The short half-term break shot past in a flash even though I managed to pretty much fill it up with taking various jaunts to places I’d been meaning to visit. So with the SSF otherwise engaged entertaining antipodean amigos, I took myself off to Hampstead. (As you do).
I had a reason to choose Hampstead for my solitary outing. Two, actually. I’d been scouring my Art Pass guide book for ideas and discovered that there were two properties in Hampstead within a quarter of a mile of each other that sounded well worth a look.
I’d never been to Hampstead – at least I have no memory of ever having visited the place – which is mad really as it’s only a few tube stops northwards from central London. I emerged from the station on one of those crisp autumn days where the skies are forever blue, there’s a healthy nip in the air and the trees are beginning to emulate Joseph’s coat of many colours.
Passing and noting for later a promising looking coffee shop (SSF would be proud) I made my way to my first stop – the house of poet John Keats. Originally known as Wentworth Place, the house was built around 1815. From the outside it looked like one beautifully proportioned villa but the interior was originally divided into two separate homes and it was in one of these that, in 1818, Keats went to lodge with his friend, Charles Brown.
Most of the rooms in the house are accessible to the visitor and on arrival I was presented with an informative leaflet detailing the route I should take. Each room has plenty of information about the poet printed clearly onto boards.
The furnishings are sparse but give a flavour of the time. In one of the basement rooms a ten minute video plays on a loop, giving us a brief history of the poet’s life.
To say that Keats had a tragic life would be an understatement. His father died in a riding accident when Keats was eight, his widowed mother quickly married a man who proved completely unsuitable. Keats was sent to a boarding school in Enfield, north London where he stayed until he was fourteen and where he fostered a love of poetry and literature. His mother died of consumption so Keats and his brothers were looked after by their grandparents. Keats left school, took up an apprenticeship as an apothecary surgeon and began to write poetry which provided solace in his unhappy world. Around this time, both his brothers died and Keats went to live with Charles Brown where he met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, who lived next door. With no family wealth behind him (that he knew about) Keats gave up his medical aspirations to concentrate on poetry and it was while living at Wentworth Place that he produced the abundant volume of work we are familiar with today. With his own health in decline (he too contracted consumption) he died aged twenty-five in Rome where he had gone to recuperate.
The gardens around Wentworth House are modest and well tended and are free for the public to wander in, sit a while and ponder. There is a small gift shop selling poetry books, tasteful cards and soap of a natural quality. Had there not been a noxious smell of evil boiled vegetables emanating from the bowels of the house while I was wandering around, I’d have given Keats’ House full marks.
My visit lasted around an hour and a half after which caffeine was definitely required so I wended back to the coffee shop I’d espied earlier and took my Americano across the road to the Heath and sat by the pond in gorgeous autumnal sunshine, watching the ducks.
A little way from here, just up the hill and facing the Heath was my next port of call. Number 2, Willow Road is part of a terrace of three Modernist houses designed and built by architect and designer Ernö Goldfinger. He and his family lived at Number 2, the middle house, from 1939 until his death in 1987.
Goldfinger is remembered for designing residential tower blocks, some of which are now listed buildings but at the time of their construction were controversial. Willow Road is built of concrete with brick facings and just scraped past the fastidious Hampstead planning department, causing outrage amongst the preciously exclusive locals.
Entry into the house is by timed tickets and for only ten people at a time. Thankfully I had had the foresight to book my place before buying coffee so when I returned at my allotted hour, nine other folk were hovering around outside waiting for the off. The National Trust is the custodian of 2 Willow Road and I have to say that this was one of the times that this fusty old institution got it right. It was bequeathed to the Trust by Goldfinger’s children and the furniture, fittings and artwork are all authentic. The house is stuffed full of modern art – Goldfinger was a collector.
Our guide was well informed and interesting. We were ushered into what had been the garage to watch a short video about the life and times of Ernö Goldfinger before entering the downstairs lobby where an extraordinary spiral staircase gave us access to the rest of the house.
Goldfinger also designed furniture – in particular chairs – and there are examples of his work here. The house would have been ultra modern for its time, with interior partition walls that could create different spaces by being pulled back or closed. The kitchen, however, is tiny and one wonders how his poor wife coped to entertain all the friends and celebrities who frequented the place. Everywhere you look there is art by someone notable: Henry Moore…Bridget Riley…Barbara Hepworth. The bookshelves are full of arty books and there are myriad miscellaneous collections on windowsills and tables. I loved it and didn’t know where to start and stop looking. Sadly, photographs of the interior are forbidden so I can’t share this cornucopia with you but if you ever find yourself in Hampstead, make a bee-line for this place – it’s wonderful!