Heritage Open Days - Kingston When London Open House comes around this Saturday, it'll be impossible to visit every interesting building because they're all open over the same single weekend. So hurrah that the Heritage Open Days event, in which the rest of the country participates, takes place the weekend before. And hurrah that Kingston pretends it's still in Surrey for this purpose, making it possible to tick off one London borough in advance of the other 32. Which is why I spent yesterday in outer southwest London digging around above and under the ground in search of of ancient Home Counties heritage.
Coombe Conduit: You'd think that building Hampton Court Palace alongside the River Thames would guarantee it a decent water supply. But apparently not. Cardinal Wolsey looked east to Coombe Hill, three miles away on the other side of the river, and tapped into the water table there instead. One source turned out not to be enough, so three separate conduit houses were built and their precious cargo channelled through lead pipes to the palace. The most elaborate of the three was Coombe Conduit, constructed after Henry VIII had moved in, and whose water continued to supply Hampton Court for several centuries since. Eventually the growth of Kingston and surrounding suburbia caused damage to the underground pipes and the system fell into disuse around 1876. It's not what you expect to find in the middle of an affluent suburban estate, that's for sure.
Ride the 57 bus out of Norbiton along Coombe Lane West and you might catch sight of a gabled brick building from the top deck. The patch of grassy hillside on which it stands is normally locked away, but volunteers occasionally* open up to allow interested parties to explore inside. There are two conduit houses, one in ruins after a doodlebug landed nearby during WW2, but the other still substantially intact. The survivor, a sunken gabled structure, seems an unnecessarily tall structure merely to be covering over a cistern in the floor. It's almost like a sunken belltower from within, and it's linked via a 25m subterraneanpassage to the functionally more interesting upper structure. There's another chamber here, about three metres square, with a central lead-lined tank recessed into the floor. Water still drips in from the surrounding hillside through a dribbly pipe, and also into two other cisterns in adjacent chambers, one higher, one lower. The precious liquid collected here once ran down the main passage into the first-mentioned pool, from which a pipeline departed bound for the royal kitchens. No longer. Today Coombe Conduit is little more than an atmospheric relic showcasing Tudor engineering, but a fascinating suburban sideshow all the same. * Opens on the second Sunday afternoon of the month from April to September (sorry, that's a long wait now)
Ivy Conduit House: Here's another of the Coombe Hill Conduits, this one in a particularly unlikely location. I was a little uncertain I was in the right place to begin with, there being no telltale pink balloons tied to the gatepost, and one doesn't like to wander into a private girls' prep school uninvited. But the groundsman was sitting at a desk on the rear terrace waiting to welcome visitors, and directed me down to the bottom of the school grounds past the new Sports and Performing Arts Centre. And across the infants' playground. And, er, through the gate into the netball court. Really? Ah yes, there on the other side were the stunted remains of the Ivy Conduit, again doodlebug-damaged, looking like an arched grotto set into the hillside. Apparently it was a grotto once, when this was Coombe Leigh House and owned by the author John Galsworthy. He didn't realise he had an ancient water-supply monument in his back garden, or he didn't care, and adapted the structure somewhat for ornamental ends. At least it survived, as did his grand Victorian residence (although I can't say I spotted any John Galsworthy in the school library, only a lot of books about ponies).
Lovekyn Chapel: Have you seen that mini-church-like building on the corner where London Road becomes Old London Road? I've been inside. It's the Lovekyn Chapel, built 700 years ago so that priests could pray daily for the deceased Lovekyn family forever and hereafter. It's the only remaining free-standing Chantry Chapel in the country, and the oldest intact building in the whole of Kingston borough. It's now part of a school, Kingston Grammar, although it seems inconceivable that this one small room could once have been all they had. 100 years ago the school had grown and the chapel was its gymnasium, 25 years it had evolved into the woodwork room. More appropriately it's now used for sports and drama. And erm, architecturally it's a bit dull inside, sorry.
Kingston Bridge: The current Kingston Bridge is a 19th century arched construction. But there used to be a narrower span 30 yards downstream, the only bridge between here and Central London for more than 500 years. Its foundations were uncovered when Kingston's new John Lewis/Waitrose complex was being constructed in the 1980s, and duly conserved in the basement along with the cellar of a medieval pub. Walk along the riverside and you can see both by peering down through a window. But on Heritage Open Weekend the public are allowed in, and down, to get up close to two 12th century piers and a brickwork shell. They'd look a lot better without a department store on top of them, but it's good to see that massive retail redevelopment sometimes houses an unexpected treasure within.
Frederick W Paine: The strangest buildings open up during Heritage Open Days. Which is how I found myself entering a Grade II listed undertakers, a few feet away from Kingston's iconic toppled phonebox sculpture. The ladies at the desk by the door gave me a programme and outlined what there was to see, in exactly the same soft reassuring voice they must use when dealing with the recently bereaved. And then I was allowed to wander into, ooh, the arranging room and then, ah, the private chapel and then oh, another private chapel. The candles were burning, the box of Kleenex was primed, and standing here on a 'tour' seemed somehow very wrong. One larger room further round housed the Paine's museum, packed with funereal memorabilia and yellowing Edwardian ledgers, plus a member of staff willing to discuss the lot. I entered halfway through a conversation about recyclable coffins, so thought it best not to linger very long. And then (dearly) departed.
Kingston Tour Guides: If you've read this far, then you might be interested in taking the weekly guided tour organised most Sunday afternoons by the independent Kingston Tour Guides. You'll have to pay, but they're very good, and you could have taken one for free yesterday. Viva Kingston.