Chiswick: A tale of two rivers

Chiswick: A tale of two rivers

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Nature and Man have smiled on Chiswick.

For those who have not had the good fortune to discover the place (Chiswick means ‘cheese farm’ in Old English which is fair enough), the experience can be conveniently divided into two: South Chiswick and North Chiswick. One is defined by the Thames and the other by that brimming river of life, the Chiswick High Road. The Cromwell Road Extension draws the line between them.
On the south side, nature has provided the river which seems to find the 18th Century houses of Chiswick Mall with its haunted houses and gardens so lovely that it comes lapping up the river road at high water, impudently trying to lick them (and sometimes succeeding).

Here in 1845, Mr Fuller opened Fuller’s Griffin Brewery on an eminence beside the water here, where it still brews the favourite ale best known to Londoners as London Pride.

Nearby is the mysterious island of Chiswick Eyot (pronounced ‘eight’) which so moved WB Yeats (he lived as man and boy in
Chiswick) that it inspired ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. And, just across the lane is the 700 year old St Nicholas Church where Mary, daughter of Oliver Cromwell (he of the Road) lies buried and, some say, where Oliver himself was interred.

A couple of hundred yards further up-river, you will find Chiswick has the distinction of harbouring one of London’s only two lifeboat stations at Chiswick Quay. Incredibly, here also in 1893, a certain Mr Thornycroft built what is variously called the 800 ton destroyer/ torpedo boat, HMS Speedy, for the Royal Navy.

Nearby (if you cross by Powell’s Passage, one of the spookiest walkways in London) stands the exquisite Chiswick House designed by Lord Burlington in 1747, exploring but not merely imitating the style and principles of Palladio, which offers a feast for the eyes and a glorious parkland full of follies and a lake; in Burlington’s day with the added curiosity of an elephant, but now with the extra enticements of an elegant glass café within a stone’s throw (but don’t) of Paxton’s famous conservatory. A good stroll through the generous acres of Dukes Meadows takes you to Chiswick Bridge (finishing-line of the Boat Race) where the river straightens and leads on to the riparian delights of Grove Park and Strand on the Green with its languid tow-path and its celebrated pubs and restaurants.

Enough of South Chiswick. As Milton says somewhere:

Popular pleasures please us then,
And the busy hum of men…

The North is now tugging at your sleeve. Saying goodbye to the South and resting the eye for a moment on Hogarth’s House; the great man lived here, and his home on the edge of Chiswick House’s grounds (where it borders the M4) is well worth a visit – make your progress, rakish or otherwise, under the motorway and follow your inclinations towards that other great definer of Chiswick: the High Road and its environs.

Why is Chiswick High Road such a broad street bounded by such broad pavements? Was it a drover’s road to the metropolis? You could drive a herd of Herefords up the High Road with room to spare. Was it an adjunct to the generous promise of the garden suburb? Or was it given room to breathe after the severe bombing of the Second World War? I have not received any intelligence about it. The breadth of the road at any rate enhances the sense you get of an important and self-confident thoroughfare suggesting something of the busy-ness of an upmarket market town. Having recently moved here from Chelsea, I prefer it to the Kings Road which can seem to exist only for tourists and fashionistas, with shops of almost identical worldwide names enticing the passers-by, rather than the little individual shops and boutiques and artists’ emporia and ateliers of yesteryear.

The Chiswick High Road gets its tourists and visitors; come and see them any weekend, but the M&S Food Hall, Sainsburys, Tesco, distinguished restaurants like La Trompette, fashionable eateries like High Road House and the Vinoteca, and stores like Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsburys and Tesco seem to cater more for residents. There are four or five actual banks in the High Road. When did you last see an actual bank (I think there is one in the Kings Road.)

Then there are dry cleaners, hairdressers, bathroom showrooms, art galleries, antique shops like The Old Cinema, framers, shoemakers, butchers, bakers, Italian delis, charity shops, acupuncturists and so forth and more as the High Road branches out into tributaries like Devonshire Road and Turnham Green Terrace. Add flower stalls, offices of all kinds including one that lets out offices in Barley Mow Passage, famous pubs including the George & Devonshire, the Lamb and the Crown & Anchor, and two well-serviced Underground stations in Turnham Green and Gunnersbury… and you may feel that London itself, as well as the genius loci, is well served. The High Road had a cinema and is all set to get a new one this year. It boasts a thriving amateur theatre, The Tabard, located above the pub of that name designed by Norman Shaw. There is a Church designed by Gilbert Scott at Turnham Green where Chiswick even had its own battle in the Civil Wars in which the Roundheads turned back the Royalists under Prince Rupert, never to return.

There is history. There is art. Did you know that Norman Shaw and Charles Voysey, disciples of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, were designing and building houses here in Bedford Park in the 1890s, creating London’s first garden suburb before Hampstead’s version. Here Norman Shaw also built the church of St Michael & All Angels. Pissarro and his family lived and worked in Chiswick as did E.M. Forster. A very high count of distinguished actors and directors have made their homes here, as has the Arts Educational Trust, and there is a considerable hive of media people adding to the buzz.

Perhaps the best news of all for the generous cluster of estate agents; Whitman, KFH, Knight Frank, Chesterton, Winkworth and so on – as well as for residents, god bless ‘em, throughout the long dither of Brexit, house prices more than held their own, even edging ever upwards.

The only downer I have about High Road Chiswick is the state of the pavements and the side roads. Hounslow Council seems oblivious to the cranky undulations of sundry footways and the cavernous wounds in the tarmac of some of the sideroads. But these imperfections merely serve to counterpoint the attractions of the whole.

Don’t let them trip you up. You can approach Chiswick any day of the week, head held high, expecting something you didn’t know. And more than that, something you didn’t know is just 15 minutes away from central London!
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head,
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was Rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near.
By the road an ancient cross.
On limestone quarried near the spot,
No marble or conventional phrase
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye on life, on death;
Horseman, pass by.

Photograph © Maxwell Hamilton

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