Can you guys let me know when you get sick of hearing about National Trust properties? Because I’m on a roll with that membership card, and I’m not likely to stop until I feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth (although technically speaking, that probably happened a few properties ago), but I don’t want to become the “National Trust” blog (that goes against my whole aim of introducing you to quirky or lesser-known destinations). Unfortunately (or I guess fortunately if you like these posts), I’ve already got three more National Trust posts lined up, but I will do my best to intersperse them with actual museums so it’s not too much all at once. Anyway, today’s property is Ham House, in Ham (near Richmond). The very name disgusts me slightly because I’m really picky and have an aversion to meats, ham in particular (just thinking about it makes me imagine the revolting smell), but as fate would have it, I’m actually out in Ham on a semi-frequent basis, because Hansel and Pretzel, a German bakery, is about half a mile down the road from Ham House, and hot-from-the-oven pretzeled bread trumps any of my weird food issues.
Ham House is of interest primarily because it was built by Charles I’s whipping boy, and is reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in England. I guess because of these features, and because it’s in London, they charge a whole tenner for non-members to get in, which is exactly why I’d never been before, despite frequenting the area. The day we visited was unusually cold, coming off a week of warm spring-like weather; not anticipating that, I was only wearing a light jacket, so I was pretty eager to get inside the house.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much warmth to be found inside either, as despite the presence of a few Victorian-era looking radiators, the house was completely unheated, and as draughty as you’d expect a high-ceilinged 17th century building to be. The room booklets made some reference to this, as several of the past owners apparently had double glazing installed on the windows in various rooms in a vain attempt to insulate them.
And speaking of the room booklets…unlike other National Trust properties I’ve visited recently, there was no large fact sheet provided, but there were little binders in each of the rooms with information about the purpose of the room and the furnishings. Unfortunately, there was only one, or at most two of those binders per room, and Ham House gets crowded on the weekends, so I often had to wait for a while to get my hands on one. Normally this wasn’t an issue, as most people see someone waiting, quickly scan the information, and put it back, but this one girl…man, I was pointedly staring at her for a good five minutes, and she just kept on reading every last fact in that damn book. Sometimes I really wish I could vaporise people with my glare.
Because of this, there were a few rooms where I was unable to find out anything at all about them, and other than the introductory speech we got about the house being built by Charles’s whipping boy, information about the owners only came in dribs and drabs, so I was left with an incomplete picture of the house’s history (reading Ham House’s website was far more useful than actually visiting the place in that regard). Some of the things I DID manage to glean from those booklets are that there’s meant to be about three ghosts haunting the chapel, and that cabinet pictured above has creepy dolphin faces on the doors, but I don’t know why (the booklet only pointed them out, it didn’t explain them).
There was a lot of Stuart art, and what I believe are Inigo Jones styled ceilings, but again, apart from the small odd detail, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you more. A volunteer told us about the history of the teapot in one room, which were apparently a very rare 17th century example, plus a table that had legs added to it so Westerners didn’t have to take tea on the floor, but no one else really talked to us (I find this to be a common thing in historic homes…volunteers ignore me, but then some older people will walk in and they’ll start spouting out facts. Maybe part of this is my own fault because I don’t like to initiate conversation, but I also don’t like people assuming that I’m not interested in history because I’m young(ish). Why would I come to see these properties at all if I wasn’t interested?).
Most of the rooms were pretty firmly set in the 1600s, but there were a few Victorian touches on the ground floor, including a Victorian loo hidden under the stairs (though only one in that massive house wouldn’t have been enough!), and a homemade wheelchair that was literally a wheeled chair, belonging to one of the (relatively) more recent Earls. There was also a neat collection of fire-buckets hanging from the hallway ceiling; apparently they were always kept filled and ready to go, and were hung at that height to prevent servants using the convenient sand and/or water in them for more mundane tasks.
Having finished with the interior, and still freezing my ass off, we headed around to the back of the house to the “below-stairs” area to learn how the servants lived. This was probably my favourite part of the whole experience because it was delightfully warm in there (almost made you think the servants had the better deal, even if most of them only made the equivalent of about 300 quid a year in modern currency, besides room and board of course).
This was in general the more child-friendly area, with lots of signs telling you to touch things, and a whole colouring room/dress-up area set up for them, but there were still plenty for child-free adults too. They had a beer cellar that apparently does tastings, as there were beers and glasses all lined up, but no one there to pour them out, more’s the pity (I’m not the biggest beer fan, save for fruit beers, but if it was free, I would have drank it. I managed to chug a couple down at the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam, and I don’t even like Heineken). My boyfriend was quite taken with the leather tankards on show, and the absurdly heavy leather pitcher (seriously, my arm was struggling to hold it up, and it was empty), and I think he’s still on the hunt for a set on ebay.
One of the former ladies of the house had a charming bathhouse built in one of the below-stairs rooms (probably a wise choice, it being so much warmer than the big house), which still had an overpowering smell of vinegary feet wafting through the air. It also had a hobbit-sized door, which was perfect for me, but my boyfriend’s head rather hilariously reached well above the door frame (but he’s very used to ducking in these historic homes by now, so no biggie).
After a quick exploration of the gardens (cause you know, it was still fecking cold), which were beautifully manicured with delightful topiaries, we thought we were done, but a hunt for the gift shop to buy a postcard revealed a number of outbuildings that weren’t obviously apparent or clearly marked, so make sure you go around the hedge to the far right of the house before you leave so you don’t miss anything, like we almost did.
I was glad we made our way around, because the dairy held my favourite object of the whole estate; that amazing cow leg table pictured above, which only dates back to the 19th century, but I love it (it’s ruined me for dairies that don’t have cow leg tables). There was also an old ice house (basically a big hole with some rubbish in it you could peer into), and an orangery/cafe, in addition to a couple shops.
In the end, visiting Ham House wasn’t an entirely bad thing to do, because it was free + warm pretzels down the road, but the house was much too crowded on a weekend (the grounds were fine though), so it might be another place to visit on a weekday or early on a weekend day. The house suffered most from the distinct lack of signage/shortage of booklets; really, I don’t think it would kill them to put a little sign on a stand in each of the rooms with basic information on it, like you see in other stately homes, and would make the place much more visitor friendly. As it stands, I’ll give it 3/5, keeping in mind I found the below-stairs area and the gardens and outbuildings more interesting than the house itself, which is not often the case, since I’m not a big garden person. Do I think it’s worth a tenner? Well, no, but I don’t think much is (besides the 11 pretzels you could get at the German bakery for a tenner; that’s a lot of pretzels!). Maybe if I’d seen a ghost…if you tell me a house is haunted, you should deliver (at least some sound effects, or make the lights flicker or something)!