Tag Archives: Garden

London Slant: Inside the house of Britain’s richest man

Imagine the house of a man who in the 1940s was the wealthiest self-made man in the UK.  An industrialist who during his lifetime gave around £1 billion to charity in today’s terms.

Walls covered in Rembrandts and Monets? Vistas of formal gardens and lakes? At the very least a gold tap or two?

Nuffield Place, National Trust

Nuffield Place, designed by a pupil of Lutyens, built in 1914 and acquired by William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, in 1933.

Probably the last thing you’d conjure up would be “school-of-Hyde-Park-railings” art and carpets covered with stains from his wife’s wayward Scottie dogs. But prepare to be surprised when you enter Nuffield Place, home of the late Lord Nuffield, near Henley in Oxfordshire.

When I walked into the garden of this recently opened National Trust house it was  like arriving at a vicarage fete. Bunting was strung across the 1930s-style Coronation Cafe and families clustered on the lawn tucking into sponge cake with cups of tea.

Nuffield Place National Trust

Visitors to Nuffield Place had parked their vintage cars outside the house.

Some fabulous vintage cars were parked outside, their owners milling around in flat caps and tweed. The scene was set for stepping inside the world of William Morris (1877-1963), a man who left school at 15, began a bicycle repair business with £4 capital, then moved into cars in a massive way.

By the mid 1920s Morris Motors Cars was earning its founder a fortune. But instead of spending it on a fancy home he gave away the money to medicine and education. His Nuffield Foundation, College and hospitals are still active today.

As I explored the house I was struck by visitors’ exclamations: “That’s just like my grandmother’s dressing table” and “I had one of those when I was a child.” It’s a perfect time-capsule of mid-20th-century life and of someone whose driving force was business and benevolence, not showing off to guests.  It’s a place to delight in the quirky innovations and gadgets that Lord Nuffield loved, such as his automatic match striker in the drawing room.

Visitors are free to ramble through the pine-panelled billiard room and the sitting room with its wireless and 1950s-style cabinet TV.  Upstairs is a dressing room with the one display that shows this is no ordinary middle-class home: its owners’ velvet and ermine coronation robes. There’s a sunroom full of equipment that Lord Nuffield liked to tinker with, including fire extinguishers and an ultraviolet lamp.

But for me the house’s highlight was Lord Nuffield’s bedroom and more specifically the huge tool cupboard by the end of his bed.  Every man has to have his shed and how luxurious to have it at your feet: shelves packed with clocks, wires, screwdrivers and even equipment for mending his own shoes, with stick-on soles.  In among them nestle curios such as his appendix in a jar.

Nuffield place National Turst

The multimillionaire’s bedroom, with furry hot water bottle, curiously wired reading lamp and bedside sword.

Nuffield Place National Trust

Inside the bedroom tool cupboard, just as he left it: Lord Nuffield’s pickled appendix and equipment to mend his own shoes.

So who was this dynamic entrepreneur who preferred to hunker down in padded sofas rather than to schmooze and entertain? Let’s leave the last word to a plaque presented to William Morris by his golfing buddies, dedicated to “A sportsman and good egg”.

* Even if you don’t have a vintage Morris car you can motor to Nuffield Place from London for a great afternoon out.

National Trust photographs, from top, courtesy of James Dobson, (vintage car by London Slant), John Hammond and Cristian Barnett.

London Slant: Walk with Vincent van Gogh through Brixton

“I walk here as much as I can…it’s absolutely beautiful here (even though it’s in the city).”  This is how Vincent van Gogh described his neighbourhood when he lived in London as a 20-year-old man. The Dutchman arrived here in 1873 and spent several months working as an art dealer, well before he headed to Paris and Provence. Some of his first stirrings as an artist date back to his London years, when he discovered illustrations in newspapers that would later inspire some of his masterpieces in paint.

Van Gogh Walk

Lavender, irises and olive trees on the street that’s become the Van Gogh Walk.

Now his compliment to the area in Brixton where he lodged has been repaid. A short street opposite his home has been turned into Van Gogh Walk, a garden oasis with planting inspired by his paintings. There are irises and lavender, and trees arranged to mirror his famous cypresses. Art installations and sculptured seats reinforce the theme. I don’t doubt that some sunflowers are sprouting as I write.

Van Gogh in London

Trees inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings of cypresses.

All are interspersed with excellent panels describing Van Gogh’s months in London and apt quotations from his letters home beautifully carved in stone. As he wrote: “There are lilacs and laburnums blossoming in all the gardens, and the chestnut trees are magnificent.” Although Van Gogh had not yet embarked on his quest to become an artist, he clearly appreciated nature in what was then the largest city on earth.

Van Gogh in London

The house where Van Gogh lodged in London, with its blue plaque.

The nearby house where Van Gogh lived, 87 Hackford Road, has a shiny blue plaque, but could do with a good lick of paint and more substantial restoration work. It was recently sold to a Chinese buyer who indicated his intention to turn it into a centre for art. I trust it will be spruced up soon.

Van Gogh was sacked from his London job, and went on to work as a lay preacher in Isleworth and as a teacher in Ramsgate, before returning to Holland where he began to study art. But his stay in London came at an impressionable age, and it was at Hackford Road that he fell for his landlady’s daughter, although the sentiment was not returned.

Since I visited the new Van Gogh Walk I’ve been delighted to see that it has been highly commended in the Living Streets awards. And it’s not just the street that merits an accolade. I was also taken by the clever bicycle hangers, for safe storage in an area where it’s often difficult to bring bikes inside.

Van Gogh in London

“Bicycle hangars”: what a great idea.

Hopefully Van Gogh Walk won’t just be a pretty spot to linger but may also inspire local people on art adventures of their own. After sitting beneath twisted olives branches you can follow the route Van Gogh walked every day to his Covent Garden workplace, but stop off at the National and Courtauld galleries instead and see how he interpreted these trees in paint.


It started, innocently enough, around four years ago. Returning home one Thursday night, there he was. Tripping along the pavement with his nose in the air.

This was the most urbane and elegant of foxes, entirely at home in his central London domain. He’d left his top hat and silver cane with the doorman and was about to have dinner. It was all set out and waiting for him in the black bin liner for the dustman by my front door.

Over time, he became less of a bachelor gadabout and settled down with a mate. I’d spot the pair of them curled up in the sun on the conservatory roof opposite. Aaaah, I thought. They look like a cosy couple on the beach. Then, late one evening, I heard terrifying wails from over the garden fence.

Sure enough, a few weeks later three little cubs came scampering over a wall. A lighter colour than their parents, they looked like delicate ghosts flitting among my ferns.


Mmm…I wonder where I can dig another hole?

Then, one morning I awoke to find a huge pile of earth at the end of my tiny garden. Someone had dug two huge holes and uprooted plants. Next to this, like a calling card, was some unfortunate creature’s desiccated skull. My suspicions as to the perpetrator seemed to be confirmed when a cheeky face with pointy ears peered down over the fence and looked as me as if to say “What are you doing on my patch?”

So now they’re no longer loveable neighbours. In fact they’re full-on pests. Google told me they hate the scent of urine, so I peed in a bucket, poured it on newspapers and shoved them down the hole.  Cayenne pepper was mooted as a deterrent, but didn’t work (perhaps because the use-by date was June 2002?). I then bought a product called Scoot that had no effect and was all set to get lion dung from London Zoo until a friend said it, too, definitely doesn’t work. As far as I can see, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to see them off.

Does anyone out there have any other ideas? Help, before we’re overrun!


Why would anyone open their private garden gate and let strangers come tramping in? What possesses owners of fabulous green hideaways to offer all-comers the chance to tread on their specimen plants? And, how come when the hordes arrive, they are greeted with tea and home-baked cakes?

London Slant Spitalfields gardens

Delightful companions: a bluebell and hosta embrace in a London garden.

The answer, as Mrs Whittington of London’s Southwood Lodge will tell you, is to raise funds for charity. As the owner of a fabulous terraced plot on Highgate Hill above the city, she has earned more than £40,000 for good causes over the past 25 years. Her method? Inviting admirers of her oasis to share it for two afternoons every year. Mrs Whittington’s garden is one of the most popular of that quintessentially British institution, the National Gardens Scheme. May and June are high points of its calendar, when, for a modest donation, glorious gardens all over the UK welcome visitors in. So from spring bulbs through to autumn leaves I keep an eye on what’s open where. Yellow posters lead me to amazing gardens that usually have an interesting owner in tow.

London Slant Spitalfields gardens

A seat shaded by ceanothus faces landscaped pools and cascading water.

Last weekend it was the turn of four gardens in Spitalfields attached to 17th-century silk weavers’ homes. The route between them started at Fournier Street, close to the home of besuited artists Gilbert and George, who are regularly seen striding about. Then came Brick Lane where the Bangladeshi community have put down roots. One minute I was inhaling the subtle scents of magnolia flowers, the next it was chicken vindaloo.

London Slant Spitalfields garden

A green oasis behind a Spitalfields house.

Each of the gardens had its own personality. One radiated echoes of the Alhambra, with a fountain at its centre and formal hedging. Another had been landscaped with deep pools and a waterfall splashing on stones in front of a basement room. A rustic arbour faced a state-of-the-art kitchen. How things have changed since it was a backyard where Huguenots took a break from their looms.

London Slant Spitalfields gardens

The Gherkin peers at the peonies.

Most impressive of all was the formal garden filled with blowsy peonies defiantly fluttering among clipped hedges and billiard-table grass. Despite being right at the heart of London it was so peaceful you imagined yourself at a country village rectory. But lest you forgot you were in the most dynamic city on earth, you only had to look up. There to remind you was The Gherkin, peeking over the ancient garden wall.

Southwood Lodge is open again on Sunday 2 June. Don’t miss it.