The London borough of Hounslow punches well above its weight for stately homes; Chiswick House, Osterley Park, Boston Manor. But there's one I'd never properly been to, even after fifteen years of blogging, and it's probably the best of all. It's Syon House, on the Thames between Brentford and Isleworth, and it packs a whole lot of history within its landscaped grounds.
In the 15th century an impressive abbey was built here at Syon which, thanks to royal patronage, became the wealthiest convent in England. It didn't last long, alas, courtesy of the Privatisation of the Monasteries. Chief protagonist Henry VIII imprisoned Catherine Howard here before her execution, and his coffin rested for one night in Syon Abbey on its final journey to Windsor, reputedly oozing fluids from the bloated body. Within 10 years all trace of the abbey had been removed, and a Renaissance style mansion was built in its place.
The 9th Earl of Northumberland acquired the house in 1594, and it's been in the Percy family ever since. It's not their main residence - understandably that's Alnwick Castle - but various heirs have lived here over the years, and the house has been open to the public since 1951. It's damned impressive inside too, a sequence of ornately decorated rooms packed with period furniture and copious works of art - precisely the kind of thing you have lying around when you're one of Britain's oldest and wealthiest dynasties.
The entrance hall is a double cube in Graeco-Roman style, a proper 'wow' with intricate stucco coving and bold mosaic floor. The next room is completely different, dark and square-ish featuring a dozen green columns topped with golden statues (and with a door in the corner leading down to a historical display in the cellar). The refashioned Syon was one of Robert Adam's first commissions, and the ornate interiors truly dazzle.
In the Red Drawing Room are mirrors the equal of Versailles, as well as 239 individually painted roundels on the ceiling. The Long Gallery is probably the most impressive room, over 40 metres in length, and with various finishing touches designed for the amusement of ladies parading through. It required two fireplaces to heat, and doubles up as a library, with one fake bookcase concealing a door out into the gardens. It's said that Lady Jane Grey was offered the English throne in this room, maybe, perhaps.
She's not the only royal with links to the place. Queen Victoria was sent here at the age of 12 to learn courtly etiquette, and her bedroom remains much as she'd have known it on the first floor. The corridors are a bit more spartan up here, passing bedrooms the 20th century Percy family would once have used, indeed their very-1980s selection of reading matter has never been cleared away from a few lowly shelves along Nursery Passage.
Be sure to chat to the volunteers scattered about the place, they're excellent and know their stuff, and there's a heck of a lot of stuff to know. Who's the lady in the portrait, what's the provenance of these curtains, why are there only columns on one side of the room, which American institution was founded by which member of the Percy family? The information sheets you wander round with are very good too - accessibly informative, but detailed rather than dumbed down. Thumbs up to the Historic Houses Association for their ongoing work here.
And then there are the gardens. More visitors come for the gardens than the house, not just because they're open every day of the week rather than merely three. The grounds are vast for London, covering 200 acres of 'unspoilt countryside', in reality landscaped to high heaven by Capability Brown. His tidal water meadows are off limits to all but cattle, and the trout fishery is similarly private, but a not insignificant segment to the north of the house is fully accessible once you've paid up.
Essentially the gardens are a long thin lake surrounded by wooded parkland, with a single path on one side and plenty of room to meander on the other. You'll know them well if you've ever visited Syon's Winter Wonderland, although I suspect they look better in summer daylight blessed with ducks and flowers. The goddess Flora looks down from a column at the broadest point, while grassy paths and boardwalks weave through attractive pastoral beds, and a couple of slender footbridges span the water. The chief target audience will appreciate several benches for a nice sit down.
Most impressive of all is the Great Conservatory, one of the first massive showcase glasshouses, combining symmetrical ironwork and a bulbous central dome. So pioneering was the design that Joseph Paxton visited for inspiration when coming up with his plans for the Crystal Palace. Inside the conservatory is still decked out with cacti, palms and subtropical plants, but also power points for plugging in hospitality-friendly tables and trolleys, should you have the money to hire it out.
An adult ticket for the house and gardens costs £12.50, with 20% off if you can prove you live in one of a dozen local postcodes. You can also get 20% off by claiming to have seen a Syon House advert on the back of a bus and quoting the code BUS17 at the till, which is what I did. A ticket for the gardens costs £7.50, and is available daily, whereas the house is only open to the public on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Don't come for the Butterfly House, because that closed ten years ago to be replaced by a Hilton hotel. And if all else fails the Syon Park cafe is hidden inside a Wyevale garden centre, which seems to be where most visitors end up, more's the pity.