Island Hall (Godmanchester, Cambs): the interior designer’s house

After visiting Farm Hall we moved on to Island Hall, also in Godmanchester, a lovely picturesque Cambridgeshire village.

Both Farm Hall and Island Hall are very similar in style and construction and I imagine there is quite a bit of rivalry between the two (indeed I did hear a possible dismissive comment about the Venetian window at Farm Hall from the lips of someone giving us our tour of Island Hall).

Reason to visit: to see the rear and front facades almost mirroring each other in image.  The angle of the garden’s “Chinese” bridge based on a design from (perhaps) the 1770s is also perfect – one can admire it from the house in profile rather than just glimpsing it on the horizon – a good trick to steal should I ever get a chance to have a bridge in a garden.

The main difference from the visitor’s point of view between Farm Hall and Island Hall is that Island Hall is open up to the public on a regular basis, as part of the Invitiation to View scheme.  In the end, I think I spent longer at Island Hall than I ever have on another house visit – 4 hours+ in all, including sandwiches and stories in front of the blazing fire in the hall – something which I very much needed given that the day was one of the wettest I remember.

I was reading the HHA magazine for autumn 2012 and was glad to see an article about Island Hall because having shamefully left writing up this house for too long I had forgotten most of the detail. However, I distinctly remember the feeling of being in a 1650s house instead of a house built by an unknown architect in 1748-9 as the ceiling on the ground floor at the point of entrance is low and felt too dark for me.  The design (with a screen of doric columns painted in dark blue against pale green walls) leaves enough head room to fit in a reception room on the first floor above the main door whereas others would have left the space open with the grand stair to the rear.  The side of the stair has also been boxed in to create further living accommodation, making the screen and stair much more compact that I would have liked ideally and threw my eye off as it is always seeking balance and symmetry, especially in a house such as this whose doll’s house exterior offers so much.

You can download the HHA magazine article here: 2012 Aug – Focus on Island Hall.

What is a success is the later addition in 1768 of a large kitchen in a block to the left of the main house.

Downstairs there is a small “Victorian” snug-come-library by the side door, the main entrance hall and two rooms – the dining room and a sitting room.  Upstairs, one visits two bedrooms (one showing a beautiful wedding dress worn by the family’s daughter and another with a bed lacking a headboard, which confused me), and the owner’s “VERY red sitting room”.  The rest of the house is kept private.

This house is definitely the playground of an interior designer.  The rooms are definitely decorated, perhaps “over-decorated” some would say, with the very red reception room upstairs and the paint effects in other rooms.

The house is owned by the Vane Percys (distantly related to the Percys of Syon Park, hence the straight-tailed lion on the fireplace but of real descent from a Swiss family of Baumgartner who changed their name when WW2 broke out) and the present owners have had the house since 1983.

Previous ancestors owned the house until 1957.  It was taken over for the war effort by the WAAF and also for use as an officers’ mess; post-War the council assumed ownership, massacring the house by splitting it into bedsits and rendering the property nearly ruined.  Fortunately, in 1979 a property developer – Simon Herrtage – bought the property and made it safe and watertight while restoring the original design to a large extent, before the current Percys purchased the property.  Against that background the effort of the current owners in redecorating the property and making it a home deserves real praise.

However, for me the house comes into its own once one goes outside.  The garden is a good “manageable” size.  Christopher Percy admitted to us that he is no gardener and he has simple topiary and lawn out front.  However, that bridge I mentioned (replaced by the Percy Vanes when they managed to buy back most of the garden over the other side of the River Ouse and just about now in need of replacing again) leads to a wonderful Peter Pan/Christopher Robin hideaway of a wooded island complete with hut for picnics.  Christopher of Island Hall has recently replanted elms on the island to replace those that had died, and of course this island gives the house its name?

I would have liked to have been a 7-year-old living here.

When visited: April 2012

House * out of 5: **

Garden * out of 5: ***


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