Underground Greenwich (15) Macartney House

It’s so easy to pass by this secretive building without really seeing it. You might catch a flash of blue from the plaque on the wall, park side, commemorating its most famous occupant, General James Wolfe, but Macartney House usually sits quietly behind a screen of foliage unnoticed by – well – anyone, really.

It runs quietly both sides – along a secluded side of the park at the back, and a largley car-less part of the top of Crooms Hill, Chesterfield Walk, at the front. It’s part of a rural Greenwich that it’s easy to forget in the bustle of the town itself, I always think I’m walking into the countryside when I get that high up the hill.

I have an obscure reason for mentioning it today, which I’ll get to later, but firstly, what I know about the place.

It was originally two houses, built around 1675, which merged into one in 1717. Parts of the house still exist, though they’ve been altered almost beyond recognition. Of course, this is fairly academic to those of us who will never see them – it’s still privately owned.

Since then, it’s been an organic series of alterations and extensions, one of which was by Sir John Soane in 1802. I have no idea whether he brought his famous lightwells into the section he built – though it does have large round-headed windows, so I’m guessing he did his best.

The biggest changes were made in 1925, when it was turned into (pretty superior) flats.

If you see it from Chesterfield Walk, don’t do what I did and miss the ‘rare early wall letterbox’ of 1861′ that Darryl Spurgeon mentions, or the 18th Century tethering post outside what used to be the stables. If you nose in through the gate, the bit to your left is from 1855, the middle from 1717 and on your right Soane’s additions from 1802. The cottage is a 1925 adaptation of the old coachman’s cottage.

The reason I’m mentioning it today is because I wanted an excuse to write another Underground Greenwich entry and, of course, Macartney House, like so many in Crooms Hill, has its own secret passage. Our good friend John Stone, never one for flinching at a good pothole, explored it himself.

The entrance was under a slab in the scullery floor (I’m guessing it’s not a scullery any more, chiz – this was before it was turned into flats) and he climbed down via a ladder. Presumably in Edwardian times, when he did this, he’d still have had to clutch some sort of oil lamp – no funky flashlights yet. I have a wonderful image in my mind of a bewhiskered gentlemen in tweed climbing (including deerstalker, of course) clutching a notebook and lantern. He discovered that the tunnel, though short, had two branches, at one end of which was a well ‘of considerable depth’ and still contained water.

Lord, how I’d love to know what has become of all these tunnels and wells in Crooms Hill (and, of course all over Greenwich.) I still live in hope that I’ll be invited to one of the cocktail parties that I understand get held in an old cave made into a grotto many, many moons ago, which may or may not be in Diamond Terrace. I guess it must be the postal strike that’s delayed my invite…

In the meanwhile, I’ll just have to keep dreaming. Or I could (and here’s the clumsy link, folks) join one of Anthony Durham’s Underground Greenwich walks.

Several of you have been asking about these rare-to-the-point-of-legend walks, and I’m happy to say he is conducting one this Sunday, 11th October 2009. Meet at the foot tunnel entrance at 2.00pm – I’m not sure how much he’ll be charging, but I vaguely remember before it was around a fiver.

It’s not for the faint-hearted. Although I understand it is all overground, (he admits “in a lot of places we will perforce have to stand at ground level and learn about voids underneath that are either inherently inaccessible or have been sealed up by officialdom.”) he’s an energetic speaker and you’ll cover a lot of ground, including several hills, going right into Blackheath and back. I didn’t make it last year, and sadly I’m not going to make this one either, but I remember people saying it was long (he reckons about 2 hours) and quite intense, but utterly fascinating.

Let me know how it goes…

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