Where I grew up - and the stories I never knew...
I arrived in Chiswick when my parents brought me here from South Africa when I was three. They bought a house there in the 1970s for about £35,000, at the time this was a big financial stretch for them. Now you wouldn’t hope to buy a London telephone box for that money – there are two for sale in the Waterloo area going for £35,000 and £45,000 respectively. Having travelled to Kent recently, I also noticed the beach huts there, which start at about £16,000 in Herne Bay to about £25,000 in Whitstable (massive demand for them at the moment, because of travel restrictions abroad and so more disposable income for the locals, creating a beach hut frenzy apparently).
How Chiswick has changed from the village atmosphere of unique shops, the local rag and bone man, Baskin Robbins ice cream (although there is still the excellent Fouberts in Turnham Green Terrace); to a place of the rich and famous and chain restaurants aplenty. Chiswick has always attracted actors with its leafy quiet roads and grand houses, such as Richard Briers, Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave - and the dashing Mr Darcy, Colin Firth - alongside the quiz show hosts such as Jeremy Vine (bicycle enthusiast) and Richard Osman (brainiac). I am delighted to have seen Colin Firth in the George Pub on Chiswick High Road (I was with my husband at the time, so it wouldn’t do to show too much excitement).
I still have a love for my old stomping ground, and Chiswick House and Gardens is a favourite place to visit. On a recent trip I had the magical sight of the flash of feathers of a kingfisher; sadly I wasn’t quick enough to capture it. However, on this visit I also discovered a new and secluded path that rises up over a waterfall - and I saw an amazing thing. They had put up a picture frame through which you could see the perfect view of Chiswick House. This is the view that had been intended in the 1700s when the house and gardens were developed but were never completed. It seemed to me to be a heart-warming appreciation of architecture, being at one with landscape design.
The current house was built in 1729 by architect and owner Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington, alongside William Kent who decorated the interior and landscaped the gardens. Lord Burlington was known as “Apollo of the Arts” as he had been on the Grand Tour of Italy and became a great patron of the arts. The house was built in the Palladian style, inspired by Andrea Palladio, the famous 16th century Italian architect. One of the features of this style is the grand external double-sweeping staircase up to the main drawing room, where entertaining would take place. The door on the ground floor was for servants to access the building. Apparently, Lady Burlington was so snooty that she made the servants bring food up from below having to back into the room - quite a feat, as the corner internal staircases up from the kitchens were narrow and spiralled.
Lord Burlington’s design for Chiswick House was to inspire architecture for decades to come. It was thought to be so impressive, and one of the earliest examples in England at the time, that it became a showpiece with afternoon “open house”-styled viewings during which people flocked to see this glamorous new residence. It was very much inspired by Scottish architect (Colen Campbell’s) treatise on architecture “Vitruvius Britannicus” (1715). It was also based partly on Palladio’s Villa Rotonda at Vicenza.
The house was handed down to the dukes of Devonshire. The 5th duke was the husband of Georgiana, made famous through the film called The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes as the ice-cold duke, bringing her into a loveless marriage with much scandal.
Like many aristocratic houses of the time, it had a menagerie. When Russian emperor Nicholas I arrived for a visit in 1844, he asked the 6th duke “Where is the elephant?” Nicholas was in fact 16 years too late, as the elephant, Sadi, had died there in 1828, though until that time she had been the star of the duke’s menagerie. However, as he was being hosted to a breakfast in the summer house, along with 700 British nobility (a tent was erected for the event), four giraffes wandered past to drink from the pond, led by keepers in Egyptian dress. It is believed they were on loan from the Surrey Zoological Society (as giraffes were very rare in English menageries). At the time, giraffes were considered almost mythical - like unicorns.
Alongside Sadi, the menagerie consisted of elks, emus, kangaroos, monkeys and a Neapolitan pig. Sadi had a big paddock and a well-ventilated house near the Classic Bridge in the grounds. A wealthy lady had asked the duke what she should send him from India, and he replied “Oh nothing smaller than an elephant”. Well, you can imagine his surprise when that is exactly what she sent!
After all these years of my connection to Chiswick, I have only just learnt that Chiswick House had been an asylum. It was run by the two Tuke brothers from 1892 to 1928. The asylum had 30 to 40 inmates who were wealthy private patients. They were kept there for a number of reasons: drying out from alcohol, opiate addiction, delusions, eating disorders, epilepsy and psychosis. They were treated very well and chose to be there, although some of the treatments would be considered cruel today, such as force-feeding through a tube in the nose. The asylum owners had to keep casebooks that were regularly inspected by the Commissioners in Lunacy, now housed in the Welcome Library of medical history.
One lady complained to Dr Tuke of the nurse she took on a holiday respite that she “snores so much she keeps me awake half the night”. A gentleman kept demanding brandy, which he never got as this it appears was his problem!
They had a good life taking holidays by the sea, playing cricket and enjoying the house and grounds. On the deaths of the Tuke brothers, the site was given to Chiswick council, and the grounds opened up to the public. In 1948 it became an English Heritage property – and in the 1950s the two wings that housed the patients were demolished.
On a more up-tempo note, the Beatles went there in 1966 to shoot promotional films for their single Paperback Writer, with lovely shots in the beautiful camelia house.
Another spot I find incredibly moving in Chiswick is Staveley Road - near the house and grounds - where the first V2 rocket landed during the Second World War. It landed at 6.44pm on the September 8, 1944. The British government was aware of the weapons being developed, because on June 13 of that year, the V2 went out of control and landed in Sweden during an experiment. For months, the British people were told it was a gas explosion to mislead the Germans; it was not revealed to be the V2 weapon until November 10. However, by then it was an open secret, and Londoners were calling V2s “flying gas pipes”. The actual name is from the German words Vergeltungswaffe Zwei (Vengeance Two, after the V1 Doodlebugs).
Chiswick resident Tony Simpson recorded his experience of the attack, describing how “without warning, a short and sudden deluge descended from the heavens; raindrops the size of pennies”. He goes on to talk about the “aftershock”, which was as though “every thunderstorm in England had gathered and released its energy over Chiswick”.
The rocket took seven minutes to travel from Wassenaar, near The Hague in the Netherlands, to arrive in Chiswick. The rockets were known as the Silent Bomb, or the Thunderclap, as they were silent until they landed and then there was an almighty explosion. Each contained about three-quarters of a ton of explosives, and on landing they could be heard six miles away - in central London.
Three people died in the Chiswick explosion and 22 were injured; 11 houses were destroyed and 550 damaged. The government trickled out false information to the Germans, making out the V2s had overshot their mark of London. As a result the Germans recalibrated the V2s and many landed on Kent. In all, 517 V2s landed on London, killing 2,754 people.
Those who died give us heart-breaking stories. Sapper Bernard Browning, 28, was on leave and on his way to meet his girlfriend at Chiswick Station when he was killed in the blast. Ada Harrison was 64 and lived at 3 Staveley Road and ran three newsagents with her husband, William. She managed to pull herself out of the rubble, only to die in the arms of a school caretaker. William died 10 days later. The most touching story is of three-year-old Rosemary Clarke, who was asleep in the front bedroom while her brother John, aged six, was playing in the bathroom. He later recalled: “There wasn’t a mark on Rosemary. The blast goes up and comes down in a mushroom or umbrella shape, but in the process of that my sister’s lungs collapsed. She was deprived of air.”
This is a far cry from my later halcyon days of walking in Chiswick Park with my parents, my sister and family dog, Sophie, and feeding the ducks with chunks of unhealthy bread to swell their bellies. My recent visit to Chiswick Park in the quiet of lockdown brought back memories and stories long forgotten and reminded me of how beautiful the camelias are in full bloom.