diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 10, 2010

I said, when I pulled Hounslow out of my random jamjar three Novembers ago, that I'd have to come back. The borough's dripping with elegant stately homes, none of which I managed to get inside at the time because they were all closed. So, true to my word, I waited for "a warm sunny summer's day" and went back to two of them. Yes, I said Hounslow. Don't look quite so surprised.

Osterley Park
Osterley ParkFew of the National Trust's London properties are whoppers. But Osterley Park is a proper stately home of indecent size surrounded by its own farmland estate, just like you might find in the heart of Bucks, Lincs or Wilts. That'd be because its location used to be in deepest Middlesex, at least until the capital grew and swallowed the surrounding countryside whole. The house remains extremely well hidden, even from the major motorway which carves inelegantly through the remaining estate. But plenty of folk make the effort to come and enjoy, be that the mansion, the tearooms or simply the surrounding lakeside park.

Osterley Park is a large Jacobean mansion, remodelled in the late 18th century by architect Robert Adam. The National Trust have sought to recreate the interior as it was at that time, when banker Robert Child and his wife Sarah lavished their City fortune on art, furnishings and entertainment. Today's tour concentrates on the house's extravagant decor, taking in a panelled long gallery, a tapestry-walled drawing room and a dome-topped eight-poster bed. All the usual NT staples are included - including the obligatory wander round the kitchen and servant's quarters in the basement as a reminder that not everybody had it so good.

Osterley ParkVisitors get to sling a ground-breaking audiovisual guide around their neck, which not only recounts the history through headphones but also displays relevant scenes on a small colour screen. I'd not seen anything quite so hi-tech in the heritage industry before, but kept forgetting to look at the pictures because the objects were in front of me anyway. The headphones also cut me off from the NT stewards patrolling each room, who stood around looking rather more bored than usual now that no plugged-in visitor wanted to ask them any questions. Instead some moaned to one another about the lack of attention, and how badly they thought the rota had been organised, and wasn't it time for lunch yet - all under the misapprehension that I couldn't possibly be listening.

Outside, in the old stable block, are the obligatory NT cafe and shop. You can grab a nice slice of cake or a tea towel, depending on which you visit, or enjoy a jar of locally-sourced preserve in either. Close by is the entrance to the Osterley Park's enormous private garden, plus a man from whom you can hire a mobility scooter. The more formal beds are nearest the house, and emerging into a riotous blaze as summer approaches. More adventurous visitors can attempt the Long Walk - an elongated curve of woodland leading round to the Child's lakeside boathouse. Steps lead down to a gloomy tunnel quayside, from which a small private boat would once have whisked the wealthy estate owners back to their house.

Alternatively, a large chunk of parkland is available for public use for free. Just don't walk too far up to the far end of the lake, otherwise your peace and quiet may be spoilt by the M4 churning past behind a hedge. Other than that - if you've never been here, or indeed had never heard of the place before, you're missing out.
by tube: Osterley   by bus: H28, H91   Admission: £8.80

Boston Manor House
Boston Manor HouseThis Jacobean house is on a slightly smaller scale, but impressive all the same. It's Hounslow's oldest building, allegedly, which explains the near-permanent scaffolding propping up the southwest corner. They won't let you into the library any more, nor to anywhere on the top floor, but there are still some fine rooms and a historic staircase to see. All hail the volunteers who open up the building for a few hours a week, and sit around waiting for any visitors to turn up and peer inside. The ground floor room is the site of the house's finest moment, when proper royalty turned up for a meal. Householder James Clitherow was a good friend of King William IV, no less, whose visit on the evening of 23rd June 1834 was a rare honour for a mere commoner. This £50-all-in banquet being the only event of major interest in the house's 400 year history, rather too much fuss is made of it throughout.

Take the creaky stairs and you'll find some seriously old wallpaper on the half-landing. None of your Homebase stripes here, but plenty of intricate classical ruins as painted in the 18th century. The other impressive bit of interior design is the ceiling in the first floor state drawing room. Its plasterwork is assembled from various high-relief panels, each featuring some form of goddess or earthmother at its centre, and the overall effect is quite overpowering. Even older is the Cedar of Lebanon tree out on the back lawn, with reputedly the biggest girth of any tree in Greater London. And beyond that the house's estate is now a riverside park, which is as lovely as any small park can be when the M4 cuts straight through the middle on a concrete viaduct. Hounslow's such a world of contrasts. But this is one of the good bits.
by tube: Boston Manor   by bus: 195, E8   Admission: free

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