North & East London: Bruce Castle and Water House (The William Morris Gallery)

My Art Fund card opens my eyes to many council-run historic houses that I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, offering a single site from which I can look-up places I’d like to visit.  I often find councils’ own websites a little difficult to navigate when it comes to finding their historic houses.

One of the benefits of council-run museums-come-historic houses is that entry is usually free.  You just have to look beyond the copious amounts of white gloss paint and linoleum.

On a trip to Crewes Hill I had once seen an historic house on the side of a mini roundabout. I intended to find out its name but never did.

After my 20 minute train journey from London Liverpool Railway Station to “Bruce Grove” station and a 5 minute cycle ride up Bruce Grove itself (past quite a few nice, large, once-grand Georgian houses (now flats) and rows of Victorian side streets), I arrived at the same place.

This is Bruce Castle.

I went because one of Henry VIII’s courtiers lived here, Henry having granted him the land.  He might have built the turret in the garden, which might have been a mews for hawks – the wild birds that were caught for use in hunting would have been housed here.  That guesswork is based on a painting that has been discovered of a similar building in Edward Tudor’s court.  The house is mainly Georgian in appearance, the 16th century house having been pulled down.  Inside are the local council’s community museum pieces, ranging from a stuffed turtle to an exhibition on local inventors to a display a about how the Queen’s coronation was watched in the local community.

I headed back down Bruce Grove, cycled through some ringroads, past B&Q and over a reservoir to the previously unvisited wilds of Walthamstow.  At one point there was a fabulously flamboyant Turkishesque mosque amidst the shops but I didn’t fancy stopping to get my camera out (note to self: you need to get a small, cheap, light point and push camera for when you go off cycling and only want to take a couple of snaps).

Eventually (but it was only about 20 minutes; just felt like a long time) I arrived at my destination: The William Morris Gallery.

During 2012, when the William Morris Gallery had been closed for a multi-million-pound revamp thanks to Lottery Funding, I had visited 2 Temple Place on The Embankment in Central London, primarily to look at the architecture but also to look at the William Morris exhibits that had been moved there temporarily.

The house in which the William Morris Gallery is based, called Water House, dates from the 1740s and has a chestnut staircase at the back of the hall.  The house is now a museum but there are some fireplaces.  The restoration is sympathetic and to their credit the museum hasn’t completely ignored the house: in each room there is a small plaque dedicated to the architecture of the room.

William Morris lived in the house from 1848-1856.

I didn’t take any pictures inside, not because I don’t rate Morris (I do, particularly because he valued hand-made crafts, clean lines and because he helped establish the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (he also disliked cluttered Victorian interiors)), but because I think arts and crafts work of his period deserves being seen.  It doesn’t photograph amazingly well.

I enjoyed looking at tiles, wallpapers, cloth, art and furniture (both by Morris and his contemporaries).  There is a café and a small shop in the foyer.  I really liked playing a game where one has to decide how to build the brand of William Morris, starting off with £200, over 4 years.  The people before me ended up with £1,300.  I couldn’t make more than £900…

I enjoyed watching the video about Morris, the SPAB and his socialism.  Because I have a habit of people-spotting my spare time I noticed there were a lot of 20-something girls here with flowery skirts, mist in their eyes and a general sense of Victoriana about them (there were also a couple of groups of 50 something women with Morris print tops on!).

There is another local council museum nearby, Vestry House, but I didn’t make it there.

When visited: April 2013

Websites: Bruce Castle & William Morris Gallery

Theme tune: E17’s House of Love

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