By Elisa Freeling
Once rural getaways for various wealthy and titled types, West London’s magnificent manor houses and gardens were handed over to the public, subsumed by the burgeoning city and now provide an oasis for all. Many of these manors were neglected for decades but have undergone (or are undergoing) works to restore their former glory. With pretty gardens, cozy cafés and quirky places for kids to explore, you can while away a day like the lords and ladies used to.
Chiswick House: Just south of the A4 but feeling miles away from London, Chiswick House and Gardens has been a public park since 1929. Built by the third Earl of Burlington, the 18th century neo-Palladian villa features velvet rooms, with the stunning ceiling in the Blue Velvet Room alone making the house’s entry fee (£6.30 adult/£3.80 child) good value for money.
The gardens recently underwent a £12 million restoration and are now a gorgeous (and free) place for a stroll or a picnic by the cascade or the conservatory. The northern section of the gardens is wooded, and my kids have built many a lean-to with the abundance of logs and other natural materials on hand. For more structured play, there’s a playground conveniently located by the café—you can enjoy your coffee at an al fresco table and still keep an eye on the little ones inside the small gated playground, which includes some groovy sand play with built-in pulleys and such.
Boston Manor House: Ignore its proximity to the M4 flyover—this Jacobean manor house, built nearly 400 years ago, is the oldest on this list and lovely to look at. Owned by no fewer than seven generations of the apparently quite stable Clitherow family, the house and land were ultimately bought by the Brentford Urban District Council to become a public park in 1924. On weekends entry is free to the ground floor dining room and first floor state rooms, which feature fabulously elaborate plaster ceilings.
Outside, enormous cedars loom over the lawn, just north of which sits a nice little lake. To the south is a great playground plus one of those grown-up workout sites (which my kids seem to like even more than playgrounds).
Osterley House: Originally a Tudor house built in the 1570s, Osterley was remodelled into its imposing neo-classical form in the second half of the 18th century. It’s run by the National Trust, so if you’re not a member you’ll have to pay to enter the house and gardens (£11.50 adult, £5.80 child, or £6.90/£3.50 for just the gardens). However, a large section of the parkland, which sits a bit north of the A4 on its way out to Heathrow, is free to the public, including a small lake you can walk along and a pond, at the end of which are some fantastically huge cedar trees that are fun for the kids to clamber on.
There’s also a café, a National Trust shop and a second-hand bookshop, all in the Tudor-era stables—much grander than similar buildings of the era, and thought to have been built to impress Elizabeth I when she visited in 1576.
If you have National Trust membership or are willing to pay, do head into the formal garden behind the house. While you’re there, don’t miss the nature play area with its sweet rope swings and the ‘climb and chime’ tree, which has a bell up in its branches to be rung by the victorious climber.
Pitzhanger Manor: Currently undergoing restoration, Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing will be closed until 2018, but the house’s garden—neighbouring Walpole Park—is still open. In 1800, the house was bought and redesigned by Sir John Soane in his inimitable style (while the Pitzhanger works are underway, you can check out the Sir John Soane Museum) and served as his country retreat for a decade. Ealing District Council bought the building in 1901 and it became a public library until 1985 (when the library moved to the Ealing Broadway Shopping Centre). The restoration will reintegrate the house and adjoining gallery with the gardens, make the entire house accessible to visitors and bring a new restaurant to the site as well.
Meanwhile you can meander past Soane’s stone bridge along the waterway to the Rickyard café. Sip your coffee while your kids frolic in the neighbouring playground, which feature cool (literally and figuratively) water-spraying posts that kids pump themselves.
Gunnersbury Park House: Also getting some much-needed love is Gunnersbury Park, last owned by the Rothschilds, and property of the Bishop of London from the 11th century to the 19th. Before it shut for its refurb, my kids were captivated by the museum, with its various objects that traced life in Ealing and Hounslow from prehistory to modern times: holdings range from a mammoth molar (found in the riverbed under Hammersmith Bridge) to the original Lucozade sign that greeted motorists on the M4. These will be back on view when works are done in 2018.
The overhaul underway includes restoring the Orangery and Temple, repairing the Round Pond and introducing boating. While you await the restoration, you can still take the kids to the playground and for a wander in the grassy expanses of the park.