The Civic Society column with David Winpenny
David Cameron on 12 September 2016. Boris Johnson on 4 June 2008. Peter Mandelson on 8 September 2004. Robert Kilroy Silk on 1 October 1986. Ian Paisley and Enoch Powell, both on 17 December 1985.
To this list of illustrious (or otherwise) MPs, we might add two for Ripon, Christopher York (12 February 1954) and Sir Charles Wood Bt (4 February 1866), as well as Ripon-born Cortney Kenny, MP for Barnsley (25 February 1889).
What do they all have in common, other than having sat in the Commons? And what do the dates signify?
The answer is that they all once had nominal possession of a Japanese pagoda built in 1929 – and the date is that on which they took it over. The pagoda is not in an exotic oriental location, but in a public park in Scarborough.
All these MPs (and another 364 others) were appointed to the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead, on those dates.
The Stewardship is one of the two ‘offices of profit under the Crown’ that allow an MP to resign; it is taken alternately with the more famous Chiltern Hundreds.
So, for whatever reason the MP resigns – having lost a referendum vote, becoming Mayor of London, a European Commissioners or a television star, perhaps, to make a political point or because of ill health – he (or she, though so far no female MPs have been appointed to the office) may end up with the Scarborough pagoda.
The current incumbent is Jamie Reed, former MP for Copeland, who resigned from the Commons in January last year to take up a new job at Sellafield.
The manor house at Northstead, once a royal property, fell into ruin several centuries ago, and the site is now covered by the boating pool of Scarborough’s Peasholm Park. The park has crazy golf, a band stand and naval battles with model ships, as well as an island with an illuminated ‘Tree Walk’: this year the lake has been dredged.
The MPs’ pagoda sits on the island’s highest point above a pseudo-Japanese cliff face complete with flowering cherries and tumbling waterfalls. It was designed by the Scarborough Borough Engineer, George Alderson, using the latest technical advances of the 1920s, ‘Celotex’ panels and ‘Sitfast’ pantiles.
The Scarborough pagoda (in which the incumbent Steward could hold a tea ceremony, though not for many guests) is only one of a surprising number of oriental buildings dotted throughout the kingdom, evidence of a British romance with the far east stretching back several centuries. Stylistically there seems in the past to have been some confusion between the Chinese and Japanese but all these structures add to the eclectic variety of the British landscape.
Similar in design to the Scarborough pagoda is the Japanese teahouse at Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, part of the nineteenth-century garden now restored and owned by the National Trust.
It is approached by a bridge like that on a willow-pattern plate and consists of a square tower with up-turned roof, and an open arcade from which to view the water lilies blooming on the small lake.
At Woburn Abbey the Duke of Bedford commissioned Henry Holland to design a Chinese-style dairy in 1786, one of several such buildings throughout the country.
The interior is as charming as the outside, with cool marble shelves and imitation bamboo brackets supporting the ornamental bowls and jugs with which the ladies of the great house played at milkmaids in the manner of Marie Antoinette.
One of England’s earliest Chinese buildings, built of timber and with its interior painted with delicate rococo chinoiserie scenes, is still in existence, although, like the Cliveden pagoda, it has had a peripatetic life.
Designed by William Kent, the Chinese House stood on the lawns at Stowe in Buckinghamshire for a while, but was dismantled in 1751 and taken to nearby Wotton, where it remained for exactly 200 years before its removal to Harristown in Co. Kildare. It was returned to Stowe in 1988.
Britain’s tallest and best-known pagoda is in Kew Gardens. It was designed in 1761 by Ripon-educated Sir William Chambers, architect of Somerset House, for the Dowager Princess of Wales. Chambers had an immense advantage over other architects of his day who tried to design in the oriental style: he had been to China with the Swedish East India Company.
The fruits of the journey included his book ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils’ of 1757 (on which Chinese structures as far away as Russia were based) and the Pagoda at Kew.
It is 163 feet high in ten storeys and is built of brick with wooden balconies which have fretted panels like the backs of ‘Chinese Chippendale’ chairs.
It originally had dragons (presumably not a reference to the royal patron) on each of the points of the octagonal roofs which protect the balconies, but even without them it is an imposing and exotic sight in west London.
Also out of the ordinary is Alton Towers, today renowned as one of the country’s best amusement parks, but famous last century as a fine specimen of the eclectic garden. Many of the odd structures built by the Earl of Shrewsbury still exist, including the pagoda, with its 70-foot water spout, and the bells on the points of the roof. It was originally intended to be 86 feet tall in six stages and was to have been lit by gas lamps fuelled from a diminutive gas-holder hidden in the shrubbery.
Only three storeys were built and the gas supply remained a pipe dream, but it is still one of England’s best pagodas.
There are plenty of other oriental structures around – you have only to go to Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate, for instance, or to the Himalayan Garden at Grewelthorpe, to see examples. None of them, though, will welcome a new nominal owner the next time an MP has had enough – or is forced to leave; perhaps the Peasholm pagoda will be a least a small recompense for the loss of parliamentary prestige.