Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Syon Park

My eldest son set me a challenge for his recent trip to London. He was travelling with his “partner” (don’t like the moniker but can’t think of anything better) and wanted to show her one of the great country houses of England. The challenge consisted of the fact that we only had an afternoon to devote to the visit.

It’s not that we don’t have great houses close to London, such as Osterley, Kenwood, Chiswick or Ham. They may be lovingly maintained by worthy organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage, but if you are only going to visit one great house, it’s all the better if the family is still wealthy, powerful and in residence. The furniture and furnishings are the “real deal”. The photographs of the weddings, the christenings, the Christmas celebrations and the inevitable one of the family with the Queen, make the experience richer and more unique, not to mention more voyeuristic. If the house can claim to have been eye witness to important moments in British history, better still. After mulling over our options, I emailed Lee to say we should definitely go to Syon Park

Located 10 miles from Central London, Syon Park has been in the possession of the Percy family, the Earls and Dukes of Northumberland, for more than 400 years. Before that, part of the house had been an Abbey which, following the Dissolution, became a Crown property. The house is full of royal connections. In Tudor times, Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII spent a miserable Christmas there shortly before her execution and Lady Jane Grey was married and resided at Syon until she left for the Tower of London to begin her nine day reign. The corpse of Henry VIII lay in state in the Chapel on its way from Westminster to Windsor, but the decomposing body exploded in its coffin, and dogs were found licking the dripping remains, which was taken as a sign of retribution for Henry’s dissolution of the Abbey.

But the story of Syon Park is first and foremost the story of the Percy family. Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, acquired Syon through marriage in 1594. From a high point when he entertained King James I at Syon, to a turn of fortune which saw him spend 15 years in the Tower of London for alleged complicity in the Gun Powder Plot, Percy led a colourful and fascinating life. He had his ear pierced while campaigning in the Low Countries and built a bowling alley while holed up in the Tower with prodigious amounts of wine and tobacco and 20 servants.

Over the centuries, the titles, lands and vast fortune of the family have thrust its members to the forefront of the nobility and national affairs, and an afternoon at Syon Park gives visitors the opportunity to experience 400 years of British history through the prism of one of its most important families. For visitors more interested in the decorative arts and architecture, Syon Park also excels. There are stunning Robert Adam’s interiors, arguably his greatest, original Spitalfields silk furnishings, State bedrooms used by Princess Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent and a remarkable collection of paintings, porcelain and furniture. An excellent audio guide which is included in the price of admission really helps to make the house and its inhabitants come to life.

Film fans will recognise the settings from such movies as “The Madness of King George”, “Gosford Park” and “The Golden Bowl”. The Gardens and surrounding parklands provide wonderful opportunities for long walks which feel surprisingly rural given one’s proximity to London. For avid horticulturists, there are spectacular greenhouses, Capability Brown landscaping and garden elements from several historic periods. There are lots of attractions for children on the property, including a huge Indoor Action Playground, a Butterfly House and an Aquatic Experience although each attraction carries an extra charge and the costs do add up.

Still, we ended up having a wonderful time at Syon Park. The short commute, lovely rural setting, rich history, original decorations and furnishings, and well thought out audio guide all contributed to a first class experience at one of England’s premier grand houses. If you only have a few hours and an itch to see a stately home, you will be well served by heading to Syon Park.

Syon Park
Brentford, Middlesex TW8 8JF
Tel: 020 8560 0882
Fax: 020 8568 0936

Syon House:
Open from 21 March to 31st October 2007 inclusive - Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays & Bank Holiday Mondays (also Good Friday and Easter Saturday) - 11.00 to 17.00 hours (last entry 16.15 hours)

March to October 2007 open daily - 10.30 to 17.00 hours (or dusk if earlier)
November 2007 to February 2008 weekends & New Year's Day only - 10.30 to 16.00 hours

By Public Transportation: Take the District Line to Gunnersbury and Bus 237 or 267 to Brentlea Gate. The pedestrian entrance is 50 yards away.

Photo courtesy of the Syon House website

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