Danson Rd – between Bexleyheath and Welling.
Whilst driving along the A2 yesterday, I caught a glimpse of a splendid-looking Georgian Mansion, and realised that it must be Danson House which I’d read had reopened last year after a total restoration.
Danson House is in the unlikely geographical position between Bexleyheath and Welling – not very encouraging if you don’t look at the historic context. But when it was begun in 1762, it was deep in the countryside, a cough and a spit from The Old Dover Road and yet very convenient for its owner, John Boyd, to get to the office – one of London’s first commuters, it would seem…
Boyd had cash – but it was ‘new money,’ inherited only from his father Augustus, which automatically made him nouveau riche. Augustus made his pile through sugar plantations in the Caribbean – hardly something to shout about this year, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade (more about that on another day) but enough in those days to allow his son to lead the life of a gentleman.
John Boyd had studied theology and loved the arts, but ended up working for his father, living in Lewisham – again a tad nicer then than it is now. He had had his eye on the park at Danson, but though he’d snapped up the lease it took an act of parliament for him to be able to rather sneakily buy-out the Almshouse trust that its previous owner had left in his will. He purchased it for £ 100 and kept acquiring land piecemeal up to 600 acres.
Danson House was completed in 1766. It’s a charming palladian-style villa, and not gigantic like so many of the country piles of the day. Neat, economical and with a clear box-like design, it feels like a home you could actually imagine people living in, though it has the sanitised, risk-free feel of a ‘house open to the public’ these days (if you’re not into that kind of thing, the only place I know of to really get down and dirty with history is the incredible Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields.)
Danson’s had its ups and downs over the years, and in 1923 Bexley Council bought it – then did bugger-all to it save selling-off the surrounding land for housing and implementing some atrocious ‘repairs’ in the 1950s. Eventually it became derelict, and, arguing that it was beyond repair, the council decided to pull it down. Central Government, however, had other ideas and the resulting stalemate meant that it just got worse and worse.
Things came to a head at Christmas 1995 when burglars stole all the fixtures and fittings over the holiday period, and bundled them into containers to be shipped abroad. They were actually recovered but not until English Heritage declared Danson Park to be London’s “most significant building at risk.” EH, somewhat belatedly, took over the remaining dogs dinner of a building and started an extraordinary programme of repairs which finished a couple of years ago.
And it’s an amazing piece of work. Looking at it now, it’s nigh-on impossible to imagine what it must have looked like beforehand. God-only knows how much it all must have cost.
The fabulous dining room has had all its paintings restored and carpets have been rewoven to fit the octagonal salon, which overlooks the remaining parkland and the lake. The library has a totally-restored organ – though the books are fake. Downstairs the kitchens are bright and airy and filled with items from Bexley Heritage Trust’s collection.
The house was in such a state that virtually nothing was left in some rooms – and literally just the studs from the walls at the very top, though one or two of the charming ceilings and fireplaces remained. A major help was a series of eight extremely detailed watercolours of the interiors painted by a young girl in the 1860s which appear to be remarkably accurate.
Up the delicate oval staircase which snakes its way up the centre of the house like some kind of exotic snail, lit by an oval lantern at the top, there are rooms which though once bedrooms are clearly meant to help supplement modern Danson’s financial future – set out as meeting rooms for corporate events and weddings. On the very ground floor the tea-rooms look out across the lake, though sadly the little doric temple was removed to St Paul Waldenbury in Hertfordshire in 1963, which I can’t find much out about, save that it seems to specialise in removing garden features from endangered properties. Whether it specialises in returning them is less certain.
The only bit of the restoration I’m not really convinced by are the ultra-modern inset lights in the bedroom, but I’ll give EH the benefit of the doubt and assume “they had their reasons” for this extraordinary anachronism.
It sort of feels wrong that a country estate like this isn’t miles away – it’s a fifteen minute drive from Greenwich at most. But it really is a lovely little place and I’d say well worth a trip on a sunny day. The old stables are now a pub that does food – we didn’t eat there but it looked fine.The park looks like a pleasant walk, but the wind was blowing us about so badly our ears hurt and we gave up.
They have some interesting events though you’ll have to call or drop in to find out about them – the website is “under construction.”