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. Work began in early May 2018 to create a range of new pitches and a huge sports hub building at the top of the field. This means that pitch hire will not be feasible until mid 2019 at the earliest and parts of the field will be fenced off until the works are completed.
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 then Boroughs of Ealing and Acton, which purchased the estate, sold building land around its edge to pay off the price. 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 has for 5 years been 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. From May 2018 much of the estate is in the care of a new Community Interest Company, with strong representation from the 2 boroughs; we assume that the sports facilities will be handed over to the CIC once works are completed.
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 were for decades not maintained to the standard most people expected, the buildings were under-used and vandalised and potentially wonderful facilities were being wasted. Everyone wanted to see the decline halted, though many were 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.
Grants from the Parks for People and Heritage Grants scheme were awarded from 2012 by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery. During 2013 the Conservation Management Plan was updated, initial archaeological investigations were carried out, a hydrology survey was completed and ways of interpreting the history and environment of the Park were developed. Over the next 5 years, with many struggles to fund extra costs because of the unpredictability of working with historic buildings and landscapes, amazing works have been completed.
During the winter and spring of 2018 restored elements of the Park were gradually reopened. Half of the Horseshoe Pond by the Orangery has been reinstated, Gothic arches and terraces in the north-east corner, the Temple, Orangery and Round Pond have all been restored. A new community orchard and kitchen garden along the east side of the park are flourishing. The old golf course has been opened up with the removal of the fencing (there may still be a possibility of providing another course in the future). A brand new cafe has been built with a special space for the Museum’s transport collection alongside. No future use has yet been identified for The Stables and Small Mansion, but Historic England is advising strongly that these should have appropriate uses and occupiers for such significant heritage structures. Restoration programmes and funding still have to be identified for the Edwardian Japanese Garden and the area around the Potomac Lake.
The weekend of 23/24 June 2018 saw the reopening of the Museum and other features with activities and events, with the aim of a grand official celebration in the autumn. The landscape is looking very beautiful and the wild flower meadow in the southern half of the Park is a real joy, seeded on the mud dredged from the Round Pond.