Hampstead Heath, London - I'm sitting outside Café Rouge on the fashionable High Street, sipping an $8 cappuccino.
This tony neighbourhood was a spa town for Londoners in the 1800s, but I'm not interested in recent history. I'm searching for evidence of Hampstead Heath's rural past, that time before wealthy city refugees began a building boom that spared only one major structure from an earlier era - Fenton House, circa 1686.
After wandering down a quiet side street, I enter the grounds of Fenton House through an impressive metal gate and lines of budding false acacias.
The red and brown brick house is pierced with tall, white double-hung windows. The award-winning garden beckons through a yew arbour.
Sunken gardens entice with benches and fragrant mounds of lavender and rosemary. Secluded pea gravel pathways are overhung with wisteria and edged with crisply clipped boxwood.
The grass is precisely trimmed in vertical rows from the house, the grounds still "enclos'd with a substantial Brick Wall," as listed by a previous owner on the notice of sale from 1765. Now, however, the wall is softened by ivy, bay and acanthus.
Variegated holly bushes, pruned into cone shapes, would make extravagant Christmas trees. A jewel-like hummingbird hovers nearby. I'm tempted to spend my entire visit here in the garden.
Inside, the house is as elegant and charming as the surrounding yard. The imposing staircase sports its original twisted balusters. From the morning room I hear the baroque measures of an 18th-century harpsichord - this National Trust site is also home to an exceptional collection of early keyboard instruments.
In 1952, the house and a fine assortment of porcelain, paintings and furniture were bequeathed by the avid collector Lady Katherine Binning. Beds and dressers were excluded from the will; these her heirs readily took.
The Trust filled the gaps with instruments from the 1937 bequest of Major Benton Fletcher.
Most of these instruments are maintained in working order and are occasionally played. I arrive on one of these rare instances.
A small group of antique keyboard aficionados gathers eagerly around the curator of the Benton Fletcher Collection as she demonstrates the unique sounds of one of the prized pieces. The recital transports me back to an earlier era.
Across the hall, the oriental room, which houses Chinese porcelain from the ninth to the 18th centuries, is painted a restful celadon. A matching bowl brims with dried lavender from the garden. Descriptions of the items are available on cards, and I can peruse them at my leisure.
Lady Binning's collection of chinaware is outstanding and presented in an approachable manner. In her bedroom upstairs, ivory walls form a neutral backdrop to an assortment of blue-and-white pieces from the Kangxi period of 1662 to 1722.
The drawing room next door, appointed with Sheraton-style satinwood furniture, is notable for the use of china as room decoration. But I'm fascinated by the Caroline chintz draperies, inspired by early 18th-century hangings in the Kasteel Duivenvoorde in Holland. Dozens of 2-inch oval pieces of cloth, cut by pinking shears and dotted with eyelet holes, are sewn as a flounce along the edges of the fabric. The curtains seem alive with fluttering pink and white petals.
My tour ends on the third floor, where the former servants' quarters are now a modest gift shop. A guide tells me it's often possible to see London in the distance. We peer outside, but the city is lost in the afternoon haze.
The guide seems disappointed. I, however, am relieved, happy to remain in the past just a few moments longer.