Morden Hall Park should never really have been on my list as it is mapped as a Coast & Countryside site in the NT handbook. However, it is one the few Coast & Countryside locations to have its own entry among the regular properties and I was also encouraged to add it as it has a cultivated rose garden that I thought would be worth a look.
In hindsight, it probably doesn’t fit very well with my other properties as it appears to be used primarily as a green oasis within the concrete of south London. This morning, it was full of dog walkers, joggers, mothers and toddlers, and even a young woman doing some qigong (Chinese arm swinging exercises) in the rose garden.
We took a walk around half of the park, which was a pleasant stroll in the sunshine, but was slightly spoiled by the road or trams passing along just outside the walls and the occasional view of an electricity pylon or high-rise building. The park is clearly a valuable getaway from the busy world outside, though, and no sooner had we watched a tram hiss by than we suddenly found ourselves in the centre of a flock of swallows, flitting over our heads before diving down to skim over the fronds of long grass. You could say that the town of Morden is home to two vastly different worlds: Inside and Outside the park.
While the literature describes Morden Hall Park as ‘an ancient, Arcadian country estate’, it was difficult to pin down information about this past life. There were some short information boards at the old snuff mill and the waterwheel that still stands alongside the River Wandle and another in the Old Stableyard, now home to some educational exhibits about green living, another café (closed today) and a secondhand bookshop (an excellent example with a lot of stock to browse).
These display boards were more of a tease than anything, though, as they gave hints about the estate’s history without elaborating further. For example, the display board in the Old Stableyard informs us that it was built in the 1860s by Morden Hall’s Hatfeild (yes, ‘e’ before ‘i’, apparently) family and that it was fully refurbished and opened to the public in 2011. It also tells us a little about how the stableyard clock was kept running regularly and chiming the quarter hours so the staff would never be late! It also mentioned that the weather vane is in the shape of a trout because members of the family loved to fish, while information around the old Snuff Mill also gave a few hints about the Hatfeild family’s activities in the tobacco industry.
Committed to learning more, I saw a link to an app (on the way out of the park rather than on the way in!) and I downloaded this when I got home. It is aimed primarily at children and takes the form of a guided walk narrated by the ghost of the last Gilliat Hatfeild who left the estate to the National Trust on his death. At the end, he recommends a trip to the Visitor Centre to learn more. Now, there may well be a Visitor Centre somewhere on site but there were three of us and none of us saw any signs to indicate where it might be. And we were looking, believe me! Anyway, the app was certainly a fairly useful source of information, albeit after the event.
My Dad was also most upset that the classical statues we stumbled across on our walk were not given greater prominence and that there was no information about who they portrayed (the NT guided walk of the park and the app – both tracked down online – identify them as 18th century statues of Neptune and Venus with Cupid). He also quibbled at the lack of labels in the rose beds. Personally, I was just happy to admire and smell the blooms, but a more avid gardener may share his frustration!
The same avid gardener will no doubt appreciate the Park’s garden centre, located alongside the car park. This was very recently taken on by the Trust as the first such outlet that it manages itself. Although this seems a fairly natural progression for the Trust, considering the many plant shops that it already runs at its various properties, it seems that in this instance it took on an existing centre rather than opening one from scratch. I doubt garden centres are at the forefront of NT strategy planning, but then again that could all change if the Morden experiment proves an overwhelming success!
As usual, I made full use of the catering facilities during my visit! The Potting Shed Café opposite the garden centre is very pleasant with modern decor that still has a rustic feel and both indoor and outdoor seating. After a quiet coffee break on our way in, though, we came back to find that the mums and toddlers had moved in en masse for lunch. It’s probably a perfect spot for the local mums to meet and socialise but it didn’t make for a particularly relaxed meal as we sat through a couple of scooter spillages and a mini kick-boxing bout. The one-pot chicken and basil stew was very tasty, though, so well worth staying for.
All in all, it was a pleasant morning’s visit but it would have been nice to have learnt a little more while we were there rather than picking up some sketchy knowledge later on. Entry to the park is free so this removes the need for the ‘meet and greet’ that is usual at the properties that charge and, while there was an information desk in the Potting Shed Café, it was unmanned and offered only a few leaflets about Quebec House in Kent! At the very least, it would have been nice to have been able to find a printed leaflet with a summary of the history and a map of the park; so if this kind of thing is indeed available, it really needs to be easier for the interested visitor to track it down.
To be fair, I approached Morden Hall Park as I do my other properties and its primary function is different from the usual House & Gardens locations. As a Coast & Countryside spot, it is more focused on maintaining natural surroundings in which people can enjoy outdoor activities rather than bringing history to life. And the dog walkers, joggers, mothers of toddlers, and qigongers are unlikely to have anything at all to complain about.
Highlights: The roses, the swallows (can’t be guaranteed for every visitor!)
Refreshments: Cup of tea, half of a fruit scone; chicken and basil stew with brown bread; strawberry ice cream
Purchase(s): ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan and ‘The Great Lover’ by Jill Dawson, both from the large secondhand bookshop
Companion(s): Mum and Dad