York is one of those places that is stinking of history:
- the Romans used the town as a stronghold;
- the Vikings were based here and called it Jorvik (you can visit the Jorvik Viking Centre to both see and smell what Viking York was like);
- Edward III was married here;
- Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries had a hard-hitting impact on St Mary’s Abbey and the Catholic shrines in York Minster, the latter of which has been in a continuous state of repair since work first began on it in the 1300s (there is an on-site stone mason’s yard and visitors can watch the carving);
- the town’s walls remain for visitors to walk; and
- the Georgians constructed some lovely houses here (the architect John Carr left his mark in the form of Sutton Park and Fairfax House, for example).
It is one of those few places in England north of Sheffield that I might be able to live, providing it was in a neoclassical house within walking distance of the City Centre. I’m not just being a snobby Southerner – I grew up in Yorkshire but much prefer to live in the South/a city where I can cycle.
You can learn about all of this history at The Yorkshire Museum, which is free to visit with an Art Fund card. There are bits of stone, a couple of spectacular bits of jewellery discovered by metal detectors, some Roman mosaics and some stuffed animals (in an ‘Extinction’ exhibition). However, I did have to ask a member of staff to make sure I’d seem everything because I was expecting a lot more than was on offer. I think I’m spoiled by living in London.
I made my way passed Betty’s (a posh cake and tea shop with six outlets across Yorkshire), amused by the queue of tourists standing outside in the pouring rain (Betty’s is always packed). In fact, later in the day we went to RHS Harlow Carr, where there is another Betty’s, and we ourselves became patrons.
I visited Fairfax House. They don’t allow photography inside and so I only have the picture of the façade above. However, they have photo galleries on their blog. When I queried why photography isn’t allowed I was told the rule is for security reasons. Why put photos on their own blog then? I was a bit confused (even if they have had something stolen from the house by a visitor before: if that is the concern the solution is guided tours only)…
That said, I really like the way in which the independent trust that owns Fairfax House has brought it back from the brink: it was used as a cinema, the Venetian window on the stairs was boarded up, the fine Giuseppe Cortese plasterwork was painted red and black, fire places were removed and the saloon was used for dancing. In the hall at the house (comprising a morning room, dining room, 2 bedrooms, sitting room, drawing room and kitchen) there is a book showing the before and after.
Subdued Georgian colours of blue and putty meet Chinoiserie wallpaper in the bedroom (based on a scrap found from original decoration).
A local pleaded with the cinema to save the original features. They responded by boxing everything in. Thus, boxed-in features have been revealed, a flagged floor has been returned to the hall, a fine stair carpet commissioned and reproduction parts added to the remaining fireplaces where there was damage. One of the fireplaces has a scene of a wolf and a crane from Aesop’s fable.
The carving on the door cases at the top of the stairs is wonderful. I’m just sad I don’t have a photograph.
At Christmas (when I’ve also visited), the dining room is laid out with fake Georgian festive food. We were confused by why the Georgian wine glasses were being used as egg cups though. The volunteer in the house couldn’t really explain why. D was adamant the Georigans would have used silver or wood egg cups. I couldn’t remember seeing a pot/china Georgian egg cup. Anyone?
The original features are very good, the stair particularly delightful.
The furniture is very good, having come from Noel Terry of Goddards House. Goddards became the NT HQ (it has recently been reopened to visitors and is an arts and crafts property) and Noel Terry left his furniture to the York Civic Trust. Without the furniture the house wouldn’t be what it is.
The moment in history captured is 1762 onwards. Anne Fairfax was one of many children but all her siblings and her mother predeceased her. Her father bought the house and asked John Carr to redesign the interior so that it could be used for entertaining and, hopefully, to assist in the pursuit of finding Anne a husband. Anne never married but she and her father are recorded as having drunk an average of three bottles of sherry a day!
Sadly, being in the centre of York the garden (which ran down to the river) has been lost (the view is of a multi-storey car park and the back of Fenwicks, circa 1978 rather than 1798. All is left is a small flagged area outside.
If I could, I’d pop into this house every time I was in York.
When visited: March 2013
House * out of 5: ***
Theme tune: I made it through the rain