The heart of Hackney boasts a rather large front garden in the form of Clissold Park, which was formed as the front garden for the imposing Clissold House.
Built in the 1790s for the Quaker merchant and anti-slavery campaigner, Jonathan Hoare, like many great houses of that time, it nearly bankrupted its builder and he was forced to sell it to Thomas Gudgeon in 1799. He ended up living in the road next to it and spent the next twenty years staring at his former home. Which is a bit sad.
It changed hands again in 1811 when William Crawshay bought the estate. When William died in 1834, his daughter Eliza inherited the estate, and she married the Reverend Clissold, after whom the estate is now named.
Upon their deaths, the lands passed back to the Crawshay family, and they eventually sold it in 1886 to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for £65,000.
Two local activists started a campaign to have the park opened to the public, and in 1887 the Metropolitan Board of Works paid £96,000 to buy it as public property. The garden was opened to the general public in 1889.
Sitting in the centre of the park, Clissold House is a Grade II* listed building and has just reopened following 2-years of restoration, and there have been some tours over the past couple of months for people to see how £4.46 million of Lottery money has been spent.
It is thought that the house was designed from the outside to appear as a feature in the landscape, which was very fashionable at the time.
The house is unusual in its design, with two storeys on the west side but three storeys on the east. The ground on the west was built up into a carriageway so that the house looks like it is perched on top of a small knoll.
The name of the architect is however a mystery.
What looks to be the very impressive front entrance is in fact the back entrance – albeit the one that would be used by grand guests visiting the house. Everyone else used the official front entrance, which is now around the back of the building and looks rather inconspicuous.
The fact that people generally used the smaller entrance instead of the grand one explains what seemed odd to me when waiting for a tour to start – that the main staircase runs from the “basement” to the upper floors. Normally, staff do not use the main staircase!
What is officially the ground floor would have originally contained the kitchen and facilities for the house and today does indeed still contain the kitchen for the cafe that occupies most of the building today. There are no cellars in this house, so in order to create earthen cooled stores, brick arched rooms sit under the grassy mound that creates the grand entrance at the back of the house.
This was partly to create the grand entrance for guests, but probably mainly because the soil was too water logged to dig that far down. During the recent restoration they found that one of the brick rooms also housed a water well – sadly concreted over now.
There were no servants quarters in this house. While grand enough, it is a bit too small for that, so they are thought to have had separate housing in what is today the children’s playground.
Most of the 1st floor (or ground floor from the back) is given over to the cafe, which today being half-term was rammed full of mums and prams. A side room seemed to act as a pram storage, but would have originally been the main entrance hall for guests.
It’s a sign of the importance of social climbing that an entire room was set aside for nothing more than welcoming guests. Next to this is one of the main rooms of the house, and not used by the cafe it is decorated in a “custard yellow” which is of dubious heritage. However the room is north facing, so the yellow helps brighten it on dull days.
Upstairs again to the top floor which would have been bedrooms originally, but is now the House’s income stream to add to the cafe – in the form of rooms to hire out.
One of them, set up for an office meeting has been oddly covered in municipal carpet, but the rest of the house had restored the original floorboards, and they looked stunning in their freshly polished state.
It’s also from up here, in the private bedrooms that the best view of the park can be admired, with the New River curving around the back of the house.
Although there are stairs up to the roof, we weren’t allowed up there. Sad face.
The tours have run for the past couple of months as part of the opening ceremony for the restoration of the House. There are currently no formal plans to run more, but the Clissold Park User Group is using the current batch of tours to gauge opinions and may run more.
Best thing is to contact the events team and ask to be put on any waiting list they might have.
As mentioned, the rooms on the upper floor can be hired out to organisations wanting to use them for meetings – or at a significant discount, to local community groups (politics and religion excepted).