DU MAURIER’S MANSION
Cannon Hall has been home to authors, actors and judges. Julia Flynn takes an exclusive tour of a magnificent slice of London's history
If you were asked in a pub quiz what linked Daphne du Maurier and Laurence Olivier, you would probably shout “Rebecca!” You might even try to get a bonus point by shouting “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock!” But if you shouted “Cannon Hall!” your reputation as the pub know-all would spread far and wide. This superb property on the edge of Hampstead Heath, on the market for £32million, has such an extraordinary past that its links with Du Maurier and Olivier barely scratch the surface. On an elevated site, commanding spectacular views of the London skyline, the threestorey red-brick house is the most historic property currently for sale in Hampstead. That really is saying something, given the formidable position occupied by the area in the London property hierarchy.
The Grade II*-listed hall has six bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, a large conservatory and extensive grounds. It dates back to 1730. Previous owners include Du Maurier’s father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, one of the most celebrated actor-managers of the Edwardian era. There is a blue plaque commemorating him on the wall of the hall.
Du Maurier – a notorious womaniser, with a string of mistresses – was the son of George du Maurier, the Punch cartoonist, and the brother of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whose five boys inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. (Gerald du Maurier played Captain Hook in the original production.)
One way and another, the famous family were at the very heart of literary and theatrical London. The hall’s guest-book at the time must have read like a Who’s Who of the British theatre.
Daphne du Maurier and her sisters – Angela, a fellow writer, and Jeanne, who became a painter – spent part of their childhoods here. Echoes of the great house can be found in Du Maurier classics such as Rebecca, if you know
where to look. The main model for Manderley, the vast country house that dominates Rebecca, is generally supposed to have been Milton Hall in Cambridgeshire. But the very opening lines of the novel, some of the most famous in English literature, are also strongly evocative of Cannon Hall.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood at the iron gate leading to the drive…” Just such an iron gate, more than 10ft tall, still separates Cannon Hall from the street. Passers-by can peer through it, marvelling at the great proerty beyond.
Inside the house, the architectural feature that most obviously screams “Rebecca!” is the grand entrance hall. Its exquisite wooden staircase, carved with twisted balusters, leads up to the gallery landing. All it lacks is a beautiful Hollywood actress in a ball-gown sweeping down the stairs.
The Olivier connection with Cannon Hall dates from 1965, when he starred in the Otto Preminger thriller Bunny Lake is Missing, much of which was shot at the hall, which became Frogmore End in the movie.
If Olivier and the Du Mauriers give the hall the glitter of a celebritystudded past, its earlier history is just as intriguing. Cannon Hall takes its name from the pieces of old cannons dotted around the grounds. They are believed to have been placed there by Sir James Cosmo Melvill, a former secretary of the East India Company, who lived here.
Another early resident was Sir Noah Thomas, physician to George III. One can have fun imagining him returning home to his wife, muttering, “He’s mad! He’s mad!” and pouring himself a stiff whisky.
In the early 19th century, the hall was home to a number of judges, including Henry Clark, chairman of the Hampstead magistrates. Before the formation of the police force in 1832, the house doubled as a court. It was right next to the Hampstead Lock-Up, presided over by the parish constable, in Cannon Lane. The old courtroom is now a billiards room.
Grand houses with fascinating histories are certainly not unknown in Hampstead, even if, as in other parts of London, they have tended to be broken up, rather than remain in single occupation.
One of the last of the truly great Hampstead houses to come on the market – it was sold for just over £9million in 2005 – was Sarum Chase. This magnificent neo-Tudor mansion on West Heath Road was built for the portrait artist Frank O Salisbury. Upper Terrace House, once home to Kenneth Clark, the presenter of the BBC’s Civilisation, is another Hampstead landmark, still privately owned. Cannon Hall belongs in the same distinguished company.
“Properties of this calibre in Hampstead only come on the market every 10 years or so, mainly because their owners are so loth to sell them,” says Frank Townsend of Savills, the joint agents for Cannon Hall. The present British owners of the property have lived there since 1996. That’s not a long “innings” in a well-heeled enclave to which residents feel a fierce tribal loyalty.
The Hampstead demographic has changed subtly over the years. Once home to poets and painters – Keats, Constable, Wilkie Collins – it later became the place to live if you were interested in psychiatry. In the Sixties and Seventies, more middle-class neurotics were lying on couches, sharing bedroom secrets with their analysts, than in any other borough in England. There is a statue of Sigmund Freud on Fitzjohns Avenue, and Freud’s former home in Maresfield Gardens is now a museum.
“The area hasn’t forgotten its bohemian roots,” adds Townsend. “Current residents include Nick Mason of Pink Floyd. There are plenty of other musicians and actors attracted to the area. But the dominant groups, professionally, are probably lawyers and hedge fund managers.”
And Hampstead house prices – 10 to 15 per cent higher than in neighbouring Highgate, which is equally prestigious – reflect that. The famous Bishops Avenue, which links Hampstead to East Finchley, used to be known as Millionaires’ Row. It has now been upgraded to Billionaires’ Row.
But, socially, Hampstead is far less conservative than, say, Knightbridge or Belgravia. Townsend likens the area to Richmond, in south-west London. In both places, some superb period properties come on the market. There is a lot of money swilling around but also a slightly unconventional edge.
“It is a very eclectic area,” says Trevor Abramson of Glentree, the other joint agents. “Architecturally, it is all higgledy-piggledy. There is hardly a house in Hampstead which is perfectly straight. But there is a real cultural mix in the village, which in the summer has an almost Mediterranean feel.”
For Abramson, what makes Hampstead so special is the fact that it has retained some of the charm of a much older Hampstead. It was a medieval village, like neighbouring Highgate, separated by green fields from central London. “Hampstead used to be a staging-post on the road to Oxford,” explains Abramson. “In the 18th century, at around about the time Cannon Hall was built, the highwayman Dick Turpin was active in Hampstead. Then, people thought of the area, with its wide open spaces, as far better for their health than inner London. They started to move here for that reason.”
The open spaces may have shrunk since then, although there are still two golf courses in Hampstead, as well as the famous heath, with its open-air swimming-ponds (and pool). But the charm of an urban enclave that has not completely severed its rural roots still tugs at the heartstrings of Hampstead residents. They feel a passionate attachment to their surroundings that you do not encounter among people living next to, say, Hyde Park.
“The first thing I noticed was the
clarity of the air and the sharp green colour of the land,” wrote Daphne du Maurier in The House on the
Strand. She might have been sitting in the garden at Cannon Hall, with the sun shining, the birds singing and the lush heath beyond.
What kind of a buyer – apart from an extremely rich one – will be attracted to the property? When central London properties in this price bracket come on the market, Russian oligarchs or buyers from the Middle East are often heading the stampede. But Townsend believes that, Hampstead being Hampstead, the bastion of a certain kind of old-fashioned Britishness, the answer will lie closer to home.
“We have seen a lot of wealthy French buyers in Hampstead in recent years, and a property like this might well appeal to someone from Scandinavia or another northern European country. But I would not be at all surprised if the property went to an archetypal Hampstead Brit, who is already living half a mile away.”
He or she, if wishing to conform to Hampstead stereotypes, will not just be exceptionally rich, but slightly eccentric, bohemian and in need of psychoanalysis. Straight out of a Daphne du Maurier novel.
Star billing: Cannon Hall has played a major role in literature and films. Bunny Lake is Missing, starring Laurence Olivier, was shot here and it was home to Daphne du Maurier and her father Sir Gerald du Maurier, a celebrated theatrical actor-manager