Spring is a perfect time to visit Syon House and Park, beside the Thames in west London. Native bluebells carpet the ground beneath the trees, cowslips and primroses peek through the grass, red and pink camellias and white magnolias are still in bloom, and there's blossom everywhere, yet the whole estate is still surprisingly tranqil and uncrowded.
This year is the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown’s birth, and Syon Park was one of his first major commissions. Working for the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, who had inherited the Percy estate in 1750, he swept away the grand formal French-style gardens, replacing these and adjoining farmland with newly-fashionable open views and ornamental lakes. The house itself was dated and in poor condition, having its origins in a Bridgettine Abbey founded in 1415. The Northumberlands brought in architect Robert Adams, who created some striking classical interiors, including the Great Hall (below) and filled them with antiquities shipped from Italy.
Hugh, the 3rd Duke (1817 – 1847), reworked the exterior of the house, cladding it in Bath stone. Exceedingly wealthy, he was interested in horticulture, and as exotic trees and shrubs were brought back from around the world by plant hunters, he had the beautiful Great Conservatory – the centrepiece of the gardens – built to house the more tender specimens. By the 1880s palms and giant bamboos grew to the top of its dome.
Today, the house and garden welcome visitors from mid-March to the end of October, and there’s an extensive Wyevale nursery with plants that Capability Brown and his successors could only have dreamed of. Be aware that the courtyard of the adjoining restaurant often has an unusual guest – a Harris hawk, trained to frighten off (though not harm) opportunistic pigeons.
For opening hours and admission prices: