Syon House review
Coffee shop again. I spend half my life in coffee shops. I hope they don't find out that caffeine is carcinogenic or I'm doomed. This one is full of early morning risers, all sitting at the tables and staring blankly out the window. We are like concrete coffee drinkers, locked in a stone pose and unable to move. It's like an Egyptian bazaar in this place, with jaunty Middle Eastern music coming out the speakers. A little old woman is shouting outside the window, ranting and raving in a thunderous language. Her voice is blasting through the double-glazing like it wasn't even there. I can't believe that anyone can actually understand her, not when it's coming out of her mouth at that supersonic speed. Whoever she is talking to is getting an earful of abuse. Probably her poor husband. It's very difficult to sit and ponder your coffee when you've got that racket going on. So I head off to Syon House.
It's a bit of a bugger to get to. You have to get the train to Syon Lane and then go on a 20-30 minute walk down the road and cut through the park. And because I always turn up at places far too early the house is still shut. I had practically the whole park to myself. It was just the geese and me. Luckily got a little cafe and a garden centre to wile away some time, and that's where I am sitting right now -- in my second coffee shop of the day -- reading their little leaflet.
I must admit that I've never heard of the owner -- the Duke of Northumberland. I've heard of the Percys, and the guy who designed the garden -- Capability Brown (how can you forget a name like that?). But at the moment my impression is this: it looks like somewhere you'd take your grandma. I remember Sunday afternoons when I was a kid, taking our great grandma out for a drive. Nothing too strenuous... just somewhere nice where she could sit down and have a cup of tea and moan about her ailments. Somewhere like Box Hill or the River Thames. And this seems like one of those places -- somewhere to take your grandma on a Sunday. The cafe is full of oldies wearing floral scarves and hat pins. They're all buttering up their crumbly scones with butter and strawberry jam. It's a very different atmosphere to that Middle Eastern cafe. No one is shouting, for a start, and there is no flute music blasting our eardrums. It's just a load of chatty oldies with scones on saucers and silver pots of tea. I can hear the clink clink clink of plates and cutlery coming from the kitchens.
There are two things to see at Syon: the house and the gardens. I decided to have a look around the gardens first, which starts off at a very impressive conservatory. It reminds me a little bit of the Palm House at Kew Gardens. It's very fine inside, but there's hardly any plants. Maybe they all wilted and died when they heard that I was coming. It's still worth a look though.
The gardens out the back are nice enough, but nothing amazing. If you've ever seen the Syon House episode of 'Time Team', then you'll be disappointed to discover that they don't allow you into that part of the grounds (the Capability Brown bit) -- just the wild stuff around the side. They've got a long lake with wild grasses growing along the bank, and lots of trees and sawn-up trunks. But there are no real flowerbeds. Not a lot of colour (unless you like green).
The house doesn't look like much from the outside. It's very squat -- like someone has come along and sliced the top off. But don't let that put you off because the inside is fantastic. My whole day got off to a bit of a shaky start with the gardens, but the house won me over as soon as I stepped through the door. The decorations are very grand indeed. Some of it wouldn't look out of place in a palace.
There are lots of family portraits of the Percys and the Dukes of Northumberland hanging on the walls, and plenty of kings and queens too. One particular corridor is like a Who's Who of English history -- they've got a wall that goes from Edward III and Henry V, all the way through the Wars of the Roses and up to Elizabeth I. Portraits of Charles I and Charles II grace the larger rooms, and there are even pieces by Van Dyck and Gainsborough. It's good enough to give the National Portrait Gallery a run for its money.
The long library was my favourite room. You wouldn't believe the amount of old leathery books they've got on display. I'm pretty sure that they were real, but of course you are too afraid to touch them in case they fall to pieces in your fingers. The little tables dotted along the length of the hall were decorated with modern family snaps -- a nice touch. I still don't recognise him, but if you want to see the current Duke of Northumberland standing all suited and booted with his brood, smiling and posing at his daughter's wedding, then this is the place to do it.
Upstairs they've got a few Edwardian-style bedrooms, which they appear to lease out to the movies (they did a bit of Downton Abbey here). Apparently Queen Victoria stayed in one when she was still a princess.
Don't miss the little exhibition downstairs either, which is squirrelled away down a little stone staircase. It's just a one-room affair, but they had a very friendly and chatty guide in there today, who proceeded to tell me all about the building's history. Tony Robinson famously came here ten years ago with his Time Team buddies, and dug up the remains of the original Abbey, and you can see a generous amount of archaeological finds. The guy was obviously quite proud of his memories, and happily described what it was like when they came.
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