It’s a traffic black spot. An unexciting post-war pub plonked gracelessly in the middle of a grisly intersection where the view consists of parked cars, pedestrian walkways and poplar trees. The pollution level hits “high” and the hard-shoulder is packed with overheated cars and their even hotter owners.
It’s a good bet that 99% of the stationary vehicles’ occupants will not think beyond four-letter words when gazing across at the erstwhile Black Prince Public House (now a Holiday Inn,) much less that they will harbour romantic daydreams as to its name.
Which is a shame. For whilst they are staring gloomily across the road one way, they could take a break, turn off in the opposite direction, and two minutes from the hell that is the A2 find a heaven that is one of the great hidden treasures of London. A country estate that once entertained royalty – from the Prince of Wales to the medieval Black Prince himself…
Hall Place is all that remains of what was a flourishing enclave of wealthy Tudor social climbers, who saw the area around the River Cray as being the next up and coming area for literal gentrification. But whilst Woollett Hall and Mount Mascal, Foots Cray Place and Bourne Place have all gone the way of the world, Hall Place has survived, virtually untarnished, hidden from four lanes of traffic by nothing more than a few trees.
Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Champneis, saw his opportunity for redevelopment of an old 13th century house around 1537, and, reputedly appropriating some choice masonry from a local dissolved abbey, started a Great Hall. Following the classic style of the time it was exactly what it said – one giant hall that served all purposes.
His son, preferring a little (but frankly not much) more privacy, added wings to the Hall over the next few years and the family stayed there for over a century until it was sold to a wealthy London merchant, Robert Austen. By that time the black and white chequerboard effect of stone and flint that the house was built in was no longer fashionable, and it was extended using new-fangled bricks. To this day, the house has two distinct sides – the old black and white versus the new red brick, mellowed with age to an appealing patina.
Entering from the roundabout serving the A2, the first thing that strikes a visitor is the astonishing 18th Century wrought iron gates. Curling and scrolling, blacked and gilded, they provide a tantalising glimpse into the inner garden, and a first, exhilarating sight of the trademark chequerboard walls that make up the oldest parts of the house. The place looks as though it has been ripped up from the deepest rural countryside, and set down hap-hazardly into a random space between motorway and housing estate.
Within those gates, a timeless air of peace lures the visitor to seek some calm from his tarmac torpor. Turning into the grounds, however, the weary A2 escapee might be tempted to run for cover after all. A tiny car park, serving a restaurant, nursery and sports centre bustles with turnover – cars jostling for spaces that seem to have been reserved at birth.
A little perseverance pays off. The relief on wandering into the grounds of Hall Place is nigh-on palpable. The ancient stone seems to soak up, absorb, even, the modern stress and the pace drops to a saunter. Decisions are simple – and depend largely on nothing more sinister than the weather. To explore the award-winning formal gardens first – or to step through the stone entrance into the house itself before venturing further…
The sun is shining – for now – and the 63-hectare park beckons, the gentle murmur of the river Cray and the squabbling of Canada geese drowning out the now seemingly distant A2. With every turn something new beckons – a secret garden, a rose garden, a somewhat municipal-feeling but nevertheless delightful sunken garden. A turf maze – created for no particular reason other than it seemed a good idea at the time – appears beneath the feet and – for no particular reason other than it seems like a good idea at the time, the visitor feels compelled to follow it to its grassy centre without cheating or stepping on the cracks.
Of course, all this was just part of the estate before the 20th Century, and walking the land to the rear of the property, left more as it would have been, it is easy to imagine, lurking behind scrubs and shrubs, one of the estate’s less welcome visitors. For this area – a flood plain and hence undeveloped – was the gateway to Dover and then Europe. It was a favourite haunt of highwaymen, and the most notorious of all, Dick Turpin. It is unlikely, however, that his horse Black Bess managed to leap over the iron gates as local legend tells. They are 16 feet high.
Hall Place’s owner by that time was no stranger to notoriety himself. None other than the glorious 18th Century rake and scoundrel, Sir Francis Dashwood, had bought the house, though it is unclear as to whether he ever held any meetings of his saucy Hell Fire Club there. He spent most of his time raving it up at the family seat, West Wycombe Park and before long was just renting out Hall Place, as a school.
Keeping up the scandal-aspect, the last tenant of Hall Place was the colourful Lady Limerick. Living with her female “companion,” she was a popular and gregarious local figure. She held lavish parties throughout the 1920s and 30s for the great and the good, including the Prince of Wales, the future George VI.
It was her idea to initiate the quite extraordinary topiary garden to the west of the house. She planted enormous “chess pieces,” a concept that was taken to a quite bizarre degree during the 50s when a row of somewhat tubby heraldic “Royal Beasts” was planted to celebrate the coronation. What is remarkable is that whilst in virtually any other setting this could have been tacky in the extreme, somehow these chubby bits of hedgerow seem to fit and are delightful in their absurdity. Heaven only knows what the US servicemen who inhabited the place during the war on a secret code-breaking detail must have thought of giant chess pieces in their garden.
Immediately after the war, cheery locals happily wandered round Hall Place unchecked for some time. The reason for the property being left unlocked for so long only became clear relatively recently when a rather red-faced ex-GI came back on a visit, returning the giant iron key that he liberated along with the rest of Europe.
Inside, the house is still largely open-plan, as it was throughout the centuries. The great hall is surrounded by a balcony leading to the upper rooms and somehow it has escaped the fate of so many – being split into separate rooms for an easier domestic life. Lady Limerick removed many Victorian “additions” to the place, leaving it with an older feel than others of its age. There is a wonderful oak staircase and a minstrel’s gallery.
In the older parts especially, it is easy to believe ghost stories of a wispy woman wringing her hands in grief for her husband’s demise by the White Tower (the top of which has been sealed off “to stop the ghosts,” – not a method I’ve ever heard of working) spectral serving wenches searching for lost children in the corridors or even the Black Prince himself – whose sighting foretold dire news to the witness – but in reality no tales have ever been substantiated.
More tangible are the ghosts of the WWII airmen celebrated in a small exhibition upstairs; one that requests items from local people to create a permanent museum in the future. One local resident – an eleven year old fisherman – has already lent a sword that he found in the Cray dating back to Victorian times, but the appeal runs mainly to rather more mundane items – shrapnel, uniforms and other bits and pieces…
After a few more years languishing as a girls’ school, Bexley Council took over and Hall Place is now run by a not-for-profit trust. Some concessions have had to be made – there is now an unexciting restaurant residing in the Jacobean barn – though at least it ensures that the stunning original rafters are being looked after and can be seen by the public.
The decor within the house itself is plain, and ever-so-slightly “civic;” possibly because it has found a new career as a venue for weddings, functions and conferences, though it retains its charm through simplicity.
There is an extensive nursery that feeds those enormous gardens, which is a revelation in itself to wander through. With a number of “model” gardens and display allotments, the nursery is inspirational without being evangelical.
Preparing to face reality once more, the visitor is again confronted with the prospect of the Black Prince. Could he really have wooed Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent within these grounds? Who cares? The A2 needs all the romance it can get…