Last weekend saw the grand reopening of Gunnersbury Park Museum, after a long closure and a splash of Lottery cash. Hurrah!
The History bit: In 1760 a Palladian mansion, 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 streets of residential 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, which is now under the joint control of Ealing and Hounslow councils.
The Lottery project bit: For years the mansions at Gunnersbury have been looking somewhat worse for wear, and had slipped onto English Heritage's at risk list. Thankfully a £4.7m restoration project got the green light four years back, covering not just the main buildings but the entire park. The Large Mansion was the centrepiece for phase 1, along with general upsprucing for the Orangery, Temple, and Bathhouse. I can confirm they're all looking in much better shape than they used to be. Coming next year is a major outdoor sports hub, including multi-use sports centre, gym, and floodlit artificial grass pitches. But the Small Mansion and Stables remain in a poor state, as councillors seek development partners for what'll likely be commercial ventures.
The museum review bit: For those of us who've been round before, it's quite a change. Entrance is through a bright reception area (with improved gift shop), with steps up to the main galleries and a hallway through to the downstairs rooms. The drawing room, dining room and long gallery have impressive decor, as befitted their status as the Rothschild's entertainment spaces, but are otherwise empty. I assume this enhances their status as hireable spaces, to bring in a bit of revenue as and when. Anyone willing to linger for ten minutes also gets to enjoy an audio-visual experience projected large onto one wall, as five historical vignettes from Gunnersbury's Victorian heyday are played out.
Where the building truly springs to life is in the Historic Kitchens at the far end of the house. These include a top-of-the-range range, some unreliable gas burners, and the extra office the Rothschilds bought for their two French chefs to stop them running away to more prestigious jobs at London hotels. A really nice touch is the use of proper fruit and veg, in bowls and baskets, rather than the usual plate of unconvincing models. For those of us visiting on the opening weekend, a couple of Victorian scullery maids were kept busy explaining how the whole place worked, whereas the virtual butler will give you his rundown on staffing a big house any day of the week.
Which brings us to the galleries. The downstairs one focuses on 'place', with a big map of the combined boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow, plus a video history (which ill-advisedly starts with a big spiel about the land bridge from Europe, rather than anything genuinely local). The 17 main settlements hereabouts are each represented by a historical figure, clearly chosen for their diversity rather than by any independent measure of importance. Just over half are women, from Queen Elizabeth I and Ada Lovelace to a motorsport race engineer (representing Perivale) and Brentford Women's Football Club's first Asian player (representing Cranford).
Further galleries can be found upstairs, accessed off the Skylight Corridor. One focuses on 'home', in a fairly lightweight manner, affording Brentford FC as much importance as various world religions. Another looks at the area's contribution to film and TV, which thanks to Ealing Studios is considerable, and it turns out The Lavender Hill Mob was partly filmed here at Gunnersbury Park. In good news, the photograph of seven Cybermen waiting for the number 65 bus has survived the museum's overhaul, alongside a green mask from The Robots of Death.
Be sure to go to the very top floor for the fashion gallery and my favourite room focusing on industrial heritage. A heck of a lot of stuff was once manufactured hereabouts, from Hoovers to Gillette razors and beer to Lucozade. But that's your lot. Lovely though the new displays were, I got the feeling their combined weight was barely scratching the surface, and there are so many more stories which could be told of life in two boroughs whose combined population exceeds that of Bristol, North Yorkshire or Cambridgeshire.
The outside in the park bit: As the former private estate of a super-affluent Victorian banker, Gunnersbury Park has the edge over your average municipal recreational space. The most formal section is close to the house, with a couple of ornamental lakes, shady lawns and a restored bath house once used by Princess Amelia. The latter is usually locked, but on opening weekend we were allowed inside to meet a costumed character and peer through a flinty arch into her white-tiled pool. Head further out to find the community garden, a lot of long-established woodland and a private fishing lake, plus probably the finest wildflower meadow I have ever seen in London (its lush midsummer display only partially disfigured by stomping photographers unsatisfied by a photo from the perimeter).
The refreshment bit: Yes, there's a new cafe near the main gates. It's been open since March, because nobody likes waiting for coffee and cake, and is being run by upmarket franchise-grabber Benugo. The prices are a lot higher than the homelier cafe it replaced, which has angered several long-term users, but the front terrace was packed out in the weekend sunshine all the same. Nearest station Acton Town, if you're planning on coming down, which if you're a resident of Ealing or Hounslow you definitely should.