Once it was owned by Rothschild

ACCIDENTALLY, WE BOARDED a bus, which we believed would take us to Gunnersbury station in west London, but instead it took us to the edge of Chiswick Business Park furthest away from the station. This meant that we had to walk through the business park, and this was no bad thing.

The business park has been built on land that used to be owned by the Rothschild family, who owned nearby Gunnersbury Park for much of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. In 1921, a bus company built a 33-acre bus maintenance establishment on the site where the Rothschild’s used to have orchards and where today the business park stands. This was closed in 1990, and various architects, including Norman Foster, drew up plans to develop the site with buildings around a central ‘piazza’.

Eventually, after gaining planning permission, the first building was completed at the end of 2000. Gradually, the rest of the buildings were constructed. The site was completed in 2015. The result is spectacular. The buildings are uncompromisingly modern, almost sculptural, and, most importantly, pleasing to the eye. They are arranged around an attractive lake or pond, complete with waterfalls, a bridge, and some metal sculptures. A number of small spherical glass and metal ‘meeting pods’ have been placed close to the water feature and there are several refreshment kiosks dotted around the place.

In 2019, a long footbridge, suspended from a series of giant oxidised steel hoops was constructed between the place where our bus (route 70) terminated within the business park and Chiswick Park Underground station. It is an elegant piece of engineering.

We have often passed the Chiswick Business Park whilst travelling by car or bus along Chiswick High Road that forms its southern border, but never bothered to walk in it. Today, we did, and it was a pleasant new experience.  

The Duke, his meadows, and the developers

DESPITE THE RAIN, we decided to walk along the path by the River Thames, proceeding upstream from Hammersmith. I had done this before, but never ventured beyond (i.e., upstream) the attractive church of St Nicholas, Chiswick, in whose graveyard you can find the funerary monument to the painter, William Hogarth (1697-1764), whose former home is nearby, and another to the Italian patriot, Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827). After walking along a riverside pathway that passes several recent, moderately attractive, but probably immoderately priced, housing estates, we reached Chiswick Pier at Corney Reach, whose name commemorates the now demolished Corney House, where Queen Elizabeth I was once entertained by the Earl of Bedford, who owned the place (www.chiswickw4.com/default.asp?section=info&page=conhistory29.htm).

Several lovely old houseboats are moored next to the pier. Near the jetty there is a noticeboard explaining the history of each of these vessels. Soon after this, the riverside path enters Dukes Meadow. Up to Barnes Bridge, which is a combined rail and pedestrian crossing over the river, the meadows form a grassy promenade running parallel to the Thames.  Beyond the bridge, the meadows widen out and extend to Great Chertsey Road that crosses Chiswick Bridge.

The bandstand at Dukes Meadow

The history of Dukes Meadow is recorded in a detailed essay by Gillian Clegg (https://brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk/dukes-meadows-the-threats-to-its-rural-survival/), from which I have extracted most of the following. In the past, the Meadow were low lying farmland and orchards prone to occasional flooding. The land was owned by the Dukes of Devonshire and cultivated by the Jessop family, then later farmed by John Smith of Grove Farm. Incidentally, one of  the Dukes, William, the 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), who had owned nearby Chiswick House in the 18th century. He had both enlarged the house (in 1788) and extended its grounds. At one time, the grounds of Chiswick House must have neighboured the Dukes Meadow. Ms Clegg noted that it was miraculous that the meadows survived as such considering the plans that were proposed for making use of it during the early 20th century.

Two plans were conceived for the ‘development’ of Dukes Meadow. The first was a housing scheme that was to be named ‘Burlingwick’. Clegg wrote:

“On 19 April 1902 The Times newspaper reported that ‘an influential body of capitalists’ had negotiated successfully with the Duke of Devonshire for 330 acres of land for a building plan to be called Burlingwick. The promoter, manager and developer of this scheme was Jonathan Carr, the developer of Bedford Park.”

Had this gone ahead, it would have created housing for up to 400,000 people and 330 acres of green land would have been lost to bricks and mortar. Fortunately, for reasons that are not now too clear the scheme was abandoned in about 1906.

1914 saw the next threat to the Meadows. The Brentford Gas Company planned to cover 80 acres of the Meadow with a huge gasworks. The people of Chiswick and other areas raised strong objections. The London “Times” of 6th February 1914 published its doubts about the scheme, which it said went against all the principles of good town planning, suggesting:

“…that land ripe for building – such as the Chiswick orchard farm – near the heart of the metropolis should be utilized for parks and garden settlement.”

The plan was scrapped, but what the “Times” had alluded to was later realised, but in a then novel way.

In 1923, the local council bought 200 acres of land from the then Duke of Devonshire. The land was to be used as a public recreation area complete with a riverside promenade, a bandstand, and a children’s area with paddling pools. All of this cost the council much money. To recoup some of what they had spent, they made an agreement with the Riverside Sand and Ballast Group. As Ms Clegg explained, the company:

“…was allowed to extract at least five acres every year in exchange for £1,500 an acre.”

The extraction of gravel proceeded from 1924 until 1937 and caused considerable damage to the area. Ms Clegg explained that when the land was finally returned to the council in 1948:

“The gravel pits were filled in, mainly with rubbish brought from inner London, and the area re-landscaped. Dukes Meadows has been described as one of the earliest and most impressive examples of restoration.”

Today, the promenade remains but I saw neither a children’s play area nor paddling pools, which still exist. The bandstand, which stands within a sunken circle lined with steps on which the audience can sit has a hexagonal tiled roof supported by six plain pillars. It is flanked on two sides by spacious shelters, also with tiled roofs. All their roofs are designed so that the angle (or degree) of pitch reduces noticeably about two thirds of the way from the top. Judging by their appearance, I would guess that these structures were built back in the early 1920s. This is confirmed by their appearance in a photograph taken during those years. Also visible in this picture are the unusual, twisted railings, looking like sugar-candy, running alongside the water, and supported by concrete posts with rounded tops. These are still in place today as are their concrete supports which bear simple decorative patterns. Some balustrading can be seen lining the waterfront near the bandstand (see quote below).

Part of the promenade leading towards Barnes Bridge from the Chiswick end of the Meadow is arranged in the form of two long steps. I have no idea why, but maybe they were once used by spectators watching boat races on the river. An article written in 1924 describes the popularity the Meadow with people watching the annual university boat race (http://dmtrust.dukesmeadowspark.com/newriversidepleasaunce.html):

“…in fact so many thousands of people availed themselves of this vantage point last Saturday week at the small admission fee charged by the Council, that over £1,000 net was raised towards the promenade project.”

 However, currently a line of bushes obscures sight of the river and the suburb of Barnes across it from these steps. A planning document produced in November 1923 (http://dmtrust.dukesmeadowspark.com/ariversideboulevard.html) sheds a little light on these steps:

“The Scheme, which received the first prize and was submitted by MR A. V. Elliot, of Chiswick, is reproduced on this page. It shows a series of terraces with a plateau of turf, showing seats and rustic shrubberies at intervals, and with a central feature of a bandstand and stone balustrading including a flight of steps and a causeway admitting to the river at all states of the tide.”

We enjoyed our stroll along the Dukes Meadow promenade even though the sky was grey, trees were dripping, and raindrops were falling intermittently. On our way back along the Thames Path to Hammersmith, we stopped at a charming Italian eatery and delicatessen on Chiswick Mall. The place, which is run by Sicilians, is called Mari Deli & Dining, and merits a visit to enjoy a good espresso, at the very least.

From Chelsea to Chiswick: travels of a gateway

BEAUFORT HOUSE IN CHELSEA was the home of Henry VIII’s ill-fated advisor, Thomas More (1478-1535), between 1521 and his arrest in 1535. After More’s death, the property passed through the hands of several owners, the last of which was the physician and founder of the British Museum Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). He bought the house and its grounds in 1737 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol4/pt2/pp18-27). During 1739 and 1740, Sloane demolished Beaufort House, and sold parts of it and its grounds to be used in other buildings. One of the items he sold was an elegant gateway designed by the British architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), who introduced the neo-classical style to the UK.  The gateway, which was constructed in 1621, used to serve as an entrance to the grounds of the house from Kings Road.

The gateway, which now stands near to Chiswick House in west London, bears a carved stone with the words:

“Given by Sir Hans Sloane, Baronet to the Earl of Burlington 1738.”

Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork (1694-1753), an architect. He built the present Palladian-style mansion at Chiswick in 1717. An admirer of Inigo Jones, he was happy to install the gateway from Beaufort House close to his recently constructed building in Chiswick. Contrary to what appears on the inscription, he paid for the gateway rather than receiving it as a gift from Sloane. A poem by the architect and landscape designer William Kent (c1685-1748) relates the story of this fine gateway (quoted from “The Palladian Revival. Lord Burlington, His Villa and Garden at Chiswick” by John Harris):

“Ho! Gate, how came ye here?

I came fro’ Chelsea the last yere

Inigo Jones there put me together

Then was I dropping by wind and weather

Sir Hannes Sloane

Let me alone

But Burlington brought me hither

This architecton-ical

Gate Inigo Jon-ical

Was late Hans Slon-ical

And now Burlington-ical”

Burlington was so keen to have the gate that he agreed to pay Sloane however much it was valued.

As far as I can see, the gateway serves no other function than as a decorative garden feature. Burlington was a keen collector of the architectural drawings of Inigo Jones and had seen the Beaufort House gateway amongst them. As an enthusiast, he must have been thrilled to have acquired an actual work by the architect he admired. So, apart from being a garden feature, it was a fine collector’s item. I feel that it is a pity that he did not rescue more from the house that Sloane demolished because old drawings and plans of it make it appear as if it was a remarkable edifice.

The gardens of Chiswick House, close to the busy A4 highway, are open to the public free of charge and apart from the fine gateway, there are many other lovely man-made garden features: statues, neo-classical buildings (apart from the main villa), bridges, and a fine waterfall that empties into a lake. The gardens are interestingly laid out, both formal layouts with hedges and also less manicured areas. Come rain or shine, a visit to these gardens is a worthwhile and refreshing experience.

A Russian cathedral and a Palladian villa

IN NORMAL TIMES, we would be setting off for a long stay in India around this period of the year, late October, or early November. We would hire a cab to take us to Heathrow Airport, which is best accessed from our home via the A4 and then the M4. The route to the airport passes a sign for the entrance to Chiswick House, which is about three and a third miles from our home as the crow flies. On the way back from Heathrow on our return from India we pass a church tower adorned with a deep blue coloured onion-shaped dome decorated with gold stars about a mile and a half further west from the Chiswick House turning. Until today, the 11th of November 2020, neither my wife nor I have ever visited these two places.

During our current ‘lockdown’, entering Chiswick House is forbidden, but wandering around its grounds is permitted. And, what a treat they offer. The house, completed in 1729, was built in neo-Palladian style. It was designed by, and built for, Richard Boyle (1694-1753), an Anglo-Irishman who was an aristocrat (3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork) and an accomplished architect. Burlington demolished the Jacobean mansion, the former home of an Earl of Somerset, that he had inherited from his father and replaced it with what we see today (minus some newer additions). Horace Walpole wrote that Burlington’s creation:

“… the idea of which is borrowed from a well-known villa of Palladio (that of the Marquis Capra at Vicenza), is a model of taste, though not without faults, some of which are occasioned by too strict adherence to rules and symmetry…”

Yet, these faults, which were apparent to Walpole, do not disturb our enjoyment of the exterior of the building today. John Summerson, author of “Georgian London”, regarded the villa at Chiswick as being “very magnificent” and pointed out that its plan is close to that of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza.

Following the death of its builder and then his widow, Chiswick House was owned by the 4th and then 5th Dukes of Devonshire. In 1806, the politician Charles Fox died in the house and twenty-one years later, the Prime Minister Lord Canning also expired within its walls. The house fell into decline in the 19th century. After 1892, it was used as a lunatic asylum, and then in 1929, the 9th Duke of Devonshire sold it to Middlesex County Council, who used it as a fire station for a while. During WW2, one of two wings that had been added to the house was hit by a German V2 rocket. In 1956, the two wings that were not part of the Palladian villa were demolished and eventually the fine house designed by Boyle became maintained by English Heritage and accessible to visitors.

The gardens of Chiswick House are not overly large, but they are magnificent. The grounds are full of sculptures, picturesque kiosks, garden follies including sculpted columns and a classical temple, long avenues of trees and hedges. The centrepiece of the grounds is a long stretch of water. It has a waterfall at one end and a beautiful masonry bridge crossing it further downstream. The designers of the gardens, Burlington and the celebrated landscaper William Kent (c1685-1748), are supposed to evoke the gardens of Ancient Rome. It was Kent who designed the waterfall, having been inspired by Italian garden decorative features.  The grounds, though compact, are richly varied with different vistas around every corner. The elegant bridge crossing the water body was commissioned by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and built in 1774 to the designs of James Wyatt (1746-1813), a rival of the great architect Robert Adam. Even under the grey skies that accompanied us today, the gardens at Chiswick House are very uplifting.

There is a café a few yards from the Palladian-style building. Its architecture is a complete contrast to the older building but a successful one. Built in a simple but effective contemporary style with stone colonnades between 2006 and 2010, and designed by Caruso St John Architects, this is the most elegant ‘stately home’ refreshment centre that I have seen so far. From the tables placed outside this superb example of modern architecture, one can enjoy beverages and snacks whilst admiring the fine 18th century house close by.

It did not take more than a few minutes to drive from Chiswick House to the building with the blue onion-shaped dome, The Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs in London (‘the Dormition’, for short) in Harvard Road. We have seen the dome on countless occasions but never the simple white coloured church to which it is attached. We parked in the small carpark next to a Victorian house where the clergy lives and hoped against hope, because most churches are closed these days, that the Russian Orthodox church would be open. And it was.

The church was built in an ancient Russian style in 1999 and contrasts with other Orthodox cathedrals in London such as the Serbian, Greek, and Romanian, which are housed in churches that were originally not used by Orthodox Christians. It was by no means the first Russian Orthodox church in London. That honour goes to a Russian church dedicated to the ‘Dormition’ that was built in 1716 and attached to the Russian Embassy in London. The Russian church moved premises several times, ending up at St Stephens Church in Emperor’s Gate off Gloucester Road. This church was leased from the Scottish Presbyterian Church. When the lease expired in 1989, it was decided to build a new church in Russian style, and this is what we visited in Harvard Road.

A monument close to one of the church’s entrances reads both in Russian and in English:

“In memory of the Holy Royal Martyrs tormented and slain by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg on the 4th of July 1918.”

This is the first monument of this kind that I have seen. We entered the church through doors beneath a tower with several large bells. We were greeted by a priest whose command of English was good enough to answer our questions. This kindly man allowed us to look around and to take photographs.

The interior of the church is a complete contrast to its plain white exterior. Every surface of the walls and ceiling is decorated with frescos. A large circular lamp holder is suspended beneath the dome in whose roof there is a portrait of the Pantocrator. The panels of the iconostasis were beautifully painted in that ageless style typical of eastern Orthodox church painting. They were painted in about 2008 by craftsmen from Russia, who based their creations on the Moscow style of the 15th and 16th centuries.

My grandparents, my father’s parents, were born in Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. I wonder whether it was this fact or, more likely, because he had passed away a few days earlier that made us mention his recent demise (at the age of 101) to the priest. On hearing this, he disappeared through a door in the iconostasis and returned with a candle, which he lit and gave us to place in a holder in front of the painted icons on the sacred screen. When we had done this and stood prayerfully, he gave us a small white card and asked us to write my father’s name and dates on it, so that the congregation could pray for his soul on his death anniversaries.  We were moved by the kindness of this man who had only just met us, a man whose ancestors might have regarded members of my ancestors’ religion with far less sympathy, or none at all.

We drove home having experienced two wonderful things, the beauty of Chiswick House and the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger.