Usually, when I visit a place I am left with a distinct mental impression of every room I venture into whether above or below stairs. This failed to happen after I paid a visit to Syon House in the august presence of the Aviatrix and a gaggle of more lowly mayors. Therefore, I resolved to return to Syon to remedy matters. This time I would be able to peruse my surroundings at leisure with no mob of mayors impeding my royal progress around the mansion. Moreover, I would also be able to get my bearings all of which is essential if I am to wander around the house in my mind’s eye, long after my visit had ended. Heavy rain was forecast, but as I had already taken some splendid images of the magnificent Victorian glasshouse, which I shall return to anon, it would not matter if inclement weather curtailed a stroll around the gardens. In addition, the forecast suggested there might be some sunny intervals in the afternoon. My new neighbour is keen to accompany me on one of my jaunts. Alas, she is not willing to endure a soaking even for the sake of my readership
I arrived at the gates to Syon Park when the heavens opened up yet again. It has not been a good year for my venerable straw hat. It languished yet again at home whilst I wore a more humble headscarf. In the grounds of the house I came across a blue plaque to the memory of Richard Reynolds, who had lived in the former abbey. He was executed at Tyburn in 1535 and his limbs were nailed to the abbey gates as a terrible warning to anyone else who defied Henry VIII.
Reynolds might possibly have recognised the stone monastery barn dating back to the 14th century. It is the oldest extant building at Syon. It was apparently significantly altered in the 16th century and had a thatched roof at one point in its long history. The thatch was replaced with tiles in the early 20th century. Colourful planters filled with geraniums and covered wicker seating made a striking and cheerful contrast to its more drab appearance a few months earlier.
Reynolds was long dead by the time the ninth Earl built the Tudor archway during the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth. The arch was restored in the late 20th century.
Through the archway I came across the Dairy House. On my earlier trip with the Aviatrix we had not had time to see it as the house and gardens were closing for the day. It is a beautiful little dairy, even more fanciful than the one at Ham House with its terracotta wall panels by Joseph Gott, mimicking panels from Ancient Rome and the elegant floor tiles from the Wedgwood factory. The marble worktops with their dainty terracotta legs rival anything I have seen elsewhere. Even Ham House lacked a pink marble balustrade enclosing as it were as an inner sanctum. Nor did it have busts of various worthies, ancient and modern, dotted around the place. But the single most extraordinary fact about the ornamental dairy house was that is was not built in the 18th century, when such follies were deemed the height of fashion amongst European nobility, anxious to indulge in a highly sanitised view of country life. Instead, it had been built by the 4th Duke of Northumberland during the 1850s. It did not supplant the original more mundane late 18th century working dairy which stood adjacent to it. Rather, a dairy maid would be hauled away from her duties in the everyday dairy in order to put on a show for the Duke’s guests, they being of too genteel a disposition to be expected to watch proceedings in the more humble building.
I was only able to view the late 18th brick stables from the exterior. But it seems the original drinking troughs, stalls, mangers and flooring has all been preserved inside. The adjacent 1820s riding school is notable for its unique iron framework roof. During the First World War adaptations were made to the floor to allow the riding school to be used as a makeshift hospital.
Having made an extended tour of the outhouses, I was keen to venture inside the mansion again. But as I made my way through a gateway I was stopped by members of the Richmond Archaeological Society. They asked if I would be interested in seeing the excavation being carried out on the lawn in front of the house, now that the annual Birbeck College dig had come to an end. The dig is focussed on a range of buildings which they think date from the early 17th century. I was shown some of the finds including roof tiles and part of a wine bottle with a grotesque face on it. The more they unearth, the harder the historians find it to pierce together a definitive answer as to the exact size and orientation of the great medieval abbey which had stood on this site until Henry VIII had it demolished. Under the fountain in the inner courtyard for example, monastic floor tiles have been found. Did this mean the original abbey extended within the footprint of the Tudor House? Or could it just be that the Tudors were a thrifty lot and reused building materials where they could?
The break in the rain allowed me to admire the two “pepper pot” lodges built by the 9th Earl, along with the Tudor archway named after him. One or other of them would make a charming home for the Brimstone Butterfly. At present they serve as staff accommodation. They are not identical as one of them is possessed of a concealed lower floor.
What is now the main entrance to Syon House would have been the back of the house in the Tudor era. Then the main mode of conveyance to the royal palaces and the city of London would have been by river. Poor Catherine Howard was dragged struggling from Syon to the covered barge moored by the riverside on her final journey to the Tower of London and execution in 1542. The Tudor mansion, which forms the core of the current Syon House, was built several years after Catherine’s demise. Therefore, it is impossible to know the precise location of where she was imprisoned for those desperate months leading up to her death.
Despite the gloomy weather and the history of tragic Tudor queens who had had left Syon House for the Tower, never to emerge again, I had quite a spring in my step as I ascended the stone staircase leading to the Great Hall. As I did so I admired anew the ornate dragon light fittings on either side of the massive wooden doors. I then made my way inside, determined to spend the next few hours examining the place at leisure. I was curious to discover whether my initial impression of Syon House had changed in the interim.