diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 15, 2014

On the border between Ealing and Hounslow, and acting as a repository for both, lies Gunnersbury Park Museum. It's a peculiar place, simultaneously very grand and rather down at heel, but it and the surrounding parkland have a fascinating past. And, if the planned Heritage Lottery grant is finally approved, a more promising future.

In 1760 a Palladian mansion set a mile back from the Thames, a little beyond Chiswick, was bought by George II for his favourite daughter Princess Amelia. She used it as her summer retreat and landscaped the estate, only for the main house to be demolished soon after her death. In its place were built the unimaginatively titled Small Mansion and Large Mansion, the second of which was purchased in 1835 by the financier Nathan Mayer Rothschild. The family lived here at Gunnersbury for the next ninety years, extending the estate and inviting the political establishment and nobility and round to grand parties. They added stables and an Orangery, built a gothic tower by the lake to act as a boathouse, and laid out Japanese and Italian gardens to impress guests. Then in 1925, after the death of the third generation, the Rothschilds moved out. They sold up to Ealing and Acton councils, which helped to protect the estate from being turned into residential streets housing, and a 200 acre public park was created. Neville Chamberlain came to open it, and in 1929 the Large Mansion was duly reimagined as a museum. It's still going, if not still going strong, and still very much under civic control.

It must have been a grand sight in its time, rather grander than it looks now. The carriage drive out front is now a stretch of tarmac where the museum volunteers park their cars. The paint on the stucco frontage is cracked and peeling, especially on the upper storey. And the letters MUS and EUM are pasted individually in the windows on the ground floor, in case you haven't spotted them above the pillared porch above the front door - anything to encourage visitors inside.

Sorry, the upstairs rooms are all out of bounds at present, so don't try heading up there. Instead step through the arch in front, and ahead again, to read a bit about the history of the Rothschilds. The room's full of carriages, including the Victorian version of a luxury coach, and the family's in-town model for riding to Parliament, and the actual very last hansom cab to drive the streets of London. That's not a Rothschild original, but part of the collection that Ealing and Hounslow councils have stashed in the building and partly on display. If you want to see the L and Z from the Lucozade sign on the Great West Road, and a Robots of Death mask from Dr Who (as made for Ealing Studios), they're in the old Library. Or there's an exhibition elsewhere of items made in the two boroughs, of which there are a phenomenal number, from Brylcreem to Routemasters and Hoovers to Guinness. It was supposed to be a temporary exhibition, but the proposed end date rolled round in 2011 and the exhibits show no sign of replacement.



But actually, for a twin borough museum, there's not very much to see. Two other rooms are filled with general Victoriana, such as cookware and household goods, this with a general eye on educating local primary school children. Another houses two dozen information boards regarding the transformation the Friends of the Museum hope the Lottery will bring, ideally both house and grounds, and so thorough it'll take until 2026 to complete. But what you should be doing in the meantime is staring not at the contents but at the rooms themselves. They've faded a bit, but some of the ostentatious decoration shines through, for example in the painted ceilings, the gilded columns and the sort-of original wallpaper.

And there is one treat normally hidden from view, located down the servants' corridor on the other side of a keypad-locked door. You'll need to get the volunteers to open it up for you, or hope they mention to you it exists... that's the Victorian Kitchen Wing. This has survived pretty much intact because park staff used to use it for indoor maintenance, hence the tiles and shelves and grates were left pretty much alone. A good scrub-up has created a splendid set of rooms, including a 27-burner gas range which is the sort of thing you had in the 1840s if you were rich, and a scullery full of irons, mangles and washboards. Again you can see the education angle coming through strong, but the kitchens also validate a visit for adults too. Come at the weekend rather than on a weekday if you'd like to look inside.



There's a considerable amount to explore in the park outside too, including a 'temple' by a pond and several semi-ruined garden features. The far side of the park is Hounslow's answer to Hackney Marshes, with umpteen football pitches crammed in for simultaneous league matches, plus there's a nine hole pitch and putt course, which might keep many clubbers happy. If you want to wander round and discover the history by yourself, a local group have put together a 15 minute podcast which you can listen to and read about here. And whilst there's always a feeling that this once grand park is undergoing underfunded decline, there''s always hope it'll rise again, and the whole package still retains considerable charm.


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