My visit to Wonderland
It was in the basement of the Metropolitan Church where I received my invitation to the Mad Hatter’s tea and garden party. The instructions read,
Woodholme Manor, dress – top hats, fun hats or no hats at all.
But as the party approached I realized there was another reason the invite called my name. For years, Woodholme Manor, or the Lawson Estate as it was also known, lay hidden amongst a large cluster of trees off Wonderland. Whenever I passed by, I would stare down the long private drive, trying to catch a glimpse of its grey castle-like form. I wondered who lived there and imagined wood-paneled walls and fireplaces taller than I.
Woodholme Manor was built in 1893 by Richard Shaw-Wood, constructed in late Victorian Gothic Revival style. At the time it was built, the house was one of the few concrete-poured homes in North America. In earlier years, outbuildings and stables dotted the landscape of what was then a working farm, and an imposing iron gate maintained the family’s privacy. In 1920, Ray Lawson, a prominent London businessman, purchased the Manor, making this magnificent castle home to one of the most influential families in the city for many years. In 1950, Colonel Tom Lawson and his wife Miggsie took possession of the Manor, from which they continued the family tradition of philanthropy and community service for more than fifty years.
A few years ago rumours surfaced that the Sifton development around the property raised the specter that the Manor might itself become a thing of historical record by disappearing. I fretted and wished I could buy it and fix it up myself. Pictures of the home showing boarded up windows made me fear that the rumors were true. But, luckily, the house was saved when a former resident of London decided to take on the challenge of fixing it up and calling it home.
So, this past Saturday, as the clock struck four, I perched my little top-hat onto my head, fastened a cameo around my neck and left for Wonderland (aka Woodholme Manor). When I arrived at the gates, the red double-decker bus had just dropped off a group of visitors also donning their fancy hats. The house loomed over me as I walked up the drive. Its grey imposing walls stretched skyward with many jutting levels and nooks. A tower appeared to have a tiny porch or stoop at the bottom where one could enter from the lawn and sit hidden away from prying eyes. Large white framed windows dotted the grey edifice, a place to look down from the second and third stories.The balcony directly over the front door was prominently placed looking down onto the drive.
At the entrance, two little hostesses took my Unticket and gave me a program along with permission to enter the Manor. One of the hostesses appeared to be turning into a cat, but I shook my head and carried on…how curious! Can’t let that Cheshire cat play tricks on me! The first thing I saw upon entering was a long corridor, paneled in the dark wood that I had imagined would be there. It stretched down a long hallway that ended in a staircase that disappeared into the floor above. As I turned from the main hall into what appeared to be a brick archway, I met a man who seemed to have misplaced his wife. I told him that perhaps she’s disappeared down the rabbit hole, but luckily she was only in the WC hidden in the wall. Further down the hall was a big, iron sliding door that guarded a large supply of firewood, how strange, but then how appropriate for a castle that must have many fireplaces.
In the next room many people milled about at silent auction tables, bidding on wonderful things and trips to wonder-filled places organized by a very thoughtful Doormouse. But the room was anything but silent.
Many people were chatting excitedly, enjoying their tour of the Manor. As I marveled at the wood moldings on the ceiling, I met Paul Hubert from Pathways Skill Development. He was involved in the Red Antiquities Shoppe restoration project since it started and spoke of the great community support and generous donations making the plans for the building a reality. In true Wonderland form he wore a tidy black top hat, but after speaking for several minutes I concluded he was far from mad as a hatter. In the corner of the room the hostess at the Flamingo bar offered tall glasses of sparkling wine and other liquids marked “Drink Me”, but I passed this by in search of something sweeter. Across from the bar was the large fireplace that was, as I had predicted, taller than I. Sitting nearly inside the fireplace was Victoria Gydov, a soprano wearing a lovely, wide-brimmed Victorian hat who later sang operatic songs on the back lawn.
Many stood in awe as her amazing voice bounced off the back of the Manor, creating a wonderful acoustic effect. Young musicians Sarah Peters and Emily Miles-Rossoux also stood by to provide entertainment throughout the event.
Representatives from the Heritage London Foundation spoke about the restoration project for which this event was to raise funding. The Red Antiquities building on Wellington Street was built in 1873 by the Winder Family. It remained in the Winder Family until June 2010 when it was purchased by Pathways Skill Development in partnership with London Heritage Foundation. It is of architectural significance because it is one of the only wide-board wooden constructions still standing in London today.
The gracious hostess and new owner of Woodholme Manor, Sue-Anne Richardson-Siarto, was introduced, as was her mother Carol Richardson, partner-in-party-planning-crime. Once restored, the Red Antiquities building will be used in a way to give back to the community. It will be a prime example of the endless possibilities present in the restoration of historical buildings.
After these speeches, I strolled to the back of the property where a big white tent was erected. Here, the Duchess was hosting tea every hour at 4:15, 5:15 and 6:15. Apparently the White Rabbit was quite insistent on this precise timing. What a delight it was to sit in the cool shade under the tent at one of the round tables and be served teas and incredible edibles. I met some lovely ladies there, wearing beautiful hats, some hats big, some small, some feathered and some with no hat at all!
After my tea I wandered back into the Manor to the room next to the ballroom. It was adorned with a large fireplace who’s mantle was inscribed with the Latin phrase ‘Friends are the ornaments that decorate your home’.
Set up in this room were several tables, not serving tea, but instead displaying teapots, creamers, sugar dishes, cake tiers, tea cups and other tea-things for sale to raise funds for the Antiquities building. All “stolen” by the Mad Hatter in an attempt to raise more money. Apparently the Duchess didn’t mind her things being sold at ridiculously low prices.
A white and green set with green roses whispered my name. I tried to ignore it but it kept on until I opened my purse and paid the nice gentleman and his wife who told me the Bavarian teapot set came all the way from Florida. It will make a lovely addition to my collection of rose teacups.
Besides, it is in fact my Unbirthday.
For more information on this project: