2♠ Acton/Brentford & Chiswick The Herbert Commission proposed combining Acton, now in Ealing, with Brentford & Chiswick, now the eastern end of Hounslow. That pairing may not have come to pass, but the two former boroughs are still linked by twinbattles during the early days of the English Civil War. In 2007 the Battlefields Trust erected six information boards at the appropriate locations, each of which I attempted to locate, like a giant game of heritage orienteering. If you're resident in this part of west London, do you, perhaps, live on the site of the third largest battle on British soil?
The English Civil War was barely three months old when the focus of hostilities reached Middlesex. Royalist forces were on the move down the Thames Valley after the indecisive Battle of Edgehill, while the Parliamentarians had slipped ahead and returned to their stronghold in London. The two sides met again just west of Brentford, the King's advance guard disturbing a group of red-coated artillerymen outside the house of royalist Sir Richard Wynn. Hedges on each side of the road provided cover for defensive cannon fire, which kept the King's horsemen at bay until a larger group of footsoldiers arrived, and on they pressed.
This early action took place in what was known as New Brentford, a ribbon of housing along the main road to the west of the town, where Sir Richard's house was located by the main exit from Syon Park. That exit is long closed, but the Lion Gate still stands with its classical colonnaded screen and a stone beast prowling on top. As for the Battlefield Trust's first information board, that's been plonked in a flower bed on the Syon Estate, just outside the entrance to the Wyevale Garden Centre. I can't believe many shoppers with pelargoniums on their mind stop to read it, nor long distance coaches dropping off their pensioners, but I did, and then set off to find the rest.
Brentford Bridge has been replaced at least twice since the Civil War standoff in 1642. This key crossing of the river Brent was the strategic position Parliamentary forces were hoping to defend, and had set up a barricade to try to repel the advancing forces. Unfortunately the earlier cannon fire in the initial skirmish had scared off most of the Parliamentary horsemen, so the bridge took less than an hour to capture and the King's men streamed into the town.
The bridge is still a bottleneck, and now crosses a river which doubles up as the Grand Union Canal. It's also considerably more built-up than it was, not least the speculative marina-style residential development that now surrounds the canal basin. Today a large Holiday Inn stands in the prime defensive position, a poster in the window keen to welcome passing trade to the Starbucks within using the bland slogan "Visit our new open lobby concept". I resisted. A worrying proportion of the commercial premises in the parade across the road are up for sale or rent, but Artisan Chocolates remain available, most probably to a royalist demographic.
A second barricade, close to the top of Ferry Lane, held back the King's forces for a couple more hours. But Lord Brooke's Regiment of Foot were soon almost surrounded, and fled for their lives, either by road back towards London or by escaping into the Thames. Here several drowned, discovering too late that they weren't good at swimming in battle dress. Total Parliamentary losses in the Battle of Brentford were about 50, while fewer than 20 Royalists lost their lives, and they celebrated by ransacking the town. King Charles' men were on the advance, and the next day's battle might prove conclusive.
Information Board number three is outside Brentford County Court, which isn't as illustrious as it sounds, unless you think 1960s reinforced concrete bastions count. Also outside is a pillared monument commemorating this Battle and other key moments in Brentford's history, including some proper big hitters like Edmund Ironside's battle against Canute and (allegedly) Julius Caesar's crossing of the Thames. Meanwhile the heart of Brentford is being systematically wiped away, as boatyards and warehouses are replaced by Waterside Living, but if you still fancy exploring then several old wharves and alleyways survive... for now.
On Sunday morning the action switched a couple of miles up the road, to open land in Chiswick, where the two forces assembled at dawn. Only two battles on British soil ever involved more soldiers than this. The Royalists numbered 13,000, and were low on ammunition and provisions. The Parliamentarians who faced them numbered 24,000, their total swelled by untrained militia who'd walked out from London to join the fight. These inexperienced soldiers were sandwiched into the centre of the Earl of Essex's line, as a prominent signal to the King's men that the capital was firmly in favour of Parliament.
Both armies fitted into the gap between what are now Chiswick Park and Turnham Green tube stations, with the Parliamentarians in a line starting close to the latter and stretching south towards what's now Hogarth Lane. It's hard to imagine Turnham Green Terrace as a warzone, unless the battle was gentrification, in which case this upmarket Chiswick parade won long ago. Sushi bars and kids' clothing boutiques mix with patisseries and the ultimate symbol of retail pointlessness, an Oliver Bonas outlet. Board Four is located up the less posh end, opposite the tube station, on Chiswick Back Common. Impressively I had to wait for a mother and son to stop reading it before I could take a look myself, confirming that historical interest is not dead.
With the opposing armies only 500 metres apart, something of a standoff ensued. The King's troops knew they were greatly outnumbered so were reticent to attack, particularly this close to the capital, and because to be seen to slaughter inexperienced Londoners might be a politically poor move. The Parliamentarians also preferred to stand their ground, aware that their role was simply to prevent a Royalist advance. They also had the advantage that a large crowd of spectators had turned up from London, bringing much needed food and occasional applause, although they also tended to run away when the fighting got too loud.
I took some time to locate information panel 5, the only clue on the overall map being the words 'Barley Mow'. I interpreted this as Barley Mow Passage, home to the Barley Mow Centre, a historic back alley leading off from Turnham Green. But there was no board here, only an interwar office block, a former Post Office and the rear of a pub. I turned to the Battlefields Trust website for clues, but their 2007 photo showed a Woolworths in the background which didn't really help. Eventually I found the board on the High Street round the other side of the pub, which it turns out had been called the Barley Mow since 1788, but changed its name to The Lamb in 2012. No sense of history, these Chiswickians.
The Royalist front straggled off into hedgerows towards Acton, the plan being to protect the army's northern flank from attack. But a Parliamentary manoeuvre soon flushed these diffuse soldiers out, leading to some of the only casualties of the battle. In a separate move the Earl of Essex sent foot soldiers up onto the higher ground in Acton, then thought better of it, withdrawing his troops for fear of splitting his army in two. A stalemate ensued, and late in the afternoon the King's troops withdrew to Hounslow Heath to avoid further confrontation. King Charles would never again come so close to taking London, and a war which might have ended before Christmas dragged on for four more years.
The final information panel is at the western end of Acton Green, a long strip of parkland in the shadow of the railway embankment, and a remnant of the open commons which existed hereabouts in the 17th century. It's now the kind of place where mummies do yoga under the trees, and daddies try to encourage toddlers to ride scooters with due respect for health and safety. Equally it's where a funfair has turned up this week, with a handful of whirling rides and a village of caravans, trailers and generators stretched out behind. It takes a very vivid imagination to strip away the surrounding shops and houses, and to picture tens of thousands of soldiers facing off in a battle which could have been a turning point in our island's history, but wasn't quite.