Thursday, 23 June 2016

Carshalton Water Tower, Hermitage & Historic Garden

West Street, Carshalton, Surrey SM5 2PN
Wednesday  21 June 2016

Today’s trip, as last week’s,  was organised via the Friends of the British Library, and in spite of strike action by Southern Rail the party assembled at 2.00 for a ‘booked visit’. Usually this attraction is only open between April and October on Sunday PMs, being run entirely by volunteers.

The context for the Water Tower, which is not really seen at its best from the narrow but busy road West Street, is that it is part of the former ‘manor or merchant house’ built originally by a Mr Carleton but embellished by Sir John Fellowes. The house is now part of St Philomena’s School and the Tower, lake and other buildings are all part of the school grounds.

Sir John  Fellowes, like  many other ‘entrepreneurs’ in the early 18th century made his money through slavery, and if not slavery then sugar from the Caribbean, which comes to much the same thing. Having enhanced the main house he was looking for a ‘glory project’ and conceived a water Tower which had not only a practical use – to bring fresh spring water to the main house – but also a ‘vanity’ element in that at its base it housed both an orangery and a bath. It was built between 1717 and 1720 as by 1720 he was formally declared bankrupt, having been a major player in the South Sea Company which precipitated the famous  'Bubble' and subsequent crash.

He was also consigned for a month to the Tower of London where he managed to spend £1000 on ‘entertainment’, but still emerged not noticeably poorer (which is not unlike the fate of those responsible for subsequent bubbles – without even the symbolic satisfaction of a spell in the Tower).

Compared to all that putting up a water tower must have seemed quite mundane – and cheap.   

The tour started in the Orangery – a familiar structure and seen in many houses of the period (we saw one at Hampton Court last year) and in its time would have housed ‘exotic’ specimens such as citrus trees and myrtle. The full length windows are wonderful though sadly the view today is out onto the catholic Primary school with its utilitarian Sixties buildings. Adjacent and at about half the size is the Saloon, which again would have been used for entertaining. The Trust has provided and collected many prints of the key buildings over their time, which shows how the house and estate would have looked prior to more recent developments, and when the lake, as lake it is, was used for pleasure boating . Both the Orangery and Saloon had domed ceilings but World War II bomb damage led to their being restored as merely an oval ceiling.

From the Saloon a small door leads to the Bath – what we might call a  communal plunge pool as it was almost certainly not used for washing and too small for swimming – so was a vanity or entertainment construction and is one of the few such to survive intact. It is beautifully tiled with Delft tiles of the period and the few missing have been thoughtfully added/reconstructed with the help of conservators at Ironbridge. There are a couple of empty niches – perhaps once filled with statues or maybe even ‘posing bathers’.

Whence the water?

Well broadly speaking the River Wandle but more specifically there are various ‘springs’ that rise here (not sure of the geological strata…) and are then channelled into a canal  that runs into the Pump Chamber – our next stop on the tour. The water wheel on display is a Victorian replacement and while narrow generates enough ‘power’ for pumps to send water up the tower for the house – Sir John’s house was ahead of its time in having running water on two floors. The Trust is working on having the mechanisms restored to working order but it is interesting to note that it was in full working use up to the start of the Second World War. Evident also are the four stout pillars which support the water tower structure above.   
Squeezed between the bath and the pump room but only accessible from the Pump Chamber is the Robing Room, or I suppose dis-robing room where the friends and family would have prepared to enter the bath by a direct door – as the Robing Room faces north and the water would have been cold this would have been a bracing experience at best. The Robing Room is largely in use as a kitchen for the Trust and those who rent the Tower as a ‘venue’.

From there the tour (and a modest 37 steps)  takes you up onto the roof at about half the height of the Tower but high enough to give a good view back to the ‘House’ over the lake and across West Road to Margaret’s Pool, named in honour of Ruskin’s mother. From here, although the lake is very grassy and overgrown, you can see how Mr Carleton’s original straight canal was ‘landscaped’ Arcadia  style , into a kidney shaped lake and curved canal to be more in fashion.  You can also gaze upwards, being careful not to fall over the parapet or into the gullies which collect rainwater and admire the Tower which once held the tank.  Fellowes also owned a brickfield, so the Tower is built of bricks, fairly soft red ones for decoration with London stocks for structure.

Leaving the Tower, and fortified by tea and biscuits, we continued to admire the outside from the back and then proceeded carefully across the causeway. Apparently the ‘lake’  has usually dried up by this point in the summer but – surprise, surprise – this year there was still enough water to mean that the groundsmen had refused to deploy their ‘heavy plant’  and cut the grass and weeds. So we threaded our way along a narrow path between shoulder high grasses and nettles, quite an experience. From midway on the causeway we could see the false or ‘Sham’ bridge which is basically at the edge of the lake but gives the illusion of water passing through it. There is a similar one at Kenwood and familiar trick of the 18th century landscape designers, in this case the aptly named Charles Bridgeman; he must have squeezed this 1720 commission in between Blenheim and  getting royal patronage!

The causeway brings you onto the school lawns and a better view of what was Sir John Fellowes’ home . The Daughters of the Cross, a Catholic Foundation, were  here for many years though the house had had some other illustrious owners or tenants previously: Radcliffe later to have the Oxford Infirmary named after him, Anson who became Admiral of the Fleet after many naval battles, and a certain Mr Hardwick who gave his name to the Marriage Act of 1759.

The Sisters left the most lasting impact on the whole estate as, as well as living here they established a school initially for their own but more recently a 1000 strong secondary school for Girls.  
Carleton’s original stable block was ’adapted’ into a school extension and the clock tower is noticeably that of the Stables. The Sisters also laid a trail (that’s what it always feels like when outdoors as opposed to round the sides of the church) of the Stations of the Cross and used the handily rustic Hermitage as a grotto for their Pieta. The Hermitage was built of ever so soft Reigate stone and while it was never probably used for a hermit it has more recently been expensively restored to make it a safe structure. It is built into a hill on the side of the lake with tunnels and suchlike to fulfil all the Romantic criteria for such a structure.

We greatly enjoyed our visit to this corner of Carshalton where a combination of industrial heritage and 18th landscaping come together most successfully. 

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