THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON Stamford Brook 1a) Chiswick House
It's a recently reopened jewel in West London. It's a classical villa built in grand style lying just off the A4. It's surrounded by a garden that's both ground-breaking and gorgeous. And in that garden's there's a landscaped canal which might or might not be the remnant of a lost river. Could be.
Chiswick House was built in the 1720s by Lord Burlington, a bright young thing who'd been inspired by the Palladian villas of northern Italy. He wanted a house to show off, but not to live in, and so commissioned a building the like of which London had never seen before. Porticos and Venetian windows, symmetrical steps and Roman pillars, all topped off with an octagonal dome [photo]. At Chiswick he would entertain the nobility, usually as part of his unofficial role as chief patron to the Arts, and they would be duly inspired by the dazzling walls and ceilings within. You, on the other hand, can get inside for a fiver (open Sunday to Wednesday until the end of October). An audio guide helps explain the historical nuances of what you're seeing, from the more ordinary spaces on the ground floor to the "wow look at that" rooms upstairs. There's a Green Velvet Room, a Blue Velvet Room and a Red Velvet Room (you'll know which is which), plus a central chamber lined by giant portraits beneath a coffered skylight. It's easy to see how 18th century visitors would have been awestruck.
The gardens are almost as impressive. Chiswick House boasts the earliest example of an 'English Landscape Garden' - bravely informal in its time, and littered with classically inspired features [photo]. Avenues lead off into manicured undergrowth, terminating at some chunk of stonework or lofty obelisk. Paths wind through woodland to reach a hidden cricket pitch or sprawling glass conservatory. There's even an Ionic Temple at the garden's heart, although it was swathed in scaffolding when I visited so I can't tell you how impressive it looks.
And then there's the river. It's almost straight, but tweaked so it isn't quite. It dips beneath an unexpectedly humpy bridge [photo]. It's fed by a grotto-like cascade of rippling water. It has ducks, and waterfowl that aren't ducks. It borders a semi-formal lawn where local Chiswick-ites like to picnic (when the weather's better) [photo]. And it runs on an alignment that almost perfectly matches the direction the Bollo Brook would have flowed if only it hadn't turned unexpectedly east halfway down. Some say the brook did indeed once pass this way, and now runs in a pipe along the bottom of the channel. If that's the case then the waters must once have flowed straight on, across Duke's Meadows to the Thames, although there's no sign there today [photo]. Hell, who cares? The possibility of a lost river brought me to ChiswickHouse, but the certainty of beauty should be enough to tempt you instead.