Like most city children, I grew up visiting our local parks once or twice a week. The closest parks were good for playgrounds, riding bikes and playing ball games, but there was another park that was very different. It had ponds and boating, secret gardens and mysterious ruins, trees to climb and banks to roll down. It was a magical place called Gunnersbury Park.
In May this year, the Gunnersbury Park ‘Parks for People’ Project completed an £8.2 million restoration of the heritage parkland, alongside an £48.4 million restoration of the Rothschilds' mansion housing the local history museum. Heritage Lottery and Big Lottery funding bids were developed for both projects in tandem, and we were delighted to be awarded funding for both with match funding from Ealing and Hounslow Councils, who jointly own the park.
Gunnersbury is the former home of the Rothschild family and of Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II, and includes 72ha of parkland, two mansions, walled gardens, ponds, stables and numerous designed landscape features. Sadly, like many public parks, the estate fell into decline as government budget cuts reduced investment in park infrastructure and staffing. By 2011 some of Gunnersbury's listed structures were already lost and others, including the parkland itself, were placed on Historic England's ‘At Risk’ register. Urgent action was required, so the two councils set about developing a phased master plan for the entire park, with encouragement and support from officers at both HLF and Historic England.
The priority for the ‘Parks for People’ project was to restore the heritage parkland including the terraces, lawns and pleasure gardens, reconnecting them with the Rothschilds' mansion, Gunnersbury Park House. Scope also included works to restore lost views, and repairs to the Orangery, Gothic Ruins, Princess Amelia's Bathhouse and Temple, to remove them and the registered parkland from the ‘At Risk’ Register. We also wanted to develop the volunteering and learning offers in the park, and to engage our park visitors with the estate's fascinating history. As the Gunnersbury ‘project landscape architect’, I've had the honour of working on Gunnersbury for over five years and have encountered some interesting site challenges, surprising discoveries and satisfying conclusions which I'd like to share with you.
Gunnersbury's Round Pond and Temple are probably the most iconic features in the park. They date back to Princess Amelia's period of ownership and the pond is also known as the boating lake, although public boating ended in the 1990s. We needed to de-silt the pond and, before draining it down, a local fishing club and volunteers netted 128 large carp, numerous silver fish and one huge eel which were all successfully relocated to the park's Potomac Lake. Silt was dug out and re-spread on the south field and sown with traditional hay-meadow and cornfield seed mixes, creating a spectacular 3ha wildflower meadow. The pond was refilled in 2017 and now attracts wildfowl, bats and insects, including high numbers of dazzling dragonflies. We are hoping to bring back public boating in 2019.
Another key element of the project was the recreation of the west arm of the Horseshoe Pond, which forms the setting for the elegant Sidney Smirke-designed Orangery (c.1839). World War II bomb damage may have caused the pond to leak and by the 1960s it had been in-filled with two rockeries, blocking views of the Orangery from the lawns. During excavations, we discovered the remains the Cl9th pond walls and sham bridge and the Museum of London Archaeology team was on hand to record all finds. A decision was made to restore the attractive five-arch sham bridge but the pond walls were unstable so they were reburied and new walls constructed to a slightly smaller footprint. The new liner is a combination of as-dug clay and geotextile over butyl rubber, and the pond is planted with species to attract wildlife and reflect the Rothschilds' original planting schemes. We sourced six varieties of water lilies from the Latour-Marliac nursery that supplied the Rothschilds' Head Gardener James Hudson with many of his original plants. We were excited to then discover that Hudson has a water lily named after him, and that another of Latour-Marliac's regular customers was the artist Claude Monet.
Gunnersbury is home to almost 2500 specimen trees with some limes and yews thought to be over 200 years old. We commissioned a heritage tree strategy to provide guidance on future tree planting and maintenance and this has informed the planting of new specimen trees, including Lebanon Cedars (donated from Chiswick Park), Liriodendrons, Scots Pine, Cercis and Paulownia. Some inappropriate C2Oth tree plantings were felled to restore ‘designed views’ across the parkland with logs and brash either left in place as wildlife habitat or used to create dry hedges and stag-beetle loggeries. Artists worked with local school pupils to carve storm-damaged cedar and red oak logs, creating six beautiful play sculptures and ten new log seats for the nature trail.
Our community garden is in one of our two walled gardens, hidden behind the Victorian ‘Gothic Ruin’ walls. There you will find four large ‘Victorian kitchen garden’ beds and a heritage fruit orchard all now managed by volunteers. Community groups are developing a series of ‘timeline’ beds with the Head Gardener, demonstrating how food production has changed from Neolithic times to the twenty-first century. Gunnersbury is very fortunate to have one of the Capel Manor Horticulture College campuses based on site in our other walled garden. Their students regularly practise their skills out in the park and have worked with our Head Gardener to design and plant a new long border and shaded rockery bed. The college has also developed its own excellent show gardens, which we hope will be connected through to the park in the future, once funding is found to restore an early C19th gateway.
This is just a taste of the range of works we've carried out to restore Gunnersbury Park and we hope you'll come and visit to explore the park for yourselves. The estate is now managed by a new Community Interest Company, Gunnersbury (2026) CIC, with both boroughs still actively involved. Further phases of park improvements are planned and a major new sports project is under construction and due to complete in 2019. Gunnersbury is rising to the challenge of finding alternative, and sometimes contentious, ways to fund parks in this period of on-going government funding cuts. With help from funders such as the Heritage and Big Lotteries, the park is once again a magical destination, celebrating its own unique history whilst also looking to the future.
If you want to learn more about the history of Gunnersbury, I can recommend the excellent new Scala guide Gunnersbury Park — The Place and the People, which was developed by the Friends of Gunnersbury Park and Museum and reviewed in the Summer 2018 edition of London Landscapes.