On 20 December, 20 The Barons celebrated its first birthday. So, how did The Baron and St Margaret mark the occasion? Well, they find nothing more festive than curling up with a glass of Champagne in front of the classic Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life, which shares our birthday, having premiered in New York on 20 December 1946. It is also showing at the Richmond Curzon on Water Lane on the 22nd, 24th and 26th December, a mere 20-minute walk across the Richmond Bridge. It’s A Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), who contemplates jumping from a snowy bridge on Christmas Eve but is redeemed by his Guardian Angel, Second Class, Clarence Odbody, who shows him what life would have been like had he never existed. The screenplay was based on a 1943 short story ‘The Greatest Gift’ by Philip Van Doren Stern. Reminiscent of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, It's A Wonderful Life first appeared as a Christmas card sent to 200 friends by the author after he had failed to find a publisher. Directed by Frank Capra, the film’s satirical take on the greed of bankers (which attracted the interest of the FBI in 1947) makes it very topical viewing for today’s London. It also features Capra’s trademark raven (the bird appears in all his movies after You Can’t Take It With You (1938)), a reminder of one of the local stories of 2013: the killing by foxes of two ravens at the Tower of London, where a 350-year-old myth prophecies the fall of the monarchy should the famous birds disappear. If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, you might note that It’s A Wonderful Life’s only Oscar was for Technical Achievement. This was won for the invention of a new form of artificial snow made from soap flakes, sugar and water. Previous films had used cornflakes painted white, which were so crunchy underfoot that the dialogue had to be dubbed! We’d like to thank all those guests and contributors who made our first year such a wonderful one, and recall the inscription written to George by his guardian angel: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”
On 20th December, 20 The Barons will celebrate its first birthday, and The Baron is inviting all guests to join us in a complimentary bottle of his favourite ‘bolly’. Here The Baron muses on how Champagne became famous. Fizz is always to the forefront at The Barons, but it’s only in the last 150 years that the exuberance of popping cork and flowing mousse have become the ubiquitous symbols of celebration. It was not until the early 1800s that the mastering of the methode champenoise saw the widespread production of sparkling wines in the Champagne region; and only in the 1850s did manufacturers begin producing the dry Champagnes that seduced the British palette. As the Champagne became drier, life became sweeter, and after 1880 a syndicate of producers drove one of the great advertising campaigns to promote Champagne as the symbol of the Belle Époque. Champagne was portrayed as an aristocratic drink, but one that the expanding middle classes could enjoy on special occasions: not merely aspirated but aspirational. In London in 1866, music hall star George Leybourne wrote the hit song Champagne Charlie and established one of the first celebrity endorsements, drinking nothing but Champagne in public. In 1882, British author Henry Vizetelly noted in A History of Champagne: “We cannot open a railway, launch a vessel, inaugurate a public edifice, start a newspaper, entertain a distinguished foreigner, invite a leading politician to favour us with his views on things in general, celebrate an anniversary, or specially appeal on behalf of a benevolent institution without a banquet, and hence without the aid of Champagne, which, at the present day, is the obligatory adjunct of all such repasts.” Artists such as Alphonse Mucha, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard created glamorous Art Nouveau posters. Champagne became de rigeur at weddings and christenings; and then at the christening of ships and airplanes. In 1902, Moët & Chandon became the toast of the newspapers when they replaced a bottle of German sparkling wine with one of their own for the launching in New York of the German emperor’s yacht, Meteor. Champagne was quaffed by Hollywood heartthrobs and leading ladies in numerous movies and cracked open to celebrate sporting success, a tradition that has continued to this day. The Baron will tell anyone who will listen that he shares his weakness for Bollinger with James Bond, who quaffs its prestige cuvées in the majority of his films. Bollinger is also the official champagne of England Rugby, so The Baron has regularly sampled their hospitality just up the road at Twickenham. Perhaps then, we should leave the last word on Champagne to Lily Bollinger: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it… unless I’m thirsty.”
The inspiring landscape around St Margarets has for centuries inspired writers, artists and musicians to take up residence. Here’s a list of Top 20 historical artists from 20 The Barons, arranged in chronological order:
1. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400), author of The Canterbury Tales, served in Richmond as the Yeoman of the King’s Chamber.
2. Alexander Pope (1688–1744), poet and satirist, from 1719 lived in Twickenham Park where he built a famous grotto.
3. James Thomson (1700–1748), poet, writer of The Seasons, lived from 1736 in a cottage in Kew Foot Lane, Richmond.
4. Henry Fielding (1707–1754), author of Tom Jones, in 1747 took lodgings in Twickenham.
5. Kitty Clive (1711–1785), comic actress, retired in 1769 to Little Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham.
6. Horace Walpole (1717–1797), author of The Castle of Otranto, in 1747 began developing his Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill.
7. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), painter, lived from 1772 at Wick House, Richmond Hill.
8. J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), painter, from 1807 commissioned the building of Sandycombe Lodge, Twickenham.
9. Edmund Kean (1787–1833), actor, in 1831 rented the Richmond Theatre and the house next door.
10. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), Poet Laureate, lived from 1851 in Chapel House, Montpelier Row, Twickenham.
11. Charles Dickens (1812–1870), writer and social critic, in 1838 rented a house in Ailsa Park Villas near present-day St Margarets station.
12. George Eliot (1819–1880), author of Middlemarch, lived from 1855 at Park Shot, Richmond.
13. Sir Richard Burton (1821–1890), writer and explorer, was schooled at the Richmond Academy, on the corner of Little Green and Duke Street, Richmond.
14. Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837–1915), writer of “sensational” fiction, lived from the 1860s in Lichfield House, Sheen Road, Richmond.
15. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), philosopher and writer, grew up at Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park.
16. Walter de la Mere (1873–1956), poet and author, lived from 1940 at Southend House, Montpelier Row, Twickenham.
17. Gustav Holst (1874–1934), composer of The Planets, lived from 1903 on Gretna Road, Richmond.
18. Flora Thompson (1876–1947), author of the Larkrise to Candleford trilogy, worked in Twickenham post office in 1902, today the Oxfam shop on King Street.
19. Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) lived from 1915 in Hogarth House, Paradise Road, Richmond.
20. Noel Coward (1899–1973), playwright and actor, born in Teddington in 1899, at 131 Waldegrave Road.
On his daily constitutional (a highly recommended wander east from 20 The Barons, along St Margarets Road, over Richmond Bridge, and on up Richmond Hill), The Baron never fails to be enchanted by a quirk of the local fauna. The first hint of something unusual is a loud screeching from the treetops that takes him back to his glory days in Asia. As The Baron gazes at the glorious views over Terrace Gardens along the course of the Thames, the sky is lit up by the formation fly-past of a dozen dazzling, lime-green birds. These are the famous Twickenham Parakeets, which have adapted so well to life in Thames Valley suburbia that they now number in their thousands. They are ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri), the only naturalised parrot in the UK. Large and long-tailed, with a direct and pointy-winged flight, their plumage is an array of greens, their beaks the red of an alluring lipstick. A ring of pink and black encircles their necks, giving the impression of a drooping Movember moustache. Richmond Park is at the heart of their distribution, and they are common visitors to local bird tables. Their raucous roosting at such locations as Esher Rugby Ground is among London’s most spectacular twilight experiences. The ring-necked parakeet is native to India, but its origins in the foothills of the Himalayas explain the species’ capacity to survive an English winter. First bred in Britain in 1855, the parakeets did not colonise London’s parks until the 1960s. A population explosion in the ’90s might perhaps be linked to our warming climate. The birds thrive on a plentiful supply of buds and seeds from beech and sweet chestnut, and nest in the tree-hole homes of native nuthatches and woodpeckers. Several urban myths have taken flight around their origins. One traces the birds’ family tree to a breeding pair released on Carnaby Street in the 1960s by Jimi Hendrix, who would no doubt be delighted by the psychedelic flourish their little wings bring to the traditional landscape. Another suggests the original birds escaped from Isleworth Studios, Middlesex, in 1951, during the filming of The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Whatever the truth, the exotic appearance of the Twickenham Parakeets cannot but gladden the heart on a cold winter’s morning.
It is fitting that we call the site of a building its footprint, since its impression provides us with tracks that we may follow into the past. If we could travel back in time 750 years, we would find a riotous gathering raising their tents south of a grand house built by King Henry III’s brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, on the Manor of Isleworth (later, Twickenham Park). We would be surrounded by open fields, with common meadows running along the west bank of the Thames.
To the south-west rises the Medieval village of Twickenham (around Church Street) on the higher ground beside the Twickenham Ait (Eel Pie Island), its buildings clustered around a church of Kentish rag stone (St Mary’s). There are water-mills, weirs and fisheries along the river, orchards and open farmland parched by drought. On 29 June 1263, the Manor of Isleworth played host to the historic Gathering of the Barons, where Simon de Montfort’s rebellious noblemen held a conference with the King that sowed the seeds for England’s first true Parliament. When one discovers historic maps the footprints become clearer, excitingly so. Shown here are two maps that were drawn in the nineteenth century but allow us to take our first steps much further back in time. The first, from 1879, is clearly marked with the Encampment of the Barons at the top of Twickenham Park. The second, from 1896, shows the development of the A-shaped crescent and houses of The Barons in the south-west corner. Viewing the same area on Googlemaps reveals how early development shaped the topography of the quarter-circle we see today bordered by the railway, the river and St Margarets Road. We can locate the luxury apartments at 20 The Barons, and begin to picture our place both in time and space: discovering how our own footprints rest solidly within those of our ancestors.
(For more information, and map source, see the excellent Twickenham Park Resident Association)
As the temperatures plummet, it is possible to embark on a historical journey without leaving the warmth of 20 The Barons. One needs merely to consider the address to venture beyond the building’s façade into the hidden story of its environs. The Barons derives its name from a key moment in the chronology of England and English democracy that occurred a few hundred metres away. On 29 June 1263, the parched fields of the 200-acre Manor of Isleworth (later Twickenham Park), were ablaze with the tents and fluttering standards of rebellious barons, the noblemen who held the key to the King’s power. The reign of King Henry III (1207–72) had been one of failed campaigns, famine, misrule and rebellion. Five years earlier, an uprising in London had imposed the Provisions of Oxford on Henry, requiring him to govern through an advisory council selected by the most powerful barons. By the summer of 1263, the King had overturned the Provisions through an appeal to the Pope, but his authority was hollow. In June, the historic Encampment of the Barons gathered under Simon de Montfort, Duke of Leicester, a French nobleman married to the King’s sister. Henry was holed up in his brother Richard’s nearby manor house. For a fortnight, the two sides parleyed as De Montfort sought to temper royal power with civil government. There was to be no peaceful solution. In the spring, the Manor of Isleworth and its watermills were sacked as civil war broke out, leading to the defeat and imprisonment of the King at the Battle of Lewes. De Montfort now called to Westminster Hall not just barons and church leaders, but two knights from each shire, and two citizens from every important town. This established England’s first true Parliament. Sadly, de Montfort did not live long enough to enjoy his revolutionary achievement. He was defeated and killed at Evesham by Henry’s son Edward, his head paraded around the country on a pole. But the noble gathering is commemorated at The Barons; the Manor of Isleworth would become the streets of St Margarets; and the principle of royal rule through parliamentary government was here to stay.