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Enjoy home comforts in London's heritage houses

Published on Nov 9, 2012 7:31 PM

For archi-fiends and history lovers, London's greatest joy is its stunning collection of ancient and perfectly preserved houses - many dating back 500 years or more - once home to the well-to-do and noble families of England. Some are grand, on a Downton Abbey scale, while others are a perfect time capsule of how the English upper crust used to live.

Most of these homes were gifted to the National Trust or the Landmark Trust in the early to mid-twentieth century in order to pay off crippling death duties. Many were already in bad shape but thanks to public donations and the work of devoted historians and architects at the trusts, they've been lovingly restored to their former glory.

What many out-of-towners and, indeed, locals don't realise is that most of these homes are open to the public and some are even available for rent. Here are three to check out the next time you're in London.

13 Princelet Street

In the shadow of Norman Foster's futuristic Gherkin and the newly minted Heron Tower skyscraper lies the 18th-century working class neighbourhood of Spitalfields, an enclave of the French Huguenots who fled religious persecution in France and settled here.

Princelet Street was one of the first to be built around 1715 as part of a speculative housing project. Number 13 was first rented to a stonemason in 1718, but by the time it was bought by its last owner, one Peter Lerwill, in 1984, the three-level brick-fronted house was a wreck.

The extensive three-year repair and restoration work, following the original 18th-century floor plan, resulted in a charming three-bedroom home that still features its original joinery alongside an airy interior of high ceilings, large living rooms filled with light streaming in through large windows, timber decked floors that tilt at an angle, and a cute basement kitchen.

The house - which can comfortably accommodate three couples - is owned by the Landmark Trust and can be rented out, depending on the season, for as little as 900 pounds (S$1,753) for four nights.

It's the perfect location for tourists, or even locals looking for a staycation bolthole, to check out the regenerated East End whose grungy chic streets are chock full of avant garde art galleries, hip boutiques selling cult clothing brands, photography studios and smart cafes.

Chiswick House

Chiswick (pronounced 'chi-zick') barely half an hour's drive from central London, is a prosperous middle-class neighbourhood of bankers, lawyers and Yummy Mummies. In the 18th-century, the whole area featured bucolic countryside speckled with grand country estates of the landed gentry.

Not many have survived the ravages of English death duties and time, but Chiswick House stands as a grand reminder of the Empire. Built in 1729 by the Third Earl of Burlington, the neo-Palladian mansion (it's a typical English understatement to call something this imposing a house) was spruced up three years ago after a 12m pound restoration project.

Framed by masculine Greek columns and symmetrical wings, and crowned by a soaring coffered dome, it's a stunning piece of classical architecture. The interiors of the house are breathtaking - a series of set-pieces, each meticulously restored and furnished with rich silks, sumptuous antique furniture and priceless artwork.

The gardens - invariably filled with romping dogs and children - are especially lovely: its 65ha of pastoral landscaping, including an artificial river, was inspired by classical Italian landscape painting.

In fact, its free-flowing design kick-started the English Landscape Movement which, in turn, inspired the planning of New York's Central Park. The Beatles, at the height of their fame, filmed the Paperback Writer and Rain music videos in the conservatory and the Walled Garden.

Ham House

No, this is not a restaurant specialising in porcine delights or charcuterie. Instead, it is one of Europe's greatest 17th-century houses, as well as the setting for this year's Hollywood blockbuster Anna Karenina.

Located in the moneyed suburb of Richmond, a brisk half hour train ride from London, Ham House was built in 1610 by the royal courtier William Murray, a childhood friend of the doomed King Charles I.

His daughter Elizabeth transformed the house into one of the grandest Stuart houses in England, filling its rich gilded oak panelled rooms with gorgeous ceiling frescoes and treasures from around the world including Japanese lacquer cabinets, leather panels painted with baroque flowers, French chaise lounges, original 17th-century books and perfectly preserved Van Dyck oil paintings.

In fact, much of the furnishings are original which gives visitors an unusually authentic peephole into the past.

Tip: In the Green Closet room is an original miniature portrait of Elizabeth I alongside a lock of hair from her lover, the Earl of Essex.

Be sure to stroll through the formal gardens and meadows down to the river, spotting, along the way, the resident badgers, kestrels and woodpeckers. The kitchen garden has, incredibly, been producing vegetables and herbs since at least 1653.

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Singapore Airlines flies four times daily to London.