*Updated 26th February: see later blog
When I was a child, and yes, this was long, long ago, in the antedeluvian, Janet and John days, when we made our own entertainment, I had a toy post office, which I absolutely loved: with a little red enamelled post box, toy town stamps, envelopes, forms, rubber stamps - and a miniature bottle of Stephens ink, all packed into a cardboard mock up of an old fashioned village post office. I loved this set so much, in fact, that - oh dear, this is sad - I didn't want to open it up, use it, and spoil its pristine condition.
Unfortunately, my older brother decided one day to vandalise the box, rip it open, steal the ink and use it for his John Bull printing set. I think he was printing messages to throw out of his bedroom window: Help: I am a prisoner in a post war nuclear family, in the suburban wilderness of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and I want someone to remove my little sister, so that I can resume my blissful previous existance as an only child ... Or something.
My brother then threw the bottle on the fire to see if it would explode, or melt. He denied doing it, as he still does, as recently as last Sunday, even though, readers, I saw him do it. My parents didn't believe he had done it, of course, because he was so well behaved, unlike Mrs Angry. He is still very well behaved, which is why he doesn't read this blog, (or so he claims) ...
Anyway: I was vividly reminded of this scandalous event one day, a year or so ago, when, on impulse, and frankly, to get out of the rain, I nipped into Avenue House, here in Finchley, and found myself wandering around what must surely be the only ink museum in the world, tucked away in the recesses of one of the dark Victorian rooms. Bottles of Stephens ink, pens, blotters, more bottles of Stephens ink. (Not my tiny bottle, please note). And more pens. Don't get me wrong, I love pens: I still write with a fountain pen, in fact, so that people can read my scrawl, and because I love the process of writing with ink flowing out of a nib. And I love weird little museums that celebrate the offbeat interests and obsessions of our eccentric nation.
Why is there an ink museum in Finchley? Because, of course, Avenue House was once owned by Inky Stephens, of the Stephens Ink family. When he died, he left the house and gardens to the people of Finchley. The Grade 2 listed house is a large, rambling building, with many rooms decorated with heavy, late Victorian detail, and the grounds include a unique collection of exotic trees planted in the nineteenth century, gathered from around the world, and a rounded landscape of little hills, allegedly the landscaped deposits of earth dug for the nearby LNER railway. There is an old gardeners' bothy, and a secret walled garden, dragged back from the wild, but still annoyingly unaccessible. The site has a curious earlier history as a property held by the Knights Templars, in fact: like the former Manor House just down the road, relics of Finchley's distant past, much more ancient than many realise.
In 2002, the Avenue House estate was handed over to a body of local people, who were then made responsible for maintaining the house and grounds, letting the rooms for meetings, events and so on: you can hold weddings and parties in some of the rooms. Lots of local bodies and societies use the house for events, in fact, including, from time to time, our entertaining local Residents' Forum.
Since the estate was handed over to a local voluntary body, a trust, there have been some serious issues which have caused controversy and ill feeling, and doubts about the suitability of the new arrangement. There was, notably, a bitter dispute between the Avenue House board and the Finchley Arts Centre Trust over an abandoned use of the Bothy, left unresolved in 2008, and after a ten year restoration project. Last year, a loss of funding to some of the bodies who use the house resulted in a statement from the estate that it faced grave financial problems. And then, suddenly last week, rumours began to circulate that Avenue House was going to close.
Some local residents have now received flyers from the trustees saying that if they do not receive donations from them, the house will close at the end of March, and the property handed back to the council, which will result in the house being boarded up, and the grounds given only minimal maintenance in order that some access can continue. What a shame.
I wandered around the grounds today, to see how things were. As you enter the park, you are confronted with a large noticeboard, informing you that in 1918, the house and gardens were left by old Inky Stephens for "the use and enjoyment always of the public". Underneath this is a notice from the trust telling you you may quietly enjoy the grounds, and then three pages of A4 pieces of paper listing grumpy regulations controlling what sort of fun you may have, including eleven different types of nuisance you may not cause. I couldn't see anything about indecency in the bushes or peeing on the roses, so there might be some scope for antisocial behaviour, if you are so minded, and ladies, you might have to pee on the roses, (I was tempted) as the loos were all locked, and a terse note left on the shut up cafe tells you you can only use the indoor loos in certain circumstances: probably with written permission from Inky Stephens. The Bothy is all boarded up and covered with DANGEROUS STRUCTURE notices, the secret garden too. Elsewhere, ugly orange netted plastic fencing is ringing off abandoned areas of the grounds and casts a jarring visual note. The fabric of the house shows visible signs of crumbling at the front, and there is a general air of decline and fall. What a waste.
But let's think about this more carefully.
The Tories want us to believe that as part of the Big Society, funding should be withdrawn from social and cultural activities, and the running of such services given over to the voluntary sector. Here in Barnet, we are going to lose the Church Farmhouse Museum, and the Barnet Museum, because the philistines in the Tory cabinet would rather sell the buildings for development, and cut all funding, than support the only two borough venues which are dedicated to preserving and exhibiting our local heritage. They tell us that in Big Society style, volunteers can easily take over the running of these museums, and manage them without support from the council.
I think it is quite clear from what has happened at Avenue House that this is simply not possible. It is too heavy a burden. Whatever the good intentions of the people who have given their efforts and energies to keeping the estate going since 2002, the hard truth is that it cannot survive without professional administration, and, more crucially, proper funding. It can generate revenue, but not enough to be completely self sufficient.
If the trustees of Avenue House give the lease back to the council, this will be a shame. It need not be the end of the story, however. With support, and careful management, the financial health of the estate could improve, and perhaps it might even provide an opportunity to expand the use of the buildings. Why not move the Barnet Museum to the house, and expand the museum so as to present a more ambitious presentation of the history of the borough? Some of the material in storage, and some of the borough's unseen artworks, now languishing in the archives, could be on permanent view. You might even, sshh, charge a small entrance fee to generate income ... it wouldn't replace the excitement of the ink museum, of course, but even so ...
When Inky Stephens left his house and gardens to the people of Finchley, he must have expected the local borough to take responsibility for his estate: it is surely their moral duty to step in now and take an active interest once more. I do realise that morality is a difficult concept for some of our councillors, so let's approach it from a purely pragmatic direction. This issue is right at the core of the dilemma of the Big Society: if you want it to succeed, you have to continue to help people help themselves, and this includes giving the appropriate financial support, rather than implementing ideological spending cuts and pretending you are empowering the community you claim to serve.