In the borough of Hounslow, far to the West of the hustle and bustle of London’s central city, deeply nestled in the suburban hamlet of Brentford at confluence of the Brent and Thames rivers, lies Syon House.
Historically this grand and luxurious manse has been the West London residence of the Duke of Northumberland. The ‘home’ (I use that word lightly since palace might be more appropriate) lies within a 150 acre allotment owned by the Duke of Northumberland, known as Syon Park.
A Brief Historical Introduction
The house takes the name Syon from Syon Abbey, a monastery founded in 1431 that was run by the Bridgettine order (a Swedish religious order founded by Saint Bridget of Sweden). The house is actually built on the remains of that very abbey and has undergone a number of transformations since.
In 1552, the 1st Duke of Somerset (who was effectively operating as King of England since he was looking after his young nephew King Edward VI) had the home completely redone in the Italian renaissance style.
Over the centuries, queens and kings of England have been brought up and brought down in this historic home. Queen Victoria spent the only ‘free’ years of her childhood here, and Henry VIII’s body was kept at the house the night before his royal burial.
This article will cover more of the history at length later on, but suffice to say that this is very much one of the places that shaped England, the British Empire, and by extension the entire world and is a valuable visit for anybody interested in history, art, the goings-on of the British aristocracy, or for people who just like to see really really really rich people’s stuff laid out all nice and pretty.
Regarding the house’s interior, for that matter, it remained largely in the Tudor style until the 17th century, when the new master of the house, Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, commissioned the renowned neo-classical architect Robert Adam, and the equally esteemed landscape artist Lancelot “Capability” Brown to redesign the house and the vast estate it sits on. Their vision for the place is what endures to this day.
Getting to Syon Park
While a bit removed from central London, Syon Park is nevertheless quite easy to get to by public transport.
If you’re arriving from central London and you want to take the tube, you have a few options, but all will involve a quick bus trip and a short walk to the estate as well. You can take the District line to Gunnersbury station, then get on the 237 or 267 bus to the Brent Lea bus stop, and then walk the remaining 50 yards to the entrance.
The Central line also works. You can take that to Ealing Broadway, then hop on the E2 bus to Brentford Holiday Inn (150-yard walk to the pedestrian entrance) or the E8 bus to Brent Lea bus stop and walk the rest of the way.
Your final option by tube is via the Piccadilly line, which will take you to Boston Manor station. Get off there, then grab the E8 bus to Brent Lea station and saunter over to the pedestrian entrance at your leisure.
If you’re arriving by rail, you can leave from Waterloo station to Kew Bridge, then take either the 237 or 267 bus to Brent Lea. Drivers are well accommodated here as well. There is easy access from both the A4 and M4 motorways, and Syon park offers ample free parking for visitors arriving by car.
There is disabled parking available near the entrance as well. Finally, for the more intrepid visitor who enjoys a little wind in their hair, there are also bike racks located just outside the main entrance.
Hours of Operation
The home is open to the public from March to October. During this time, the gardens are open every day from Wednesday to Sunday.
The house is open for visitation on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm (last entry at 3:30 pm), but you must be on a guided tour to see anything more than the great hall and the courtyard; these operate every half hour during opening hours and are well worth doing as you’ll get a great sense of the place and be able to ask questions of one the excellent Syon park guides.
On Sundays and bank holidays, the house is accessible to the public for self-guided tours, and each room will have a guide who can tell you a little bit about the room and answer any questions you might have.
Daily Admission for Syon House, the Gardens and the Great Conservatory (includes tour)
Adults – £13.50
Concessions (Over 60 or Students) – £12.00
Child (5-16) – £6.50
Family (2 Adults and 2 Children) – £31.00
Daily Admission for just the Gardens and the Great Conservatory
Adult – £8.50
Concessions (Over 60 or Students) – £7.00
Child (5-16) – £5.00
Family (2 Adults and 2 Children) – £19.00
If you’re from the area, season tickets are also available. Syon Park has affiliations with a few different associations. Historic houses members and members of the Royal Horticultural Society are offered free access to some of the facilities. Check here to see if you qualify for a promotional price.
Activities for Kids
Depending on your kid’s interest in history and their patience level, the house tour is definitely suitable for kids. There was an 8-year-old on our tour when I went, and the tour guide made a concerted effort to include and engage him, which I thought was a really nice touch.
While he seemed a little fidgety by the end of the hour and a half (perhaps especially so during discussions on neo-classical architecture), he seemed more or less engaged the whole time, given all the talk of Queens and Kings and wizard-dukes and alchemy.
That said, if you know right now as you’re reading this that an hour and a half long house tour is not for your particular child, then fear not! There are plenty of other opportunities to keep the younger generation occupied. The gardens contain lots of natural play areas, a map of which is pictured below.
The play areas each have their own specific flavor, as you can see in the legend. A number of fun little wood structures are also scattered across the grounds for kids to climb around on.
Each activity is well signed, and kids are invited to test their mettle in games of balance on the wide wooden logs, or to check out the lives of the insects at the bug palace, etc.
Additionally, within the grounds is a Snakes and Ladders play center, which offers a staggering amount of fun to kids of all ages, and will have your children literally begging you to take them to Syon Park. You can check out the details for Snakes and Ladders Brentford here.
Upon entering the house, you are first exposed to the great hall. So named because, well… look at it:
The room is surrounded by ancient Roman statues and busts, the vast majority of which are 2000 or so years old. Famous Romans and Greeks peer down at you, doing their utmost to make you feel as though you are in the presence of an ancient, great, and noble line of earth-changing men.
The room gives visitors an immediate sense of what they are in for. Syon House is a place of nearly obscene opulence and an unabashed display of the staggering pinnacles of wealth accrued by the British aristocratic line of Northumberland.
It is the culmination of centuries of hoarding wealth through feudal and then colonial rule since the family first arrived on the shores of the British Isles alongside William the Conqueror in 1066. This statue is one of about 15 (in this room alone) that were hewn from marble by master craftsmen within 50 to 100 years of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The incredible ceiling of the great hall. The intricate molding seen in person beggars belief and is made to emulate the look of marble. In reality, it is made of intricately carved wood coated in plaster. The moldings, which are designed to look as though they were crafted from marble, were, in fact, carved out of wood, which then had a coat of plaster applied to it.
Pictured above is an exquisite copy of the statue of Apollo found in the Vatican, carved by Joseph Wilton. This statue would have likely sat in the center of the room and pointed towards the doors of the ante room. As hard as it might be to believe, this may well be the most plain-looking room in the entire house.
The Ante Room
Walking into the ante room after the grand hall is quite literally breathtaking. About half of the people on my tour audibly gasped when the doors were opened, and they laid their eyes on the gold-inlaid, filigree-flaked opulence of this ‘waiting room.’
While I do pride myself on being an ok photographer, let me tell you right now that the pictures simply cannot do this place justice; physically being in these rooms is the only way to genuinely experience how unbelievably impressive they are.
The room is a false square and surrounded by Ionic columns, some of which were reportedly dredged from the river Tiber by James Percy in 1765. Other columns are extremely convincing fakes, made with a technique called scagliola but it’s anyone’s guess as to which are which just by looking at them.
On the walls and ceilings, emerald green highlights contrast with the gold and cracked dark marble, overloading the senses with a justified feeling of being in the presence of unparalleled wealth.
The four walls of the room are punctuated by large and triumphant arches, and abutting the windows to the front lawn are two bronze casts of great Romans, Antinous and Silenus. Gold gilded statues surround the room, looking down upon us mere mortals before we are ushered into the dining room.
The Dining Room
Now to dinner! This room was traditionally placed after the drawing room in most other noble’s homes. However, the architect Robert Adam decided to switch things up for Syon House. This room is almost as impressive as the anteroom, although it doesn’t benefit from quite the same contrast as its predecessor. Six ancient statues would gaze over dinner guests as they sup.
During the remodeling of Syon, architect Robert Adam was instructed by the Duke’s mother to make the dining room function as a room for dancing as well. To accomplish this, there is a secret compartment door at the end of the room, which contains the grand dining table, separated into leaves.
The Drawing Room
In keeping with the ‘each room being more mind-blowing than the next’ theme of the house, walking into the drawing room after the dining hall is a marked experience. This room may have been, for me, the most impressive of the whole palace.
The walls are adorned in custom-made, ancient silk wall hangings. Portraits and oil paintings of past kings and royalty perch looking down on the guests, but the most impressive thing of all is the ceiling.
Each circle on the roof of this room is a portrait of a different roman or Hellenic figure, completely distinct from any other. They were painted in the studio, oil on canvas, and then inlaid into the filigreed plaster above. Along the edges of the ceiling, the figures are all on the ground, or the earth is visible. However, on the ceiling, the characters float in space.
The Long Gallery
Doubling as a retreat space for the cultivated ladies of the day, as well as an exercise room at times, the long gallery runs close to the entire length of the building on the east side. Like the rest of the house, the ceilings are a real centerpiece. Two small, highly stylized rooms full of highly valuable collectibles bookend the hallway.
Pictures of the current Percy family – weddings, holidays, etc. – also line this hallway, making it feel much more lived in and reminding us that this place is still a part of an ongoing history.
Now that we’ve had a taste of the downstairs (and trust me, I’ve only given you a glimpse), we go up the stairs towards the nursery. The staircase is worth a quick showcase, the steps are wrought out of Italian marble, and paintings by the dutch masters serve as ‘light’ decoration as you saunter up to the second floor.
The children’s rooms are located on the second floor. The 3rd Dutchess, Charlotte Florentia, was Queen Victoria’s official governess, and Victoria spent many of her childhood summers here.
Famously kept on a short leash during her younger years by her comptroller, John Conroy, who sought to make her as pliable as possible so he could exert maximum political control once she assumed control, Conroy dictated that Victoria was never to be allowed to be unsupervised during her childhood, even spending her nights in a bed in the company of either her mother or a chaperone.
The Dutchess was one of the few people powerful enough to countermand Conroy, and allowed Victoria her own bedroom, where she could be alone. Furnished in the Edwardian style, these rooms give us a look at what was likely the only refuge of the young princess in an otherwise stifling childhood.
In the early nineteenth century, glasshouses were relatively small and not much different from the orange-growing greenhouses of the past. They were mostly constructed from stone and featured large windows and very occasionally glazed roofs.
At Syon Park, the commission for the new grand conservatory was given to an architect named Charles Fowler, whose specialty was in constructing large industrial buildings.
He used his expertise and knowledge of new metal working techniques that he had gained from his time in the English Midlands, applying it to the construction at Syon park, to create this stunningly intricate structure, which is the culmination of the twin disciplines of architecture and engineering and was an example of the most advanced techniques in both fields at its time of construction in 1827.
The Grand Conservatory is partially based on the designs of the 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio, a Venetian who pioneered the style that became known as Palladian architecture.
In line with Robert Adam’s vision for the house (plenty more on him later), Fowler combined this Palladian vision with neoclassical stylings, exemplified by the great dome, triangular pediment seen beneath it, and the double winged layout.
A visit to the Grand Conservatory at Syon also doubles as a visit to the birthplace of all Australian wine! Who knew?
The conservatory was supported by a huge allotment of growing houses on the property in the newly built nursery, which allowed it to be filled with exotic plants from all over the world. There were ‘Cape’ plants from South Africa, ‘New Holland’ plants from Australia, and Camellias from China.
By the 1880s, palm trees and towering shoots of bamboo tickled the glass at the top of the dome. After the First World War, however, the building fell into some disrepair and slowly deteriorated until it was restored in 1986 to the condition you will see today. Despite being more or less abandoned for much of the 20th century, it is still in exceptional condition and is completely unheated.
The west wing of the Grand Conservatory now houses a gorgeous lily pond, and a blend of dappled sunlight pouring through the windows with the soothing sound of running water is enough to make anyone take a deep relaxing breath and enjoy a quiet moment of serenity in this 200-year-old masterpiece of architectural wizardry.
Even if you decide to skip the house tour, the gardens are a serene experience and well worth a few hours of your time. While they may lack the paintings, sculpture, and resplendent opulence of the home, there is still more than enough beauty to take in.
Water birds, like Egyptian geese, coots, and moorhens, live in the marsh and river. They are easy to see, often swimming in open water with lobed feet and a bill that extends back onto the forehead as a horny shield. Below you can see one with its newly hatched chicks that I happened upon while strolling along the paths.
The Percy Family
To understand Syon House, it’s worth understanding a little bit about the Percy family. The family began with William de Percy, a Frenchman who crossed over into England alongside William the Conqueror when he sailed across the channel in December of 1067.
The house was passed on to the Percy family in1594 when it was bequeathed to Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland. In 1605 the Earl was implicated in the famed gunpowder plot. He was confined to the tower of London as a result, where he stayed for 17 years.
Lucky for him, he was granted access to his vast wealth and lived in extreme comfort. As a distraction, he spent much of his time designing and planning the refurbishment of Syon House. The current Duke of Northumberland is Ralph George Algernon Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, who succeeded the previous duke in 1995.
Syon Park in Film
Syon House & Gardens and the Great Conservatory have featured in a swathe of well-loved films and TV shows over the years. The gorgeous historic buildings and interiors, landscaped gardens, and parkland have been used to set the scene for dozens of productions.
Period dramas have understandably been a natural fit for Syon House and Gardens, and many have been filmed here, such as Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman. Bridgerton has also used Syon’s beautiful interiors to capture the authentic historic feel of the 1700s.
Modern-day productions have also made great use of the grounds, including Silent Witness, Endeavour, and Transformers: The Last Knight, filmed scenes in the Long Gallery at Syon house, and the second season of the BBC series Killing Eve filmed on location at Syon House as well.
If you’re a fan of any of these shows or movies, then a visit here will likely elicit some degree of Deja Vue, and provide an extra bit of enjoyment as you tour the house and grounds.
There are very few places with the historical pedigree of Syon house, nor many that can match its beauty or opulence.
With easy access via transport, entertainment options for kids, and a very distinct vibe from the inner city, this place is a must-see for anyone who feels like a day away from the bustle of the city, taking in some of England’s rich history would benefit them. Truly, there is something for everyone at Syon House.