by Fiona Duncan, The Telegraph, March 4, 2019
A hotel can change its looks; it can even change its name, but two things remain the same: its location and its history. Whatever new guise the Bingham takes on, I’ll always have a soft spot for it because it’s the setting and the people who once occupied it that intrigue me.
After a month-long closure to complete a top-to-toe refurbishment, including all 15 bedrooms, Richmond’s Bingham hotel has reopened to become Bingham Riverhouse, satisfactorily pitching itself as more of a Soho House, hang-out-all-day kind of place than the rather self-conscious boutique bolt-hole it was. Thanks to the newly revealed interiors of in-demand designer Nicola Harding, the hotel’s erstwhile glam, shiny looks, all droplet chandeliers, mushroom walls and chunky modern furniture, have been swept away in favour of “easy living”.
Now there’s a spacious bar that has the feel of a country house kitchen, striking modern art, wireless and rechargeable shaded lamps on the tables, and books, loads of them. The walls of the restaurant and the mantlepiece of the sitting room are now filled with rows of nicely dog-eared old Penguin paperbacks that remind me of home. Funny that: it may have taken 40 years and a pathological inability to banish old books, but now my house looks like it’s been designed by Nicola Harding.
I can’t help rootling through the paperbacks. Ones I won’t find among them are the eight books of poetry and 27 plays of Michael Field, the pseudonym of aunt and niece Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, who lived here from 1899 to 1914. Whenever I think of them, I imagine a pair of those droopy clairvoyant ladies, forever summoning spirits and communing with nature, similar to the ones Richmal Crompton’s William often had to deal with. “I have rubbed myself against nature’s great, warm hand,” wrote Katharine, after a bout of gardening “in a spirit of pagan delight.” Crikey.
One can’t help laughing but, in fact, they were pioneers. Separated in age by 16 years, Katharine and Emma were also passionate lovers, whose works, inspired by pagan classicism and Sappho, dealt quite openly with erotic love between women. I do think the hotel should have copies of their selected works, which are available, and of the book by Emma Donoghue, We are Michael Field, which draws on their diaries to describe them: snobbish, arrogant eccentrics who never lost their appetite for life or their passion for each other, but whose greatest devotion was saved for their dog.
Bingham began life as two Georgian town houses. In 1821, Lady Anne Bingham, a forebear of Lord Lucan, created the lovely double-height drawing room, with its ornate cornice and elegant French windows leading to the wrought-iron balcony. After the demise of the two poets (who died within a year of each other), the house, during that time a literary hub for figures such as Robert Browning and W B Yeats, became neglected and, in 1984, the formidable Ruth Trinder, who had arrived in Britain from Kenya to train as a nurse, bought the building with her husband, Bill, and turned it into a B&B. Daughter Samantha took it on later and, in 2006, Bingham, boutique hotel, was born.
When Shay Cooper was head chef, it had a Michelin star; now his former sous, Andrew Cole, cooks easy-going sharing dishes and individual ones such as Jerusalem artichoke tart, turbot on the bone and raw clementine cheesecake. The staff, led by Erick Kervaon, the bighearted general manager, have always been particularly fun, foreign and friendly.
I like arriving after dark, and waking in the morning to the view – for the real joy of the Bingham is its enviable position right on the Thames, with a lovely garden that leads directly to the towpath. Opt for a River Room such as Baudelaire or Sweet Briar, with its vast copper bath, and revel in being so close to London and yet so far.
In the spirit of Katharine and Edith, be sure to make your way to the top of Richmond Hill, where the view across Petersham Meadows to the famous bend in the Thames is one of England’s most celebrated, painted by Turner, Reynolds and many others. Just out of sight is the river’s busy stretch at Richmond but here, with Marble Hill House and Ham House hidden in the trees on either bank, the Thames goes quiet and rural and its great sleepy curve towards Teddington Lock somehow embodies the romantic idealism that 18th and 19th-century artists – and poets – so loved.
Doubles from £120 per night, including breakfast. Not suitable for guests using wheelchairs.
Read the full hotel review: Bingham Riverhouse