In Which I Finally Visit Kenwood House & Take Too Many Photos

(If you’d rather skip my yammering and go straight to the photos, they’re underneath…)

I’ve wanted to see Kenwood House ever since I heard it was the house featured near the end of the film Notting Hill, which I was taken to see at the cinema during the week of my first ever work experience at a regional paper when I was 15. A few years later, in 2003 (Wah! Ten years ago!) one of the first people I ever interviewed for a profile had her wedding reception there, which I had vague naive hopes of being invited to (because what every wedding celebration needs is a fledgling journalist on an unplanned gap year in the middle of a breakdown, OB-viously…). Another sentimental fixture in my life, Suede, played a gig in the grounds this summer but it was too pricey so I had to pass.

When I heard it was re-opening after a long refurbishment just as my phone line was borked by cable thieves rendering 90% of useful work impossible, I decided to finally make the trip. I’d seen on the local news that they wanted it to have a homely feel, particularly the reading room, where there were sofas for visitors to lounge and work. I had romantic visions of gleefully tapping away at my novel, catching up on my slightly-behind schedule, before soaking up some art, enjoying a slice of the renowned cake in the cafe and wandering through the grounds in the autumn sunshine.

Cue reality. I set off on a sinisterly gloomy overcast morning, upset about money (I only usually travel into Zone 1 before 10am on expenses-paid business and the peak fare hit me like a kick in the pompom). After a walk down Hampstead High Street avoiding the estate agents’ windows and wryly wondering whether to apply for the staff vacancy at Jeroboams because, hey, I like wine, cheese and spotting TV people, I stopped at St Johns Church. Inside, a late-middle-aged lady was supervising bored toddlers and serving Thanksgiving pumpkin pie to American mums. She offered me a slice; I declined but guzzled a coffee. Once I got through the “She doesn’t know why you’re here, stop worrying” barrier we had a nice chat (about vegetarianism among other things – yes, kill me, Hampstead cliche…). I told her I was on my way to Kenwood. “Ooh, of course, the grand re-opening! You might get to meet Prince Charles…!” My face must have done the talking. “Perhaps not.” she added diplomatically. It’s a fairly standard-looking parish church from the outside, but beautifully restored inside, in a ‘Now I see the point of atheists getting married in churches’ way. In a ‘Now I see the point of getting married at all’ way, come to that.

By the time I’d walked the half hour or so up to Kenwood the gloomy cloud had started to lift a bit, as had my mood. It was as stunning up close as I’d hoped, and quite quiet. I spent some time outside photographing the exterior and grounds before running out of battery juice. In the mean time, the inside of the house was starting to fill up with tourists. The guides at the entrance were very welcoming, as was the open fire at the entrance. I liked the art, and the way the colour schemes of each room had been chosen to offset it, but I felt I needed longer than I had allowed to take it in properly. Ditto the many guidebooks around the house giving details of each collection and the house’s inhabitants. The orangery has been made into a nice secluded beanbag play area for kids (probably good news for parents and non-parents alike…).

The focal point of the house, and my favourite room, was the Reading Room – even if my attempts to read and write in it didn’t go well. First I sat on the ‘wrong’ sofa (there’s only one you’re allowed to sit on). Then, with all the visual splendour and my recharged phone I got distracted taking photos and took so many that a guide mistook me for press and asked where I was “from”. I was so out of work-mode I thought she meant which town and was doing some kind of visitor survey. Cringe! She said they don’t mind “the odd photo” but it looked like I was taking a lot more than that and politely requested I stop. Double-cringe! If I’d been in a cocky mood (i.e, a March to July 2011 mood, basically…) I might’ve blagged it and pretended to be from a mag but I feared a Hugh-Grant-in-Notting-Hill Horse and Hound scenario if I did. Eventually I said I’d come to write and she suggested the cafe was better for that. I’d agree, if you get there early in the day – probably before midday. It’s extortionate even for London (nearly a fiver for a small sandwich) but fair enough, I suppose, given that the grounds are free. And it was a nice sandwich.

Out of curiosity – trying not to feel too much like Muriel in Muriel’s Wedding – I asked another guide which was the room they used for wedding receptions. At first she seemed bemused and told me private parties aren’t allowed anywhere in the house. Then she told me that an old kitchen in the next door servant’s quarters hosts them. I went to see it, having always imagined an opulent dining room full of chandeliers and paintings, with room for the hordes of glamorous guests my interviewee would surely have invited to her reception. What I saw was a small function room obscured by an old swing-gate, with a few gilded chairs, a PowerPoint projector and a scattering of people on a work training event. I’m sure it’s done up a bit more nicely when there’s actually a wedding on but still not quite what I’d expected. If you want a great metaphor for wasting years of your life feeling inferior to someone who sort of lets you think they’re more of a big deal than they are, there it is. (NB: According to the website you can hire rooms in the house – in the unlikely event anyone reading this is thinking of getting married there soon I’d check it out carefully…)

Before heading home I stopped off at the Zabludowicz Collection in Chalk Farm (near Camden), former location of the Drama Centre London and the Prince of Wales Methodist Church – another magnificently-restored building, and another sentimental place I’ve always wanted to look at but never found the time. The installation was strangely apt for the day: a celebration of youthful sentimental objects, the art of collecting and the idea you can be sincere about tack – put together in a crap dull town during 1999-2003. The building itself was as interesting as the art. The outside is grand and stands out on a street of run-down flats and greasy spoons, the ceilings look like a stately home and the rest of it looks like a grease-painted village church missing an am dram society (hence the Drama Centre, I suppose). If you can picture a theatre except that the stage is where the stalls normally are instead of right at the front, and it’s on two levels instead of one, and you have to climb up through the middle of it to get up to the grand circle, that’s what it’s like. Standing in the top pews made me feel strangely giddy – in a good way.

I’ve already made plans to go back to Kenwood in the summer (possibly for my birthday and/or with relatives) bring a picnic and spend longer looking around (minus my laptop – hopefully my book will be finished and winging its way to agents by then…). If anyone reading this comes to visit me or meets up with me in London, remind me to take you, too! I promise to take fewer photos next time…

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