Friday, 20 January 2017

Postcard from . . . London

After 669 years as a monastery, mansion and almshouse, the Charterhouse will finally open to the public this week

Just north of Smithfield Market, the Charterhouse is a strong contender for the most historically interesting site in central London that no one’s really heard of. You may well have seen its picturesque courtyards and cloisters on film, though: their credits include playing Pip’s childhood home in Great Expectations, a field hospital in Downton Abbey and the backdrop to Tom Hardy’s dark machinations in Regency drama Taboo. But this Friday, the opening of a new museum and the launch of regular tours will mark the first time in its 669-year history that this curious complex has been open to the public on anything more than an ad hoc basis.

For its coming out, the Charterhouse has adopted the slogan “living the nation’s history since 1348” and the hubris is not misplaced. The site began life as a Carthusian monastery where monks spent their days praying for the souls of the Black Plague victims buried in mass graves nearby. After the dissolution of the monasteries it was rebuilt as a Tudor mansion that played host to Queen Elizabeth I and King James. In 1611, the wealthy merchant Thomas Sutton bought the estate and, in what was perhaps the most lavish act of philanthropy of its time, turned it into a school (since moved out to Surrey) and an almshouse for gentlemen pensioners “ruined by shipwreck or other calamity”.

Today the Charterhouse is still an almshouse home to more than 40 residents known as “brothers” (a label stripped of its religious connotations), men who have been admitted on the grounds that they are over 60, single and in need of financial or social support. Because most current residents learned of the unusual set-up via word of mouth it has generally attracted a particular clientele. “Most of the guys here are middle-class,” development director Dominic Tickell tells me. “They’re people who suddenly get to the age of 60, 65, 70 and realise they can’t get on [alone].”

We are standing in the Charterhouse’s largest, most verdant courtyard, a place where the only reminder of the clamorous city beyond these high walls is a single Barbican Estate tower, jutting skyward to the south. It is the first truly sunny day in January and brothers in smart day suits amble past us shouting plummy-accented hellos.

In the new museum, visitors will be able to watch videos of the current brothers’ daily routine. They will also be able to gawp at artefacts from the Charterhouse’s less tranquil interludes: there is a skeleton from the neighbouring plague pit and a 16th-century engraving showing the gory murder of the Carthusian monks by Henry VIII’s men. This was once the Duke of Norfolk’s home, and in a cupboard marked “Secrets” visitors can read copies of the ciphered letters that proved him guilty him of conspiring to put Mary Stuart on the throne.

This small but interesting collection of artefacts should be seen in conjunction with a guided tour. The Charterhouse tells its history best through its buildings, which range in style from medieval to modern, taking in most things in between. Structures have gone up around or on top of their predecessors, such as the medieval cloister - one cell door is still visible - which Norfolk turned into a passageway leading to his tennis courts. Some important features have been moved wholesale from one part of the complex to another, others are old imitations of even earlier styles. Adding to this picturesque architectural commotion is the fact that many buildings were destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1941 and no one is precisely sure where the postwar reconstruction begins and ends.

There is a fear among some commentators, and indeed some brothers, that this new, public chapter at the Charterhouse will throw the historically self-contained community off balance. It is a fair concern: right now this feels like an outpost of institutional eccentricity, and the transition to national treasure status, which seems inevitable, may transform its peculiarities into something that feels more studied - twee, even.

But brothers who find the visitors to be an unwelcome presence might spare a thought for the Charterhouse’s 16th-century owner Sir Edward North, who was so financially crippled by Queen Elizabeth I’s last stay here in 1561 that, the story goes, he promptly retired from court and spent the rest of his life as a social recluse. Unlike the Queen, at least this coming wave of visitors will be gone by 6pm.

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