Extract from a map of Ealing Parish in 1777

Extract from a map of Ealing Parish in 1777

People love Gunnersbury Park for the variety of its attractions. It is distinctive for its rich mixture of landscapes in which to sit or stroll, the range of sports, leisure and play facilities, its historic buildings and its museum. The Park has gardens in which a succession of wealthy owners invested from the 1650s until the early 1900s. Within the estate are the two Mansions, the Orangery, the Temple with the Round Pond in front, the Stables and, in the south-west corner, the Potomac Tower and its fishing pond. There are fragments of the planting which include the now-overgrown Japanese Garden, the rose-basket beds and the Italian Garden behind the Temple.

The western half of the Park is a huge expanse of open grass which was formerly farmland. This has been used for sports, ranging from polo in the time of the Rothschilds, to football and informal ball games in its time as a public park. It also one of the few venues large enough to accommodate the remarkable and enjoyable London Mela.

A 1920s guide book to Gunnersbury Park concentrated on telling visitors about the history of the estate. It said nothing at all about any features provided for the enjoyment of the public. The local authorities of Ealing and Acton, which purchased the estate, sold building land around its edge to pay off the cost. They were proud to have brought the Rothschilds’ gardens into public ownership, but they were always going to be expensive to maintain. There was no endowment fund, so the cost fell on the rates, but within a couple of years the Borough of Brentford and Chiswick joined in (as the park was one-fifth of, and wholly within, Brentford).

The 1984 Hounslow Borough Guide listed a wider range of facilities at Gunnersbury Park than any other park in the borough. Besides the Museum, the children’s playgrounds and the café, the Guide listed 2 bowling greens, the boating lake, fishing, pitch and putt golf, 15 tennis courts and a range of sports pitches: 31 for football, 9 for cricket, 3 for rugby,1 each for hockey and lacrosse. Since then there has been a decline in weekend football and it has been too expensive to maintain all of the sports facilities. The changing rooms in the former farm buildings were burnt down several years ago and there are still no concrete plans for their repair or re-building.

The Park, like the Museum, is jointly owned by the two London Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow, which managed both through the Joint Committee; it is currently overseen by the Gunnersbury Park Regeneration Board. Because both boroughs agreed to put equal funding into the budget, when one had to cut its contribution, the other one did too – the result has been very damaging.

While some visitors find the ruined East Lodge and Stables, and the rare trees and dry water channels of the Edwardian Japanese garden, quite romantic, regular visitors are very aware of the decline of the Park. The gardens have not been maintained to the standard most people expect, the buildings are under-used and vandalised and potentially wonderful facilities are being wasted. Everyone wants to see the decline halted, though many are naturally anxious about the changes that this might mean. In 1996 a Development Plan was created for the estate and with it the Park got a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (and others). Good work was done around the Pond, the Italian Gardens, the main drive and Amelia’s Bath-house. This was intended to be the first phase of a series, but the initiative lost momentum and no further bids were made. A Conservation Management Plan was completed in 2008 as the foundation for a new restoration programme, and was followed by a major study of the costs and possibilities and an Options Appraisal whose recommendations were supported by a majority of respondents to a public consultation exercise.

An application for a Parks for People grant was awarded development funding in 2012 by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Work go off to a slow start, but during 2013 the Conservation Management Plan has been updated, initial archaeological investigations have been carried out, a hydrology survey has been completed and ways of interpreting the history and environment of the Park are bveing developed.