a standard pattern rather than being ‘architect designed.’
The house very much adheres to the trends of the day and is composed of a series of interlocking cubes built around a sturdy but decorative Caribbean mahogany staircase – at the time mahogany was used for packing cargo rather than the favourite it later became for status furniture. Not hard to guess where John Harle might have found his wood.. There are four symmetrical rooms on each of the three floors and on the upper levels there are smaller cubes between the front and back rooms. The Harles were not here for long – by 1742 he had died and his widow survived him only by five years – their furnishings, property and stock were soon dispersed and a series of rented tenants succeeded them. Not being a wealthy or ‘famous’ family there are few contemporary descriptions of what the interior might have looked like and rather than guess at ‘standard Georgian furniture’ (from its doubtless large stock) the National Trust has opted to suggest something about being a merchant mariner in those times. There are copies of contemporary maps showing clearly the creek and wharves, copies of Hogarth’s 'Industry & Idleness' contrasting the careers of two apprentices, a small cabinet of mariner’s artefacts and models of the kind of ships John Harle and his brothers would have sailed and owned – one of them displayed in the bath!
One room is devoted to stuff – there is no other word – found under the floor boards during the recent restoration, including quite a few buttons and coins as you might expect. Intriguingly probably the oldest artefact in the house is the most recent acquisition: a local postie trawling through a boot fair noted some random papers relating to Rainham (where she lives and works) and followed this up with the vendor – on hearing he had more documents she requested he send them on and so came into possession of John Harle’s original will (up till now only seen via the copy at the National Archives at Kew) in very good and readable condition. You can see her telling the story of her find on a short captioned video. He meanwhile was buried in the church.
One room houses a random selection of pieces of furniture belonging to some of the previous tenants and owners, which are still being restored. More imaginatively the little intervening cubes are filled with soundscapes – seashore birds from John Harle’s native North-East, sea-shanties from his time at sea. On the second floor there is the sound of nursery rhymes harking back to the Second World War, when Rainham Hall was turned into a nursery for the children of women doing ‘war work’ – a similar enterprise had been the case at Eastbury Manor also as the women of Barking and Rainham helped with the war effort.
The plan for Rainham Hall, we were told, was to change the themes of what was on display, and the next planned exhibition would include its role as a nursery and base during the Second World War, and then a further installation featuring the work of one of the post-war tenants – Anthony Denney who had photographed and designed at Vogue . He was known as well as a prescient collector of modern artists but during his 5 year tenancy at Rainham Hall had also devoted time to ‘restoring’ parts of Rainham, especially the entrance hall – again the Trust has decided to leave his ‘legacy’ including a ‘blue room’ rather than return everything to an original template for which there is no evidence.
Another eccentric tenant, and eventual owner, was the Victorian Reverend Nicholas Brady – like many contemporaries his parish work seemed to leave him enough time to pursue various hobbies including an early cycling enthusiasm and inevitably local wildlife. There is enough photographic evidence of his time at Rainham to make quite a lively display.
The garden is very much as one might expect from the National Trust, with abundant and fragrant borders, but the interior, like that at Eastbury , is something of a departure with its largely unfurnished and undecorated state leaving more to the imagination.