Lauderdale House and Gardens, Waterlow Park, London

Located right next to Highgate Cemetery, Waterlow Park is your typical north London public park, where grassy slopes alternate with trees and shrubberies and hidden ponds. It was donated to the City Council in 1889 by politician and philanthropist Sir Sidney Waterlow who intended it as “a garden for the gardenless”. Waterlow had created the park by merging the grounds of several estates he had acquired in the area. Perhaps the most prominent of these estates was Lauderdale House, which still stands in an elevated position in the northeast section of the park. It is surrounded by an ornate terraced garden markedly distinct from the rest of the park.

In its present state, Lauderdale House sports a fine neoclassical façade, dating to c. 1760. At its core, however, the house is much older: It was first built as a timber-framed structure in (or slightly before) 1582 for Richard Martin, Lord Mayor of London. By the mid-seventeenth century, it had passed into the possession of John Maitland (1616–1682), 1st Duke of Lauderdale, councillor and favourite of Charles II. A source from that time already describes the house as “having an English garden with terraces, orange trees and a fountain”.

It seems that the gardens’ architectural structure has remained largely unchanged since then: To this day, the terraces are retained by brick walls dating from the seventeenth century. The buttressed southwest wall, which now separates the garden from the surrounding park, is particularly impressive.

Two sets of stone steps lead from the park onto the lower terrace; another flight of steps connects the latter to the upper terrace and the house itself. The steps are somewhat younger than the walls, some of them said to be of eighteenth-century origin, others presumably rebuilt in the Victorian period.

While its architectural ‘framework’ is thus of a rather venerable age, the garden itself was much altered in later times. It underwent its most decisive remodelling in the years after 1850, when Lauderdale House was leased to the clergyman and scholar James Yates (1789–1871). Under his patronage, the house became “famed for its garden-parties, at which the literary and scientific celebrities were gathered to meet the lions of the season”, as James Thorne’s 1876 Handbook of the Environs of London informs us. “The terraced garden”, Thorne continues, “with its brilliant flowers and velvet lawns, was in Mr. Yates’s time a charming example of an old-fashioned garden, treated with the best modern skill.” As we know from other sources, Yates also added an orchard, a hedged kitchen garden, a palm house and other glasshouses to the grounds.

Not long after Yates’ death, however, the garden had fallen into decay. In 1893, John E. Locking characterises it as “a wilderness of shrubs and flowers”, and an overall rather desolate place: “As one mounts the steps of the terrace, overgrown with snapdragon, broken many of them, and the balustrades falling down, somehow there is a feeling of sadness. (…) Here, in tangled confusion, the iris, the evening primrose, the marigold, the hollyhock, the camomile, the Portugal laurel, the sweet pea, burridge, and the rowan-tree ‘for luck’, grow and flourish at their own sweet will in the long silky grass.”

Today, after some further ups and downs, Lauderdale House and its gardens are once again a well-kept and charming site. Having been restored to their former glory from 2001–2005, with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund, they are now a lovely place for a stroll or for simply sitting down on a bench – or for enjoying a cuppa and a slice of cake in Lauderdale House Café…

Fortess Road Post Office, London

This one really speaks for itself, I believe: ‘Fortess Road Post Office’, a mosaic inscription on this late nineteenth-century building in Kentish Town proclaims. The words are placed in a blind window right in the centre of the gable. A symmetrical floral motif in the lunette completes the composition. This motif is repeated in the lunettes of the other, actual windows on the façade (although in one of them the mosaic decoration is now missing).

One might argue that the rather narrow blind window might not be the ideal choice for fitting such an inscription, but the designer of the mosaic turned necessity into virtue by giving the words a distinct diagonal slant. This gives the lettering a dynamic appearance, which is enhanced by the curvy shapes of the initials and by the floral scrolls filling the angles of the frame.

And it’s even further enhanced by the background: What may seem like a flat white surface at first glance, upon a closer look, turns out to be a pattern made of small tesserae following the curls and twirls of the letters they surround. What’s more, the white tesserae are interspersed with yellowish ones, adding a certain shine and sparkle to the mosaic ground. Combined with the colourful contrast between the dark, almost brownish red of the letters and the turquoise of the initials, all this produces an aesthetically pleasing, almost lavish effect.

It seems almost superfluous to add that the post office no longer exists, at least not at this address. Instead, the building now houses a shop on the street level and, I assume, flats on the first and second floor. But the post office sign remains, an ornate reminder of the building’s original use – and of a time when the area was growing at a fast pace from rural suburb to urban borough.

Midland Railway Stables, London

St Pancras Way in the Borough of Camden certainly isn’t the most picturesque street in London; lined mostly by nondescript industrial and student accommodation buildings, it has little to offer to the architectural and/or historical enthusiast. That is, until you reach no. 7: a two-storey brick structure, which immediately evokes the Victorian era. The ground floor is dominated by a regular row of round arched windows, while the openings on the first floor are slightly narrower and surmounted by straight stone lintels. The building’s original purpose is helpfully spelled out on a sign painted at the northern end of the street façade, reading “South Stables”. What the sign doesn’t tell you, however, is that this relatively small, isolated structure was built in the 1860s as part of the extensive Midland Railway facilities which then covered large parts of the area.

Midland Railway was founded in 1844 from the merger of several local railway companies serving the area around Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby. In the late 1850s, Midland Railway began to expand towards London, and in 1862 decided to build its own terminus there: St Pancras. The station opened in 1868, but one could argue that it was only really completed with the addition of the Midland Grand Hotel, George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Revival masterpiece, built 1865–1876. If the hotel was, and still is, St Pancras’ ‘public face’, a range of much more modest, utilitarian buildings was tucked away behind the station. Extending over hundreds of metres, there were offices, warehouses, facilities for coal traffic – and large stable complexes. Most of this has been destroyed in the course of the last one and a half century, but the South Stables building remains as a small, if poignant reminder of the Midland Railway’s golden age. And, in a slightly ironic twist, it also reminds us that, even though the Victorian era may have been the golden age of the steam-powered railway, actual horse power was still indispensable in any kind of transportation business at the time.