This week, I decided to tick off one of my local houses, Hatchlands. It’s one that I drive past on a regular basis but rarely visit, mainly because the tearooms aren’t up to the standard of Polesden Lacey, which is even nearer to home. This year, I did visit to see the bluebells in May (more of that later), but I’m not sure I’ve ever viewed the house before, at least I certainly can’t remember doing so.
The house at Hatchlands is not usually open on a Friday but the handbook said that it was opening on Fridays in August so I decided to head down to take advantage of this extra availability. Big mistake! Approaching the house, there were banners along the roadside advertising Funday Fridays, with activities for families. If you’ve got kids, it’s a great day to go… if not, any other day of the week would probably be preferable. With the pony rides, archery and other activities for children in the grounds, I hoped that there wouldn’t be too many in the house but that hope was quickly dashed. Not only were there little people getting underfoot at every turn (quite literally at times) but the parents were helping them complete their quizzes in very loud voices. Trying to read the room information over the din was… well, trying!
However, to be fair to the children, there were plenty of other people of all shapes and sizes packed into the rooms. Perhaps Hatchlands should take the hint that Friday is a good day to open! I’m starting to wonder, though, if overcrowding might be an issue at all of the South East properties. As usual, this small part of the country seems to be the congregation point for an excessive proportion of the UK’s population.
Grouching over (for now), the house was well worth the bother. One thing that really sets Hatchlands apart from other NT houses is that it is leased to an art aficionado, Alec Cobbe, and it is still very much lived in on a regular basis – there’s even a TV in the library! Between 1965 and 1980, the house was tenanted by a girls’ school so there was a lot to do after that to return it to its glory days for the viewing public. The Trust made an attempt at this but we really have to thank Mr Cobbe for the treasure trove it has become today. He took on the lease in 1987 and has since undertaken numerous refurbishments in collaboration with the Trust. He then stocked the house with his own extensive collections of paintings and musical instruments, which include both pieces inherited from the family vaults as well as those he has bought himself, thus complementing the house’s architectural features with a wealth of furniture and decorations.
And wealth is the right word in more ways than one, it depends on how you define it. Definition one: an abundance or profusion of something. There is such an abundance of antiques here that it is almost too much of a good thing; the walls are so crammed with paintings that you can hardly make out the wallpaper in places, while I found myself tripping over just as many pianos as I did children! I’m not a big fan of such a ‘busy’ display but I suppose if you’ve got as much art and furniture as Cobbe has, you want to have it on show.
Definition two: a great quantity or store of money… which must have been needed to build this collection over the years. The contents of the house have to be worth a small fortune, including paintings by Titian, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Joshua Reynolds, the latter a portrait of actress Sarah Siddons, although this was absent during my visit so is perhaps on loan to another gallery. In fact, I have already seen the picture while viewing The First Actresses exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery last year so it wasn’t a huge disappointment that it’s on its travels again. There is also the famous Cobbe portrait of a man believed to be Shakespeare, which has been used as a centrepiece for various Shakespeare-related exhibitions in the past. I’m more of a landscapes girl myself but portraits with these kinds of credentials are certainly worth more than a glance.
But it isn’t just the paintings that scream value. The musical instruments include many keyboards played or owned by famous composers, plus one that was supposedly made for Marie Antoinette. The highlight for me was a unique table piano, on which Bizet’s opera ‘Carmen’ was composed. I’m not a particular fan of classical music but even I can recognise the kudos in that!
On the down side, though, as the contents of the house make up a privately-owned collection, photography is not permitted inside Hatchlands. I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t get a photo of Becca, the dog belonging to the first owner of Hatchlands, who is immortalised in the marble over the fireplace in the dining room (but at least she’s in the guidebook, which interestingly enough is largely written by Alec Cobbe himself; who better to tell us about his home and belongings?). Tempting as it undoubtedly is it is also frowned upon to play the musical instruments around the house. There was the occasional ‘plink’ to be heard in the Drawing Room, the first room you come to, and I expect the volunteer room guides in there must spend most of their Fridays telling families to keep children’s fingers away from the priceless pianofortes!
However impressive the pictures and instruments were, though, I would have to say it was the ornamental plasterwork that really made Hatchlands for me, so be prepared to get a crick in your neck as you wander around looking up at the Robert Adam ceilings (but if you go on a Friday, watch out you don’t tread on any children while doing so!).
As you exit through the Music Room, which is covered in portraits of composers and musicians (mostly prints but including two painted by Alec Cobbe himself), I hope most visitors will say a quiet thank you to Mr Cobbe for all his efforts at Hatchlands as he really has taken a gem and made it glitter. Mind you, my quiet thank you would never have been heard as someone was playing the music room organ. If you’re an organ player, head down there and give it a try. If you’re not, be prepared!
One last thing to see is the Old Stable Block, which houses information boards about the various residents of Hatchlands over the years. A piano has also been put out there so those with itchy fingers have something to play besides the priceless antiques. Unfortunately, there was a child playing the same few chords on the piano over and over and over and over again, so I decided to read about Admiral Boscawen and the subsequent residents of the house in my guidebook.
Now turning to the grounds, I’m going to cheat a little bit here and fill you in on a previous visit to Hatchlands on 12 May this year, which is a perfect time of year to visit. At around this time, the cowslips are brightening up the meadows around the house, while the Little Wix Wood on the edge of the estate becomes a carpet of bluebells, which is truly spectacular and well worth the half-kilometre walk there and back.
When I visited in May, the Trust had tried to make the walk more interesting for children by hanging Barbie dolls dressed as fairies in the trees. I’m sure little girls will have found it fun to spot the next one, but I found the whole thing slightly macabre. It made me think of horror movies and serial killers lurking in the woods… so much so that on reaching the bluebells I started imagining how effective it would be for a murder mystery novel to open with the description of a bloodied body among the bluebells! It slightly tarnished my appreciation.
There aren’t really any formal gardens at Hatchlands, just one small area to the side of the house, which was designed by the celebrated Gertude Jekyll. There wasn’t much flowering during my visit this month, but the palms were quite striking.
Unfortunately, I’m going to finish this review with another couple of gripes. The café at Hatchlands is run by a Trust-approved concession but isn’t a patch on most Trust-run tearooms. There wasn’t much cake to choose from and the scones looked like they’d come straight from Sainsbury’s rather than the oven. I ended up with a pre-wrapped double chocolate cookie, which was fairly disappointing, and a bottle of Fentiman’s Victorian lemonade.
And a final note, just when I thought I had mastered the souvenir purchasing and settled on a collection of fridge magnets, I then get to Hatchlands and their fridge magnets are different. They don’t match the set I have already started to buy and cost an extra 25p to boot! Still, I did find a Lonely Planet guide to Croatia in the very small second-hand bookshop-cum-cupboard so that will be handy for a trip to Dubrovnik later in the year.
PS: Forgot to mention another name to conjure with discovered during this visit. One of the portraits in the Drawing Room depicts Sir John Poo Beresford, a baronet with a naval background. So far, the top three names I have come across on my travels are: Cooey Hussey (she’s still top!), Sir John Poo Beresford and Edith Pretty.
Highlights: Adam ceilings in the house, bluebell woods in the grounds
Refreshments: Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade and a double chocolate cookie
Purchase(s): Guidebook, fridge magnet, Lonely Planet Croatia travel guide
Companion(s): The parents
NT Connections: Basildon Park (Alec Cobbe painted the renovated ceiling in the Basildon Dining Room); Petworth House & Park (Alec Cobbe advised on the restoration and picture rehang at Petworth)