The Pagoda

Pagoda Gardens, SE3

I was saving this entry until June (I’ll explain why later), but Benedict sent me such a fantastic picture with his question that I’ve escalated it to now.

He asks:

On a rare morning of no responsibilities my partner and I went for an unstructured ramble around the not so familiar environs and – blow me down – gor blimey – I have never seen this before , but it’s obviously been in Blackheath since 1800s. A Georgian Pagoda!!! What on earth is/was it?

The Phantom replies:

Astoundingly, just put the definite article in front of it and that’s exactly what it is – THE Pagoda, Benedict. And no – it’s not been there since the 1800s – it’s been there since the 1700s – 1767, in fact. It was built for the Duke of Montague at a time when everything Oriental was fashionable. It was called chinoiserie – though that term was used for everything that came from the East, not just China.

In fact, if we’re being honest, they didn’t really much care about authenticity at all – it was the flavour 18th Century stylists were after, not the precise style. All they knew was that all the things they liked – from fabulous silks and exquisite vases to the tea being loaded from massive ships at East India Dock – came from this exotic all-purpose ‘Orient.’ Many country houses have a ‘Chinese’ room, decorated with dainty wallpaper, screens, bamboo furniture and porcelain.

And they built their summer houses – for this was what The Pagoda originally was – a grandiose garden shed for Montague House which, if memory serves, was at the South West corner of Greenwich Park, next door-ish to Rangers House – in what they assumed was oriental style, too. They used all the bits of Western building they liked, and just added funky bits and bobs, like curly roofs and moon windows that would make it look Chinese/Japanese/Whatever.

You can still see them from time to time – Heal in Wiltshire, for example, has a fabulous oriental garden with a delightful ‘tea house’ – more English than Chinese but when it’s as pretty as that, who cares?

I have heard that the Blackheath Pagoda was used by saucy Princess Caroline of Brunswick though whether this was before or after the Prince Regent turfed her out of Montague House I don’t know. It was certainly used as a hunting lodge though, by one Henry Scott, third Duke of Buccleuch.

The poor old place eventually fell into disrepair – the Victorians weren’t that bothered by the oriental style, presumably too busy dealing opium to import flowers and vases. It got passed from pillar to post, even being used as a convent school at one point, I vaguely remember; its final indignity being London County Council building a housing estate right up to its gates over its once-massive grounds in the 1950s.
I don’t know when the formal Oriental garden was built – presumably around the same-ish time as the house – any info on that would be gratefully received, though, as to me it looks quite turn-of-the-20th Century. But whatever the original gardens looked like, they didn’t last long. It turned into a market garden at one point, covered with greenhouses, and finally became totally overgrown.

And this is where the June bit comes in. The present owners, the Coopers, discovered the dilapidated mansion in 1991 (what does that sort of thing never happen to me?) and renovated it to its current state. Luckily, they were also into gardening and started hacking back the dense undergrowth, where they found the old retaining walls of a formal water garden and they set about restoring it. It’s now a fine, mature secret corner in classic British-Oriental style.

Best of all, we can actually get to see it – once a year in June, when they open it as part of the National Gardens Scheme. It’s a lovely evening event, where you can wander round with a glass of wine in your hand, soaking-in the bright red pergolas, stone water channels, and exotic plants – wisteria, palms and lotus-flowers.

I try to get there every year – as much to admire the building as anything, (don’t miss the wonderful, huge round windows…) and I will let you know the precise date when I’ve got my sweaty paws on this year’s Yellow Book. Devote the entire evening to the event – there are two other gardens, each exquisite in its own way, within walking distance of the Pagoda, that most considerately coincide their openings.
I’m usually a bit wobbly by the time I’ve visited all three. Aw – c’mon – it’s drinking-for-charity. It would be rude not to…

2 Comments to “The Pagoda”

  1. paul says:

    The Pagoda

    most interesting comments
    i feel do proud ro have actucly lived in this wonderful house although at the time just seemed to be another big house didnt really take a lot of notice of it
    but we had plenty of fun there it was in the 1970s it was a working mans hostile then run by southwark concil i landed up there along with my brother becuse there was no room at any childrens home for us

    anyway theres a littke bit more history…lol


  2. Martin Johnson says:

    Hi, My name is martin. Recently my gradmother died and going thtough her house i have found many photos of Pagoda. I remeber her telling me that the house was once in our family, many many years ago. she allways had a photo on her front room, i belive it belonged to her Aunt, she rembers going into the gardens as a child with the dogs (her aunt used to bread them). I a, very intreasted in the house and who ohwned it when it was bult and untill now, i was wondering if there is a time line of the people who brought the property?