Elspeth’s quest for the best pre 1700 merchant town house

We’ll start floating round Britain without ado…


My favourite in Scotland – and a contender for all of Britain – is Provost Skeen’s house in Aberdeen. Hiding behind a modern building, and overlooked by the mighty Marischal College, this FREE folk museum includes several 17th century plastered ceilings and a wonderful painted hall that you have to shut the door on to protect it.

Edinburgh Riddles Court  Edinburgh Moray House

Edinburgh: Riddle’s Court and Moray House, both on the Royal Mile

In Edinburgh, you’re likely aware of Gladstone’s Land, John Knox House and the Huntly House/Museum of Edinburgh; but I’d like to speak of two lesser known homes which are not normally publicly accessible. They are both on the Mile. Riddle’s Court is on the Lawnmarket, and is reached through a pend. Within it is one of the lively decorated ceilings distinct to Scotland (to see one in its original vibrant colours, visit The Study in Culross – and the photo below). There is also a plastered ceiling and a green room with  a flat pattern on it. Moray House is on the same side, on the Canongate, and is part of the university’s education department. Two rooms have an open plastered ceiling, which make this house fascinating and unusual.

Stirling Argyll's Lodging

Argyll’s Lodging from my scrapbook

I would have liked Stirling’s Argyll’s Lodging a little more if it had retained a more early 17th instead of late appearance, but the exterior is everything I’d wish for in a Scottish mansion – turrets and gables, buckle quoins – fairy tale and French. But you can’t visit it as easily as one once could. I recall fondly when entry was added onto my castle ticket and having a random chat with staff that James V looks like Johnny Depp and discussing that Nigel Tranter’s historic novels have the same wedding night scene pattern! (This is called Naughty Guide for a reason!). Alas for the most part, it’s behind bars and quite fiddly to arrange a visit to now.


Nerwcastle Sandhill Newcastle Sandhill

You’d have a naughty view of Bessie Surtsee’s escape from here!

Newcastle has two special town houses.
One might be drawn to the two renovated brown brick Georgian houses on Pilgrim Street with their green sashes. If one peeked over the parapet of the right hand (north) one, you might just glimpse something that hints more is here than you think. You may observe that the top windows on that same house are different, and are older, if you could get access to the back, you’d be clear that this isn’t a Georgian home you’re looking at. Fenwick’s is 17th century and has a tall staircase the height of the building and a copula with a balustrade (posh top of stairs rail thing). Inside are panelling and plastered ceilings. It is not normally open to the public.
There’s a group of 7 houses in Sandhill, but you’d not know that the red brick ones are actually timbered houses in disguise. All have some accessibility as pubs and clubs (the Quilted Camel is a the most bizarre bar I’ve ever entered), and Bessie Surtees House is open free as the regional HQ of English Heritage. Except you only see about 3 rooms and the courtyard. I understand that there’s one more interesting room on the 2nd floor, much like the one below but without the exciting ceiling. Which means that Bessie Surtees, despite its incredible frontage, is a one room house. But what a unique front – one can tell the proximity to Scotland (cf the type of peg like overhang with John Knox’s house in Edinburgh), 5 storey alternating bands of glass and renaissance columns. And you’ll have heard of the story of how Bessie snuck out of the window and eloped with her lover… That room is the one with the panelling, overmantel (ie posh fireplace, pinched from elsewhere) and the plastered ceiling. Apart from the house-height stairs, there’s little more to see here.

York Barley Hall

Renewed Barley Hall in York (above) is one of the best early medieval homes you’ll come across, and the voice of Judi Dench gives you a tour. The large open hall is in are in medieval techicolour brilliance/gaudiness (delete to your taste).

Chester Bear and Billet Chester Leche House

The Rows – the medieval two tiers of shops along Chester’s roman axis of streets – are stuffed with nice surprises. The house I’d like to champion isn’t one that externally you might single out of the very detailed patterned frontages, such as the Bear and Billet above. When I last went to Chester, 17 Watergate was a shop – the Sofa workshop, but it’s very special conglomeration of 14-17th centuries. Leche House (ie after the physician’s favourite sucking invertebrate) is the best preserved example of a Row House – shop at the front, open hall with a gallery in the middle – this one has a Jacobean overmantel and plastered pendant (above right) – and more plaster in the front and back rooms. It has studded doors to the stone cellar beneath.

Conwy in North Wales looks very much the medieval little town and it has an Elizabethan town mansion  – Plas Mawr – which is probably the best of its date in the country. It was recently restored – now whitewashed with crowstep gables and a distinctly Celtic stair turret. It has about six plastered rooms, some in colour, and you can explore the attic too and see the studded trusses of the medieval original house. It has a kitchen with a wide arch and a gatehouse. Worth adding onto your castle ticket.


Bristol Lllandoger - Copy Bristol Lllandoger1

Bristol had a much wider range of merchants’ houses, both large hall houses and complicated Tudor/Stuart frontages. Bombs, slum clearances and industrialisation have taken many. Although the house to visit is Red Lodge with its amazing chamber (I’ve not seen a room so big in a town house), what I  like best is an inn, which is part of Travelodge. A door takes you Mr Benn-like from a modern hotel into a 17th century hostelry of distinction, the Llandoger Trow (above), with Ipswich windows (see Ancient House below), ceilings of  plaster and fireplaces.

Ludlow’s Readers’ House seemed to be an in the know place to visit, but it was one of the very best things I saw in this timbered Shropshire town. The doorbell was answered a little ominously by its custodian, but the building inside is a special Tudor house.

Worcester Commandery Worcester Commandery1

It’s dark inside – and a bit spooky – hence the camera shake

Worcester’s Commandery (above) has probably the largest medieval hall I can think of in a town house, and its scale suggested it may not fairly be placed in this category. As a museum, it was very interesting – the only time I’ve tried out Braille (it was used as a blind school).


Ipswich St Stephen's lane St Lawrence Ipswich Ancient house barrel room

Alas this is the only internal photo I have – it’s hard to sneak your camera out when pretending to browse PLASTIC utensils

Ipswich’s Ancient House (above) will draw your eye if you walk down Buttermarket. The pargetting (ie plaster decoration) is particularly fine, and the Ipswich windows (so called even when they occur elsewhere) exemplary of these kind of bow crossed with venetian fenestration. It seems 17th century, but it is actually several structures from 15th C and includes work from 18th and 19th centuries. There’s a hall house with a hammerbeam roof at the core. It’s surmised that a builder from the West Country was brought in for the type of ceiling is not common in these parts, and neither’s the wooden decoration on the courtyard. There are 16th century ceilings, an earlier 17th century heavy fireplace, and a late 17th C panel and plaster room at the first floor of the building. The side in St Stephen’s Lane has exposed timbering and there’s a barrel roof towards Arras Square by the shopping centre (both pictured). It had a long association with books, as a library and then Dillon’s bookshop, but is now a branch of Lakeland Plastics. You can get to many rooms but the attic with its gallery is not open due to safety concerns (snore), and the small room about information on the building is covered in boxes.


Curat and Edmund Wood’s houses  in Norwich share a general pattern of shops to the street, a courtyard and two very alike large Tudor hall rooms on top of each other. The top rooms have the same kind of flat timber ceiling, the lower one a timber and plaster design that I’ve not found anywhere else. But while Edmund Wood’s is known and open to the city as an arts centre (formerly King of hearts, now Anteros, bottom right), Curat’s is specialist knowledge and not even enjoyed privately, for it’s an expensive largely unused extension to a shop.

I’d like to end by taking you round Stranger’s Hall (above left and top right). It has the best domestic undercroft in the city of the most of these cellars in the country; it has a 15th C hall with two large bay windows and stairs added in the next two centuries; it has 16th and 17th rooms which aren’t as good as I’d expect for a mayoral residence, and then the more impressive Georgian dining room in its much older skin…and finally, recreated rooms of varying eras, from a counting house/kitchen of 16th century to Victorian parlours and a modern display of dummies with tights for hair.

Do I have a favourite? – well I would have said, Crosby Hall, London. Moved from Bishopsgate (where it became unfashionable for the growing financial sector) to Chelsea for safekeeping, it is the grandest merchant’s town house I’ve ever heard of. Its great hall is castle sized; its long panelled and plastered rooms fit for a palace. But – it’s owned privately by Mr Moran, who lives in it, and has a vault for himself built ready. The way it was written in a book on London’s hidden interiors (of course that means, no photos, no access) makes it sounds as if this entrepreneur is trying to revive the feudal medieval ideal of bearing oneself to glory for eternity. Of course I don’t know the man – this may all be wrong. But he is hogging UK’s grandest pre 1700 townhouse all to himself. Hands up who thinks it should be opened to the nation?! (yes I’m aware much of it is neo Tudorbethan and 20th C but my point still stands).