Winter Gardens

Avery Hill Park, Eltham

Ok – so it’s not actually Greenwich – so shoot me – it’s in the borough and everyone needs to get out occasionally…

The Winter Gardens at Eltham are one of those surprising little places which make being a tourist in your own borough worthwhile. Clearly with a name like that, I waited until deepest January to visit, picking a bright, clear and bloomin’ freezing afternoon to pack up a flask and buns and head off towards the Eltham Campus of Greenwich University.

It’s not a generally exciting building complex, Greenwich University’s Eltham Campus now occupying what’s left of self-made millionaire ‘Colonel’ John Thomas North’s mansion – which is why when you do discover the hothouse it’s all the more delightful.

It was built during the 1830s but not an awful lot happened to it until the colourful ‘Colonel’ bought it in 1888.

North had started out, it is said, as a gun runner in South America where he’d gone to build railways (it’s amazing how one can get sidetracked, isn’t it…) but eventually found his fortune in seagull guano, wich any fule no makes great fertiliser.

But being a shit importer has never guaranteed success on the social ladder, and though North had made a pile Oop North on the where-there’s-muck-there’s-brass ticket, and though he had heaped largesse on the good folk of Leeds he still just didn’t seem to get invited to the right parties.

He decided to buy Avery Hill and do it up so that he could have a swanky London pad. He had the main road moved to Bexley so that he wouldn’t actually have to come in contact with the South London riffraff and spent over £ 200,000 on the interior design alone. He commissioned TW Cutler to remodel it in the popular Italianate style, but Cutler went overbudget even for the likes of North and was sacked; his assitant promoted in his place.

North was responsible for the fabulous hothouse, which he presumably fertilised with his own imports, but at the time it wasn’t the hothouse which was the star of the show. Instead an outrageous three-roomed Turkish bath took pride of place – with tiled walls, marble floors and silver fittings, it outshone the other big Turkish baths at the time and the architectural critics were agog.

His home complete, North was made an honourary Colonel in Tower Hamlets but what he really wanted was a knighthood.

He invited the Prince of Wales to tea, but it would seem that Bertie wasn’t overawed by the experience. North never did get his knighthood. He lived only another five years in his creation before his death in 1896.

His family, unimpressed with the extravagance, immediately put Avery Hill on the market. It took two years to sell, and even then it went for considerably less than North paid for it. The new owner never moved in.

It’s been in the hands of the council since 1902 – they bought it and the park for £ 25,000 – a bit of a bargain even then. What’s left of the house is now part of the uni but the hothouses and park are open to the public – and a splendid job they have done too, maintaining it – it can’t be a cheap thing to do.

If you’re driving, you enter through the grounds of the uni, you can park in what must have once been a walled kitchen garden (well, I did, anyway…) and walk around to the astonishingly large palm house, heated even in the darkest, dankest of winter months to house the exotic plants so fashionable amongst wealthy Victorians and Edwardians.

In the centre, a giant Norfolk Pine dominates the view, and to either side of the red-brick glasshouses are smaller, delicate little rooms. The one to the left provides a great place to sit and contemplate on a late winter afternoon as it makes the most of what watery sun there is, the only interruption the odd university group using it as a film location or for a botany lesson. The one to the right has a replica of a beautiful marble fountain (the original was half-inched) playing over cyclamen and fernery.

The greenery of the park tumbles away down the hill towards football pitches and dull suburban housing, but here is a little corner which will be forever Victorian splendour. Enjoy…

BTW. Sadly, the Turkish baths were bombed to buggery in WWII, but there is a fantastic account of them by Victorian Turkish Bath specialist Malcolm Shifrin at

http://www.victorianturkishbath.org/6DIRECTORY/AtoZEstab/Houses/Avery/AverySF.htm


2 Comments to “Winter Gardens”

  1. A plan of the baths was added to the site mentioned above on 3 November 2010 See:
    http://www.victorianturkishbath.org/_6DIRECTORY/AtoZEstab/Houses/Avery/AveryEng.htm
    (all in one line, of course)

  2. This is to say that my biography of John Thomas North entitled ‘The Nitrate King’ has just been published by Palgrave-Macmillan, in the University of London series ‘Studies of the Americas’.
    This is the first book-length biography of this fascinating man – born in Leeds, made his first fortune in Chile, donated Kirkstall Abbey to Leeds, and became the first Honorary Freeman of that city. The book tells the story of Avery Hill House in detail. William Edmundson.