Eating William Morris’s Potatoes – Red House, Bexleyheath

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I nearly turned back when I got to the suburban street marked as the address for Red House because it was hard to imagine William Morris, who once proclaimed that we should have nothing in our houses that were not beautiful or useful, commissioning his first ever home from architect, Philip Webb, here.

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Nothing against the street, it’s just so busy, but once in through the gates, there’s an immediately calmer atmosphere. And also, I found out later, a historical connection as Chaucer’s pilgrims would have passed nearby on their way to Canterbury. Morris christened the garden porch the ‘Pilgrim’s Rest’ in Chaucer’s memory.

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The house and garden were designed together, and although not much of the original design of the garden remains, it’s hard not to see it as one with the house.

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I’d wanted to see it particularly in autumn because the site was originally an orchard when Morris found it in 1858, and some of the trees – apple, cherry, oak,yew, hazel and holly – remain.

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The flowers and plants were also an inspiration for Morris’s own designs, so as I walked round, I had half an eye on looking out for the shapes and structures that might have appealed to Morris.

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Part of Webb’s design specification was that the house should be ‘clothed’ in traditional climbers such as roses, white jasmine and honeysuckle, and although it was obviously the wrong season for these, it was possible to imagine how this would work to enhance and soften some of the architectural features.

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Possible also to imagine one of May Morris’s memories as you sit on the lawn here – it was of the poet Swinburne lying in the orchard, ‘his long red hair spread out on the grass, as she and her sister Jenny sprinkled rose petals on his face.’*

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And if the house was designed to be looked at from the garden, so the garden forms pictures from different windows of the house.

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I recently set my creative writing students the exercise of imagining the view from their character’s bedroom, so it was fascinating to see the view William Morris would have woken up to.

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Although William Morris and his family left Red House in 1865 after a series of personal problems, the house feels less of a museum than a family home, largely due I’m sure to the careful owners who followed him. So it was nice to see this plaque on a bench in the garden.

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Also good – if surprising – to see potatoes and apples on sale in the vegetable patch.

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How could I resist? And it’s the potatoes I’ve written about for this garden. I had been worried that it wasn’t paying enough respect to William Morris – potatoes, after all! – but then I read how much fun they had in their early years at Red House. There was even an apple fight in the Drawing Room which left Morris with a black eye, and a spectacularly good practical joke by his friend, Edward Burne-Jones, who sewed up the sides of Morris’s waistcoat to persuade him he was putting on weight.

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So here’s a silly potato poem for you…


Cooking William Morris’s Potatoes

It’s a hot potato, mashed, smashed,
boiled to a turn, it’s got its jacket on,
been chipped, French fried, finely
diced, topped and crowned, but

is it beautiful?

We arrange them in a china bowl,
pink earth eggs, dark scented
like honest women, skins
blooming with imperfections, but

is it useful?

As they struggle to breathe in the
kitchen air, tubers blindly groping
their way back to cold soil beds,
we heat water, watch as they fail to swim.

Peel it, roast it, serve it on the side,
Wedge it, spice it, nutmeg, salt and cream,
pocket warmer, peasant filler, fat
maker, famine causer, hot potato.

* Taken from the National Trust brochure for the house.

Red House is owned by the National Trust and the website is here.
Date visited: October 2013

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