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  • Writer's pictureAlex Lacey

The OTHER observatory

This week I ventured down to Richmond to visit the King's Observatory. Most people are aware of the observatory based in Greenwich, which is able to be visited all year round (check here for current opening times) There is, however, a more unknown and private observatory in the middle of the deer park (and golf course!) in Richmond.

It's an adorable house, standing alone at the end of a track leading through the golf course.

A rather helpful sign as you go through tells you to be careful of being hit by stray golf balls...although how one legislates for that is unclear.

It was a moody autumn day when I went, which gave the place a slightly mystical air. As you go in, you are greeted with the most stunning octagonal room, where you start your tour.

The library X Star Wars.

This room gave me some serious library envy. And also the heebie-jeebies about how on earth you would start to get furniture to fit an octagonal room, but some plucky visionary has had a go.

Around the edge of the room are cabinets all the way up to the very high ceiling, filled with all manner of books. Some are worthy and deep, others are biographies of actors and other such ephemera. What is interesting, however, is that a good chunk of the library was donated by none other than Alec Guinness, the man who played Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars.


The Dining Room

We continue the interiors theme with this completely mad, yet utterly compelling wallpaper in the dining room.

This is a recent wallpaper based on a 1772 painting commissioned by Alexander Hume. He was a trader in the (boo) East India Company (boo), and had this "hong painting" commissioned.

What is a hong painting, I hear you cry? They were paintings created for Westerners, depicting the strip of land along the Pearl River, which was the epicentre of the Chinese - Western trade, and shows a variety of offices and storage depots for Western and Chinese men (no women allowed, what else is new?)

It's pretty incredible, and was hand painted on 29 silk panels in 2017 to go on the walls of the dining room.

Slightly curiously, there is also this green stained glass window above the wallpaper, which nobody cared to mention. I remain puzzled.

The Secret Bit

This house wasn't built just for living in, oh no. It was commissioned in 1769 specifically for King George IIII to watch the transit of Venus pass by. I mean, who doesn't build themselves a new property just to watch the stars, amirite?

Anyway, old Georgie boy decided this was a great spot at a raised part of the old deer park, and set to work setting other people to work building it.

We come to this adorable, understated staircase...

...which leads us to...

...this gorgeous viewing spot for the telescope. This is where the King and his wife (and also a variety of other people who it seems frankly inconceivable could all fit into such a tight space) came to watch the transit of Venus.

There are cogs and handles around the room to be able to turn the top part of the dome, to angle it in the right direction, and an opening hatch to allow them to observe. It is really rather wonderful, and you will be pleased to know I restrained myself from cranking the handles.


Other little details in the house

There are lots of lovely little details to look out for in the house. Here are a couple of my favourites.

The candles to light the observatory at the top of the house.

The outhouses, which were used for magnetism experiments, and for launching weather balloons during World War 2

The little hogs head porcelain figurine in the cupboard in the entry hall

The miniature version of the house and grounds

The portraits of George III and Queen Caroline, who commissioned the building

The King's Observatory is open at certain times each year, and does book out fast, so keep your eyes peeled. More information can be found on their website here.

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