Harpsichords in Hampstead

Day two of our London trip found us in Hampstead, a suburb neither of us had visited before. And if we’d thought Kensington where we were staying was posh, then Hampstead was another world again. We emerged blinking into the sunlight to find a beautiful ‘village’ centre filled with boutiques, French bakeries, antiques centres and the like, and when we glanced into a couple of estate agents’ windows we almost had apoplexy. Prices in Kensington seem to hover around the £1.5 million mark; here they were closer to £4 million, for nothing larger than a two-bed apartment. It all felt quite… rarified, somehow, if very leafy and prosperous.

We’d gone because of a couple of National Trust properties nearby – Fenton House and 2, Willow Road. The former is a pleasant 17th century merchants’ house with a walled garden, set near the top of a steep hill, presumably so the residents would have the benefit of purer air. (That isn’t me being sarcastic, by the way – it really happened. Pollution tended to settle at the lower levels.) The house itself was sweet rather than stately, with rooms that weren’t so far removed from what would be considered a ‘good size’ these days. It had a comfortable feel, and you could really imagine the occupants living there, going about their daily business, pottering in the garden, writing letters at a desk in the window.

More unusual was the vast collection of keyboard instruments, mostly harpsichords, which littered every corner of every room. There was even one stuffed into the original, um, water closet off one of the bedrooms. I’ve heard of going for a tinkle but that does seem a mite ridiculous. The virginals in the attic were more impressive, complete with beautiful painted scenes inside and out. And the view from the ‘roof terrace’, across vast swathes of central London, was amazing. The 17th century residents would no doubt have been startled to see buildings like the Gherkin, the Cheese-grater, and the Shard, from their bedroom windows.

After lunch in one of the aforementioned French bakeries we headed for the other property, 2 Willow Road. This is a complete contrast – a 1930s modernist building designed and furnished by Erno Goldfinger and apparently filled to bursting with all sorts of contemporary furniture and art works. I say apparently because we couldn’t get in. There was a problem with volunteers, and the place was closed for most of the afternoon which was very disappointing. We did manage a brief foray onto Hampstead Heath, and then tripped over Burgh House, a small but fascinating (and free!) museum about the local area, which was hidden away on a back street in the area once known as Hampstead Wells. Ten minutes browsing in there taught us everything we’d ever wanted to know about Hampstead, its origins, its famous residents, its fate during the war and a whole lot else besides. It more than made up for the annoyance of the National Trust.

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