The winter I looked at 62 Walthamstow houses I walked past The Chestnuts often. Even then, not long empty but without a purpose, it looked elegant as only an eighteenth century house can, but shabby and worthy of better things. It’s just a shame that now, nearly ten years later, it looks no better. And, after some 125 years in the ownership of the local authority, it is on the Buildings at Risk register.
Lots of people pass The Chestnuts without realising it is still there. Set back from Hoe Street and half hidden by railings and uncared-for trees, it looks oppressed by the petrol station on one side and the new school, far too close, on the other. At the back, all but a tiny strip of garden has been swallowed up to make a playing field for the school. At one end of the strip an ancient holm oak is the last remnant of what were once lovely grounds. Now the word is that even that is under threat.
There is hope for The Chestnuts. Waltham Forest Council are currently discussing future uses, and undertaking some consultation. Relatively few people, with the exception of the property guardians who currently live there, have recently seen inside the house to see how much of its beauty has survived the chequered years as, successively, mental hospital, school and college. Its earlier life was as home to a succession of City grandees who returned to the peace and salubrious air of Walthamstow at the end of the working day. At least the decades of ad hoc maintenance have meant that not only the original eighteenth century staircase and plasterwork have survived, but there are overlooked treasures such as floorboards, cupboards and fireplaces that have been covered over rather than ripped out.
A few years ago a senior council official told me the people of Waltham Forest have one eighteenth century mansion – the William Morris Gallery – and surely could not expect the local authority to “allow them access” to another. At that time The Chestnuts was evidently regarded as just as much of a burden as the William Morris Gallery had been not long before. Famously, the Gallery is now a much-loved success story (and let’s not be mean and rub in the fact that Morris left Walthamstow at the first opportunity, rarely returned and sneered at it as “cockneyfied”). The point is that his old home is cared for, visited and used for events, exhibitions and performances.
There are some cracks in the ice. There have been a couple of guided tours organised by the Council. And in the past few months, over 120 Walthamstow primary school children have visited, sung, drawn, taken pictures and written poetry inspired by the house. This was as part of Clio’s Company’s Walthamstow Notes project.
The next opportunity to visit is on Saturday 15th June as part of the E17 Art Trail – a free event. There will also be a guided walk, led by Joanna Moncrieff of Westminster Walks, which will set the Chestnuts in its original context as part of a Hoe Street that was lined with grand houses.
And there will be an opportunity to make suggestions as to future uses for this battered but magical place. Not including, I do trust, grand offices or grander flats that would exclude the community that has owned this place for so many years.