In 1989 a Hong Kong based businessman bought a building in Richmond to turn into his home. Not unusual. The building was built during the reign of King George III. Not that unusual. It was occupied by offices. Not unusual either.
It has a telescope observatory on the roof. That’s a bit unusual.
It sits in the middle of a golf course, and to get to the building means dodging flying golf balls. OK, that’s very unusual.
The new owner couldn’t even move in until a couple of years ago.
This is the King’s Observatory, built by King George III (well, he paid other people to do the work), with one single purpose — to be used for a few hours one evening to look at the Sun.
No ordinary evening, for this was one of those exceptionally rare moments when the planet Venus would pass in front of the Sun, and in doing so sparked an arms race in the scientific community. This was due to the transit being of considerable use in calculating longitude on this planet.
The King decided he wanted to watch as well, and ordered the construction of his own observatory in cloudy England. Fortunately considering the effort that went into building it, the skies were clear on the day of the transit and the King got to see the event.
The UK also sent Captain James Cook to Tahiti to observe the transit from there, and on the way back, nab New Zealand and Australian for the Crown.
The King’s Observatory was it seems used as an outhouse and school for the royal children, but about 80 years later it was handed over to scientific institutions who occupied it right up to 1980.
In 1981 the facility was returned to the Crown Estate Commissioners who refurbished the building into offices, and leased them to, of all people… Autoglass.
However, back to 1989 and a Scottish born, Hong Kong based businessman with a passion for heritage, Robbie Brothers took over the lease, but had to wait until 2011 when Autoglass moved out before he could move in.
Even then it wasn’t until 2014 that planning permission was granted to turn the old offices into a home — which apart from internal changes also saw a lot of rather shabby 1930s buildings around the main house demolished and the area around the house landscaped.
Several years of work in part restoring the building to something like its original design, while also putting in modern facilities for a building that was never designed to be lived in. It’s therefore not a slavishly accurate restoration, but the latest stage in the long life of the building.
Although not required to be open to the public, the owner is experimenting with allowing the public inside have a look to see what he has done with the place — with tours running Mon-Fri during March.
Going past signs warning visitors of flying golf balls, your first hint that this might be a bit different as a tour is the requirement to wear plastic booties over your shoes to keep the carpet clean.
That can sound a bit precious, but it was raining, and the carpets were very plush, so the booties were merited.
The basement and first floors are largely given over to the bedrooms and kitchen, so it’s the ground floor that delivers the wow-factor where you can see where the money has gone on the restoration.
Two rooms are octagonal and lined with their original — plywood! — cabinets, which when the 17 layers of paint were stripped back found to have been painted a deep royal blue. Preferring a softer colour, the grey-green works much better, and one of rooms is given over to showing off the owner’s collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics.
The octagon room was also — possibly — the site of a murder.
In 1795 John Little, who was at one time a curator at the Observatory, and had often been George III’s only attendant in the gardens was hanged for the murder of two old people in Richmond.
He was also suspected of having caused the death of a man named Stroud, whose body was found under an iron vice in the Octagon room.
Away from that scene, the library next door is no less impressive, and a lounge is lined with two gigantic (replica) paintings and offers views across the estate. It’s the dining room though that’s quite staggering, with an enlarged print from an actual work of art of early trading port in China — recreated into wallpaper for this room alone.
What was notable when peering in closer was how much effort had gone into the restoration work, and how much must be going on into keeping it clean. A fluted joint for a door frame fitted snugly into the marble floor, and not a hint of dirt in the little corners it created. That’s quite the exacting cleaning regime going on.
What lifts this from just a very posh house though is what’s upstairs.
Quite how Georgian ladies got up the narrow staircases in their wide dresses is a mystery — maybe they dressed down for the event. Anyhow, high up here is the observatory itself.
Today no one would put an observatory on top of a house as the heat from below will distort the air and make observations difficult, but the design was popular at the time.
It’s a small space up here, with the roof rotating on an iron ring with the expected slot for the telescope to peer out. It’s a replica telescope as the original is — quite rightly — in a museum.
Just think, this rather cramped industrial space would have had the King, the Queen, the Astronomer Royal up here, and doubtless a few other folk on the landing below waiting for Venus to pass in front of the Sun. The atmosphere as they waited to see this rarest of astronomical phenomena in a proper scientific setting must have been extraordinary.
Us lesser folk then had an opportunity to brave the wind and rain and go onto the roof to see the views, and to swap now wet booties for dry ones on the way back inside.
It took several decades, and Robbie Brothers has spent a small fortune restoring the house, which as it’s just a leasehold, means on the 5th July 2117 it will pass back to the Crown Estate, just in time for the next transit of Venus to take place.
The overall effect of the restoration is of an exceptionally wealthy family home that’s being very finely looked after, but thanks to the lease agreement, it’s also a long term gift to the nation.
The tour lasted about an hour, with complete freedom to take photos.
If the tours prove a success, then there may be more in the future. But at the moment, March 2019 could be your first and last chance to go inside for a look. Book a tour here.
If you prefer a longer visit, then the King’s Observatory can also be rented out as a home — for the not quite Airbnb rate of £37,500 per month.
Some more photos: