Hidden London : Foots Cray Meadow, A Former Palladian Mansion Estate, Wild Flower Meadows, Kingfishers and Otters all in the City.


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Foots Cray Meadows is an area of parkland and woodland (97 hectares or nearly 250 acres in all) in the London Borough of Bexley, England. It borders the suburbs of Albany Park, Sidcup, Foots Cray, and North Cray. The River Cray runs through it in a north-easterly direction. The London Loop, a public recreational walking path around London, also known as the “M25 for walkers”, runs through the meadows parallel to the river from Sidcup Place, just south of the meadows.

A notable feature of the area is the Five Arches bridge, which crosses the River Cray, as does the smaller Penny Farthing Bridge.

The Meadows are a Local Nature Reserve and a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. They have also have received a Green Flag Award. There is access from Rectory Lane, among other places.

Adjacent to the meadows is an area known locally as the “wasteland” and the ruins of a destroyed boules alley.

History

The area was originally a part of the Footscray Place estate, and during the 18th century the Five Arches bridge was built. At the same time, an almshouse was built adjacent to the woods, which, as of 2008, was being excavated by archaeologists belonging to Bexley Archaeological Group.

After the house’s destruction, in the late 1940s, the area was turned into a public recreation park. In the early 2000s, Five Arches bridge was renovated with new stone.

Foots Cray Place was one of the four country houses built in England in the 18th century to a design inspired by Palladio’s Villa Capra near Vicenza. Built in 1754 near Sidcup, Kent, Foots Cray Place was demolished in 1950 after a fire in 1949. Of the three other houses in England, Nuthall Temple in Nottinghamshire was built 1757 and demolished in 1929; the other two survive: Mereworth Castle (completed 1725, also in Kent) and Chiswick House (completed 1729, in London), both now Grade 1 listed buildings. A modern fifth example, Henbury Hall, was built near Macclesfield in the 1980s. Another example of a similar structure in England is the Temple of the Four Winds at Castle Howard, which is a garden building not a house.

Earlier houses

The Kentish manor of Foots Cray is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Later, it was acquired by the Walsingham family and held for six generations until it was sold around 1676. An Elizabethan E-shaped house – also known as Pike Place – was still on the site in the 1680s. The estate passed through several hands before it was purchased by Bourchier Cleeve in 1752 for £5,450. Cleeve had the old house pulled down and a new one constructed slightly further north in about 1754.

Palladian mansion

The design of the new Palladian mansion has been attributed to the architect Isaac Ware in Vitruvius Britannicus iv (1777, pls. 8-10), but it has also been suggested that Matthew Brettingham the Younger or Daniel Garrett could have been the designer.

Following the model of the Villa Capra, it had a large square central block surmounted by a wide dome, with a portico on each face, all constructed in stone. Three of the porticos at Foots Cray Place were filled in to create additional internal space. The central hall was octagonal, with a gallery leading to the upper rooms, lit from above. The service buildings were built in brick a short dictance from the main house. Cleeve accumulated a large collection of paintings, including examples by Rembrandt, Reubens, Van Dyke, Canaletto and Holbein, which he displayed at Foots Cray Place.

The estate was inherited by Cleeve’s daughter on his death in 1760; she married Sir George Yonge in 1767, and the house was sold to Benjamin Harenc in 1772 for £14,500. He had it remodelled in 1792 by the minor London architect Henry Hakewill. Harenc’s son sold the house in 1821 to Nicholas Vansittart, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and soon to become ennobled as Baron Bexley. Hakewill further remodelled the house in 1823, and more works were carried out for Lord Bexley by another London architect of equally modest reputation, John William Hiort, who also built Bexley’s London house in Great George Street, Westminster. The Vansittart family retained the house and estate until it was sold to Samuel Waring (later Baron Waring) in the late 19th century.

In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, the house was requisitioned in for use by the Royal Navy as Thames Nautical Training College, the stone frigate HMS Worcester. Lord Waring died in 1940, and after the College vacated the property, dilapidated after its wartime use, in 1946, Waring’s widow sold the house and grounds to Kent County Council for use as a museum. A fire in October 1949 caused extensive damage, and the house was demolished in 1950.

Foots Cray Meadows

The stable block remains standing, but the grounds, known as Foots Cray Meadows, provide a valuable public green space in this south-eastern suburb of London. This 89 hectare park was formed in the early 19th century from two mid-18th-century landscaped parks and is listed by English Heritage as a Grade II historic park, and it is a Local Nature Reserve. The London Outer Orbital Path passes through Foots Cray Meadows on its way from Old Bexley to Sidcup Place and Petts Wood.

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