I have always lived in East London and Wanstead Park has a special place in my heart. The long summers of my childhood were spent riding my bike around Wanstead Flats, racing my brother over the sandhills or around the Hollow Ponds. Even now my ideal Saturday morning involves a walk through the former pleasure grounds taking in The Temple, the Heron Pond and the derelict Grotto – all rounded off nicely with a massive fry up at Caesar’s Palace (Wanstead High Street – not Las Vegas).
My foray into history has been via an unconventional route. At the age of eighteen I had a difficult choice: university and debt / job and income? I left school, got a job in a bank and quickly discovered the joys of working in the pulsating heart of London. There was so much to see and do: clubs and pubs, museums and exhibitions. One of my favourite haunts was the Tattersall Castle, a boat moored on the Embankment. Leaving this nightclub at 2am, we would run to catch the night bus at Trafalgar Square, only slightly hampered by our 5-inch stilettos. Although I was usually worse for wear, I never failed to be captivated by London at night: magical illuminations, majestic buildings stretching along the banks of the Thames, bronze lions guarding Trafalgar Square, the soaring portico of the National Gallery, and the constant candlelit vigil outside South Africa House with chants of ‘free Nelson Mandela’.
During my twenties I discovered that London can be enjoyed on a shoestring because entrance is free for the National Gallery, the British Museum and so many wonderful places. I spent weekends strolling around admiring the architecture, visiting galleries and stopping for a bite at one of the many historic pubs. I particularly loved the elegant Georgian Squares, which piqued my interest in seventeenth and eighteenth century history. After my daughters were born, I continued exploring. There are so many child friendly places to visit – the puppet theatre in Dagmar Passage, the Cutty Sark and Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the London Aquarium near Westminster and Natural History Museum (or ‘dinosaur museum’). My lovely girls were wonderful company (mainly), but they did not always come quietly. There was usually a trade-off – a quick peek in the National Gallery in exchange for dinner at the Rainforest Café.
I discovered my passion for historical research and writing in 1999, when working for an internet company. With the millennium looming, I investigated different aspects of London life and wrote content for a website. This included history, the changing architectural landscape, plus reviews of places to visit. Some of my articles were reproduced by British Airways, Transport for London and various publications. After leaving the internet company, I continued to research and write for pleasure. I attended regular creative writing classes, along with a residential course at the Arvon Foundadtion.
Over the course of my research I came across many intriguing tales, but one kept resonating. I became fascinated by the many myths and legends surrounding Catherine – the enigmatic heiress of Wanstead House. I began to search for clues, assisted greatly by my husband Greg, who is a tenacious researcher. What started out as a small venture quickly gained momentum as we uncovered reams of exciting and shocking material. There were private letters, diaries and the transcript of a highly explosive court case. I did not set out to write a book, but Catherine’s story was just too irresistible.
In 2009, I fulfilled a lifelong ambition by enrolling at Queen Mary University of London as a mature student. My professors and fellow students were hugely supportive and inspiring. I was delighted to obtain a Master’s in History (with distinction).
THE ANGEL AND THE CAD: Love and Loss in Regency England – was published by Pan Macmillan in June 2015. It tells the true story of Wanstead House, Britain’s first and finest Palladian mansion.
Author picture © Geoff Wilkinson