When I say I live in London, people always seem to picture life as an endless trail of hanging out in achingly trendy bars for after-work drinks every evening – followed by a weekend of parties, galleries and museums. Or they picture a “Richard Curtis” version of it, with beautiful and idealised streets around Notting Hill. Well, I guess it can be like that sometimes, but a lot of the time I’ve been just too lazy to take full advantage of living in one of the world’s premier cities. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a poster on the tube for a new play or exhibition and thought “I must see that” – before completely forgetting about it until a day after it’s closed.
I’ve lived in West London for almost four years now, and it’s only really been this year (with the prospect of moving across the city in the future) that I have taken it upon myself to actually get out there and see the sights of West London. I’ve visited a few of the attractions and parks around me in the past few years, but there is one almost on my doorstep which it took until this last bank-holiday weekend to get off my bum and visit: Chiswick House and Gardens. Was it as beautiful as people said it was? You’ll just have to read on.
I’ve been through Chiswick umpteen times over the years, and when I’ve seen the sign pointing to Chiswick House, I’ve always thought I should visit it. It seems just about everyone I know has already been there – even my girlfriend’s parents (who live up in Hertfordshire) have made the trek – and they all come away saying how beautiful it is. All this puts me to shame; I live about a 40-minute walk away. So when I got up and saw it was a gorgeous day on Saturday morning, I decided to do something about it: I packed some snacks, picked up a coffee from the local café, and went for a walk to Chiswick House to see what’s what.
It’s only a 15-minute walk from Chiswick High Street. As soon as you hop off a bus or tube you already feel like you’ve left London behind, though you’re still firmly in the west of the city. I have always found it to be like a small town stuck inside a big city, and it retains a lot of its old charm and character – something harking back to a time before the amorphous blob that is London ate it all up! To reach the House, your best bet is to walk down the suitably named Dukes Avenue, getting you in the mood for large regal grounds and houses.
I entered the park grounds and checked the map I had downloaded to my iPad. Where to first: the Conservatory and Italian gardens; the Amphitheatre; Inigo Jones gateway; Cascade; Ionic Temple? Or just chill by the lake and enjoy my coffee in the sun? There’s a lot to see in the gardens before you even think about going into the house itself.
I decided to meander my way through the gardens on the way down from the Dukes Avenue gate to Chiswick House itself. As it was approaching lunch time I figured I’d dart out of the midday sun into a cool house, then explore the gardens later.
I wandered through the gorgeous Italianate gardens, pausing to take a few pictures and appreciate how it will look in full bloom later in the year. I’m not the most green-fingered person – even pots of herbs don’t seem to last long in my flat – so it was a treat to see the Camellia collection in the conservatory, especially as this is thought to be the oldest under glass in the western world. Many of the pink, red and white petals have descended from the original plants potted in 1828; puts my half-dead basil plant to shame! Walking across the Excedra or main part of the park, there were people of all ages out enjoying the sun, from teenagers playing their music out of portable speakers, to kids running and laughing and even people practicing Tai Chi by the side of the manmade lake.
The first thing that strikes you about the house is that it isn’t all that big. Yes it much larger than a semi in St Albans, but for a country house built for an Earl? It just looks… small. Chiswick house was built in 1729 and created by the 3rd Earl of Burlington, designed by the architect William Kent. The Earl had taken a grand tour of Europe (if only we could still do things like that!) and was inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome to create a new style of design in England: the neo-palladian style.
So why is the house smaller than you’d think? Well, it was never actually built to be a ‘home’. It was designed and built as a “grand pavilion”, a space where the Earl could store and display his art and book collections and host parties. In fact when it was built, there weren’t even bedrooms or a kitchen – though the original building was renovated and modified over the years.
Sadly that was a far as I got when I visited: there was a private function on and the house was closed to the public. Ho hum. There were still the gardens to explore, and on a day like today they looked pretty spectacular.
I had taken a circuitous route down to the house and had seen lots of garden areas that I’d like to run off and see, but I also wanted to make sure I saw all of the gardens’ highlights. Distracted by the café, however, I went and ordered a lunch of hearty beef and stout stew with crusty bread, sat out in the sun, and poured over the Chiswick house website, where you can find lots of maps, guides and audio tours.
There are two options for walking guides to the gardens, and I opted for the audio tour which takes around an hour to walk; you’ll be stopping at each of the ten selected points marked out by an artist’s easel for a few minutes, so it should be accessible for all ages and abilities. I’d recommend downloading the guide to your MP3 player or phone before going, as it took a bit of kerfuffle doing it directly on my phone itself.
The audio tour includes most of the the main sights I mentioned earlier (Ionic temple, Cascade, Obelisk etc), but it does miss out the Italian gardens and Doric column – so be sure to make your way to them before or after.
If you go in a group it may be a good idea to book a guided tour, these do cost £50 but between several of you the cost comes down and it’s a bit more social than all walking around with headphones in your ears!
My favourite feature of the garden wasn’t the beautiful flowers or peaceful area by the Ionic temple but a collection of three Roman statues brought back from Rome by Lord Burlington. Today the originals are kept in the house itself whilst outside sit very good copies. The three Roman figures are, Caesar, Pompey and Cicero, great leaders from the birth of the Roman Empire.
Next time I pop down I will definitely visit the house itself. Aside from the gardens and house, there is also a series of open-air operas and plays throughout the summer, and open-air cinema screenings in August.
Chiswick Gardens are open every day from 7am till dusk. Opening times for the Conservatory, House and café vary throughout the year, so it is always best to check the website for opening times before you visit.
I found Chiswick house a great day out and will be returning very soon.
Originally from leafy and very sleepy Hertfordshire, England, Russell decided to pack up and move to the bright lights of London some years ago. He’s travelled to many parts of Europe and Southeast Asia, but his favourite trip was to Greece in 2012, visiting the capital Athens and the sun-kissed island of Santorini. Since then, he’s been recommending our weekend dinners here at HomeAway – and they go down a treat. When not writing and thinking about travel, he can be found working on his cookery blog dreaming up new recipes. Outside cooking and travel, he has a passion for health and fitness (must be all that food!) as well as all things geeky.
All images © Russell’s Kitchen