The Ghosts of Lansdowne Passage

The layers of history in an old place like London continually fascinate me.  The city is like an ancient mansion that’s been made over by successive generations to suit changing tastes in fashion and function.  New wallpaper is placed over the old, new paint is slathered over faded oak.  When these layers are peeled back, we see something completely different, in the same place.  And it never fails to amaze.

Highgate cemetery - London (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License)

Fitzmaurice Place is a small street leaves the southeast corner of Berkeley Square and runs into Curzon Street, just where the old core of Lansdowne House sits.  Across from its truncated facade is a pedestrian walkway lined with shops that leaves the house and ends up at Hay Hill on the other side.   It is called Lansdowne Row.

In the days of the Regency, this was a narrow walkway sunken between forbidding walls.  Walls so tall that they permanently darkened this shortcut linking the two ends of Mayfair.  You couldn’t see what was on the other side of either wall, nor were you meant to.

There are very few good photographs of the passage.  I used this image of the Egyptian Avenue monument from London’s Highgate cemetery.  It looks imposing–and a little spooky.

At Lansdowne Passage, in the middle of the most fashionable part of Regency London, two great estates–two great families–came together in a physical way.  As mentioned in an earlier post of the series, Lansdowne House was built in such a way as to give Devonshire House an unobstructed view toward Berkeley Square.  The two houses had enormous gardens.  They abutted one another yet gave way to that ancient right of passersby–an easement, if you will, called the right of way.  This came to be known as Lansdowne Passage, appearing much like a crevasse when Diana, sometimes called Viscountess Northam, climbed the ladder of the Lansdowne House garden to remonstrate with the Viscount Hartington, heir to His Grace, the Duke of Devonshire, who stood on his garden ladder opposite.

Many legends abound of the walkway, mostly because its long length was hidden from observation and provided a perfect route for robbers and ladies of the night.  Indeed, Hay Hill at one end of the passage was long a favorite of highwaymen.  Even the Prince Regent was robbed there at gunpoint, along with his brother, the Duke of York, of the three shillings they had between them.

A highwayman once urged his steed down into the deep passageway to escape apprehension, goading his horse to leap across the descending stairs, landing heavily on the paved stones below.  They were now in a narrow passageway, mind you, and the rider must needs take the reins in one hand and grip the cantle behind him with the other so as to reduce the width of his profile, spurring into the darkness lit only by a full moon riding the sky above.  Then there was the ascending stair opposite.  Even the most intrepid horse must pause, his ears pricked forward, throwing his head down to eye the obstacle ahead.  But alack!  Pursuers are even now approaching–their cries funnelled between haughty walls to spur even a spooked animal to leap upwards, scrambling and skidding for purchase on stone steps to Hay Hill above and the wilds of undeveloped London beyond.

Iron bars were erected to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

Today, Lansdowne Row is listed as one of London’s haunted places.  Spectres of highwaymen, footpads and the Loquacious Lady still wander the passage, lit by the storefronts of Hugo Morelli and Starbucks.

In the Garden of On-Dits and Blue Ruin – Lansdowne House

the Marquess of Hartington

Russell drove his tilbury at a rapid pace towards Berkeley Square.  His niece, Diana, fidgeted beside him.

“Dash it, darling, what the devil is the matter?”

She tossed her fire-blond hair, so like his and leaned out of the sporting carriage to catch the breeze like a hoyden.  “I hate London.”

“We’ve only just arrived,” he pointed out.  “I’m persuaded you will like this party we are going to.  Lansdowne House affairs are really quite the thing.  Besides, you probably know some of the girls from that school of yours who might be in attendance there.  Lady Louisa, for instance.  It is said she might get an offer from Lord Henry Petty, heir to Lansdowne.”

“Louisa is a bore,” Diana declared, pulling herself back in the tilbury with a sigh.  “There is a girl from school I should like to see–but she lives in Knightsbridge.”

The Marquess of Wimberley wisely restrained himself from responding.  It would be just like Diana to tease him, pretending she would rather befriend some merchant’s daughter from the City instead of an earl’s daughter.

The tilbury paused at a set of dark doors set in a high wall that ranged the entire length of Berkeley Square’s south side.  A porter emerged from an ivy-covered lodge set in the wall.  He bowed and opened the entrance so his lordship’s carriage could pass through.  Once inside, it was as if they had stepped into the countryside, although they were in the middle of London.  The sounds of traffic diminished to merely hoofbeats on a well-kept gravel drive. The fresh green lawn was so very nearly perfect it might have been brought up from the riverside moments before. Tall oaks towered over them, old enough to have been present when nearby Hay Hill was still a farm in Queen Anne’s day.

Solemn footmen with real powdered wigs appeared before the stately home’s portico to escort the pair inside.  Soon, Diana found herself in the company of the very girl her uncle desired her to accompany.

“What would you like to do?” Louisa asked.

Diana shrugged, gazing up at the exquisite ceiling of the Adam drawing room.  “Dashed if I know.  Shall we take a turn on the grounds?”

Shortly thereafter they were walking toward an ancient wall, the boundary of the Lansdowne garden.  There was a small ladder placed against it.

“What’s on the other side, I wonder?”

“Oh,” Louisa answered, in her diffident way, “‘Tis His Grace of Devonshire’s garden.”

Diana immediately went to the ladder and began to climb, taking care not to let her slippers get scuffed on the wooden rungs.  She ignored the remonstrations of her missish companion.

“I should like to see His Grace’s garden,” Diana declared.  “One can never tell what a duke’s cabbage looks like.”

Diana reached the top of the ladder.  Below her was a narrow, dark passage that opened below her like a crevasse.  Without warning, another person peered at her–from an opposing wall scarcely feet away, all ears and a wide grin.

“Hello,” he said.

“How did you get up there?” she demanded.

“I’ve got a ladder, same as yours.” He asked, “Who are you?”

“I am Diana.”

“Well, then,” he replied, triumphant.  “I’m Marquess of Hartington.  But you may call me Hart.”

“I shan’t call you anything,” Diana retorted.  “Because we have not been properly introduced.”

“Tell your uncle you’ve met the heir to the Duke of Devonshire and I’ll wager he’ll tell you we’re intimates.”

“How dare you!”

Berkeley Square south side – Lansdowne House Gardens

There’s not much more one can say about the Lansdowne House gardens.  The description of its environs came from Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 31 by Ernest Jessop, published in 1903.  By then the massive area in front of the house had become rarified real estate in the middle of London and valued at a price that would just about cover a marquisate’s death duties–taxes that were the scourge of great houses in the early twentieth century.

The new death taxes were to become, as Giles Worsley titled his first chapter in England’s Lost Houses, a Gathering Storm.