Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Sunday Afternoon at Syon

Thirty percent of London is parkland. Thirty percent. London as a whole takes up about 600 square miles. That means about 200 square miles is devoted to parks. By way of comparison, Los Angeles is a bit over 400 square miles--a bit less if you subtract the parks and beaches that make up a much smaller percentage of open space. But over 8 million Londoner have to squeeze into around the same space--400 square miles--that sprawling LA uses for living space for its 3 million plus residents. The implications, I hope, are obvious.

Many of London's parks are huge affairs, such as the famous central London parks of Kensington Park and Hyde Park. Large local parks such as Lammas and Walpole in our neighborhood in Ealing provide valuable breathing spaces for the majority of Londoners living in relatively cramped quarters. The majority of homes and flats in our area are not much bigger than our cottage's 807 square feet. Some of them certainly house families larger than our own. The parks allow adults and children to stretch their legs with walking paths, playgrounds, tennis courts, and large lawns for playing with dogs and smacking footballs back and forth. And then there are the very large but more obscure parks unknown to casual visitors. Our advantage is that we are not casual visitors. We are serious, long-term visitors indeed, practically residents. We have the benefit and the opportunity--indeed the obligation! the duty!--to explore more obscure regions of the city.

So in that spirit we set forth Sunday afternoon with umbrellas unfurled as we braved the drizzle, our destination a large green blob on our maps by the shores of the River Thames. It would not take us long to get there. Jaunt over to Boston Manor Road, hop on the E8 bus at the tube station, ride south for a few minutes to the end of the bus line, forcing us off the bus in Brentford. As the name suggests the old town, now firmly within London's orbit, is named for a ford across the River Brent. The major road to southwest England from London, going all the way to Bath and Bristol, is the nearby Great West Road, now a major thoroughfare with some major old art decco buildings. That road has been in existence in one form or another for thousands of years. With a little guidance from our bus driver, we soon found ourselves in Syon Park.

It's worth noting, before going further, that Brentford is the site of two historic battles as well as a doubtful one. The doubtful one involved Julias Ceasar who supposedly crossed the Thames at this point and encountered some native Britons on his way to Verulamium, the ancient Roman town at St. Albans. The first Battle of Brentford was fought past the mists of time in 1016 between the forces of the Saxon king, Edmund Ironside, and Canute, the Viking king of the Danes. To quote British History Online:

Edmund Ironside having obliged the Danes to raise the siege of London in the year 1016, pursued them to Brentford, where he defeated them with great slaughter. In the ardour of the pursuit, a great number of the English soldiers lost their lives in the River. Here the same king afterwards passed the Thames at low water in pursuit of the Danes, who were ravaging the county of Kent.

Canute later defeated Edmund at Ashingdon, whereupon they divided England between them with the agreement that whoever should die first would cede his portion of England to the other. Unfortunately for Edmund, he died in November of the same year.

The more recent Battle of Brentford was fought between the Royalists forces of King Charles I and the Cromwellian Roundheads in 1642 as the Royalists tried to advance to London. Though the Royalists won this day, they lost the next day at Turnham Green.

Syon Park, if you looked at this map, is about the same size as Gunnersbury Park. (If your are so inclined you can enlarge the map, centering the hand between Boston Road and Northfield Avenue, until you see our street, Ridley Avenue, appear. That will give you an idea of our relation to our immediate territory and, if you are inclined to explore further, where we are in the relation to the rest of London.) There is, however, an important difference. The public owns Gunnersbury Park through the Ealing and Hounslow Councils. Syon Park, on the other hand, is the property of Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland.

This is Syon House, the residence of the Duke and his family. Apparently this isn't the Duke's only residence as he also owns a castle in Alnwick between Newcastle and the Scottish border. Syon House encircles a small garden and the rooms the Duke and his family live in surround this garden. The rooms open to the public encircle the inner private rooms with windows facing the fields and the Thames beyond. For a fee the public is invited to view the gardens and the public rooms of the house. The online tour is worth flipping through to get an idea of the grandeur of the rooms. I hope it goes without saying that the rooms are more impressive in person than in the photos.

The history of the house is too long to relate here, but the web site has a good summary. In brief, prior to its dissolution by Henry VIII Bridgettine nuns operated a very wealthy abbey founded by Henry V. Where the house sits today an Abbey as large as Westminster possessed the ground. The later ducal residents and the house itself seem to have been involved with some notable personalities and events, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Percys, before achieving ducal honors, were earls, and the son of one of them helped the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia. The first Duke hired Robert Adams to remodel the interior of the house. The Duke's illegitimate son, James Smithson, provided the funds to establish the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The second Duke fought for the British in the American War of Independence (as our Revolutionary War is called here), befriended and supported a Mohawk chief, and later commissioned Gilbert Stuart, Georg Washington's portaitist, to paint three portraits, including one of the Mohawk chief, Joseph Brant.

There is more stories to tell that include Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry VIII, Charles I, Queen Victoria.

The third Duke commissioned the design and construction of this wonderful conservatory. Essentially a huge greenhouse, the conservatory houses trees rare in England such as palm trees.

 This statue graces the front of the conservatory.

Wine cuttings from the conservatory helped start the
Australian wine industry.

Looking for fish, and finding them.

This sign suggests the Park's unobtrusive profit motive.

The net worth of the Duke, according to Wikipedia, not always the most reliable source, is 300 million pounds. He, or his managers, have cleverly succeeded in introducing businesses to the estate that fit in with overall tenor of the property. Examples are the excellent garden centre, a child care center, an indoor playground, a fishery, and the location for major motion pictures. And the Duke is more than willing to accommodate corporate events and wedding receptions as well. In one small corner of the his estate he built athree or four buildings of flats. Whether he intendes to sell them or rent them I don't know. If you explore the web site for the Duke's castle at link above you will find similar offerings and activities. The 12th Duke will certainly leave his estate intact, and then some, when the 13th Duke inherits it. If only the Ealing and Hounslow Councils could manage Gunnersbury half as well as the Duke as managed Syon.
A pair of Tudor roses on one of the gates. The rain had stopped by the time we finished exploring the great house. We had a bite to eat in the cafe and Erika bought some colorful violets to brighten our home at the gardent centre.
We wanted to see the River Thames, so we walked along the parks road to its southern entrance, where we had this view cattle lying in a marshy field. Remember this park is still in London, only about 10 miles from the center of the city. Planes landing at Heathrow flew overhead every couple of minutes. While we were in London, we were certainly not of it.
The River Thames, looking upstream. Note that the tide is low, that the tidal ebb and flow still influences the river this far from the sea. On the left is Kew Gardens, the huge and important botanical gardens. Behind the trees, I believe, is Kew Garden's golf course.
This view upstream again shows an island. The main channel of the Thames is on the left. At this point we have left Syon Park and entered the small village of Isleworth. It looks like a pretty exclusive, meaning very expensive, community today. Looks like a lovely place to live.

Pub on the wharf at Isleworth, the London Apprentice. Henry VIII and Charles I used to hang out here. I wonder if they played darts. When we go back to look at the Syon Park gardens more closely, we'll have to stop for lunch here. As it was, we had an incredibly satisfying Sunday afternoon.

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