Ham House, just beyond the busy part of town, is one of few grand houses in London from the 17th century to remain intact. Beside the Thames, Ham House and Garden retain the timeless quality certain historic buildings manage effortlessly (Hampton Court is another), where it feels as if the former residents moved out a few hours earlier. Elizabeth Murray was the person who developed the house into the impressive spectacle you'll find today. A mover and shaker during the English Civil War and instrumental in the restoration of the monarchy, plotting, intrigue and general shenanigans emanated from this Royalist pile.
Elizabeth was a noted beauty and although the house was built at the beginning of the Stuart period, during James I's reign (for Sir Thomas Vavasour - Knight Marshall to the king), she was the one who breathed life into Ham House. Elizabeth inherited the property from her father and though she was no doubt intelligent and beautiful, she also possessed 'Lady Macbeth-ian' levels of political ambition and an unfetching, greedy glint in her eye. Elizabeth Murray married into titles which elevated her up the pecking order of British society. Love was never mentioned. After Charles II's ascension via the Restoration, she enjoyed considerable favour and influence in Stuart court life (she backed the winning horse, which always helps). To discover more about the Stuarts - see The Banqueting House in Westminster.
The whole of Ham House (the interior, exterior and garden combined), is what contributes to Ham House's appeal. The interior boasts extraordinary and rare furniture, art and textiles of which there are few collections to match in central London. If you're undecided you can catch a river bus here during the summer months and I strongly advise you to. It's a picturesque sliver of outer-London and provides a welcome contrast to its packed centre. The gardens were restored to the original formal plan of Slezer and Wyck with original plantings - so it's easy to imagine you're wandering through a garden from centuries past, because unusually - you are. Many landscapers, such as Capability Brown, updated the majority of English formal gardens, but Ham House was left untouched.
In point of fact Elizabeth Murray's hold was so strong on the vision and impact of Ham House, that she's struggled to let go - with death proving a minor impediment to her meddling.
The Ghosts of Ham House
The first mention of hauntings at Ham House occurred in the late 19th century, through Augustus Hare who delivers the following account:
"There is a ghost at Ham. The old butler there had a little girl, she was then six years old. In the small hours of the morning, the child, waking up, saw a little old woman scratching with her finger against the wall close to the fireplace. She was not at all frightened at first but sat up to look at her. The noise she made in doing this caused the old woman to look round, she came to the foot of the bed and, grasping the rail, stared at the child long and fixedly. So horrible was her stare, that the child was terrified and screamed and hid her face. People ran in and the child told what she had seen. The wall was examined where she had seen the figure scratching, and concealed in it were papers, which proved that in that room, Elizabeth had murdered her first husband to marry the Duke of Lauderdale."
It has 'optioned screenplay' written all over it. Sightings of Elizabeth are numerous and usually involve her wandering around the corridors at night, and usually with a tapping cane following her movement across the floorboards. There's something about the atmosphere of the building which although not directly giving these stories credence, certainly leave you open to their possibility. Footprints and smells, including pipe tobacco by those living there (the house steward among them), all contribute to its reputation as a must-see for supernatural aficionados. Elizabeth is often accompanied by a small dog (mais oui, a King Charles cocker spaniel) and every Halloween there's a ghost tour of Ham House. Amateur ghostbusters attempt to track down the persistent Duchess and her spectral pooch.
Further Ham House Facilities
Ham House has a decent tea room and its tea terrace has the oldest Christ's thorn bush in the country. Its orangery is the also the oldest in the country and it has an authentically furnished kitchen, icehouse and dairy. Hammerton's Ferry links the gardens to Marble Hill House on the opposite bank of the Thames. Free tours are available, but not pre-bookable (giving everyone a turn), so ask at reception on arrival.
National Trust video tour of Ham House.
Ghostly tales of things going bump in the night at Ham House.
House entry : Sat-Weds (i.e. closed Thursday and Friday) 1-5pm April to October.
(but check the phone number below, as they are subject to change without notice)
Wheelchair accessible and available.
Ham House and Garden, Ham Street, Ham, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey TW10 7RS
Call: 020 8940 1950
Nearest Tube/Rail: Richmond (District Line and rail station)
Riverbus terminal: Richmond.