Sunday 13 April 2008

Fenton House, Hampstead Grove, Hampstead, north London

This distinguished late seventeenth-century town house faces a sprawling Victorian hospital across a quiet, timeless square perched on a hill overlooking Hampstead village. A discreet National Trust sign directs you through a grand gateway and the formal front garden to the red-brick, four-storey house.

Inside, there are more than a dozen large rooms, many with annexes, high ceilings and large sash windows providing views of the gardens, Hampstead's many other fine houses and the distant city beyond. There are charming antique pianos or harpsichords in most of the rooms, particularly those in the attic. If you are lucky, rich melodies will be resonating through the upper floors as a professional musician practices on one of these centuries-old keyboards. Fenton House is also home to an extensive collection of upmarket porcelain nick-nacks from animals to figurines to caskets displayed in antique cabinets. Vintage tapestries, some from China, and aging paintings, many of children, adorn the walls. Helpful volunteers, some of them in their seventies, patrol the house, but you can wander freely throughout the rooms, which are typically arranged to show off their contents, rather than as living spaces, with the notable exception of Lady Binning's bedroom which has been restored to its 1950s opulence.

Enclosed by a lovely old brick wall, the large back garden is divided up into a big lawn, a patio garden surrounded by hedges, an orchard with gnarled old apple trees and a vegetable patch. Densely-planted and well-designed, this must be one of the finest classical gardens in London. Even at weekends, visitors are thin on the ground and it can sometimes feel like you are enjoying a private tour of a very wealthy and very musical friend's home. Adult admission is a reasonable £5.40. 8/10