The Enchanted Woodland event at Syon Park is not about Christmas – but rather about bringing out the shapes and textures of their arboretum trees and Brown’s Serpentine River.
- View of Syon House from Kew Garden, J. Farrington 1795 Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Between 1754 and 1773 Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown carried out an extensive redesign of the gardens at Syon House, for Sir Hugh Percy, who became 1st Duke of Northumberland.
The duke’s account books and vouchers (invoices) from his household detail the first phase of Capability Brown’s work at Syon, near Brentford, Middlesex, between 1754 and 1757, using garden labourers, masons and plantsmen. Brown’s own account books (see online) record payments from the duke totalling £1,850 (nearly £3 million in 2015) for ‘work at Sion’ a decade later, between 1767 and 1773. During this period Brown was also working for the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.
A new lake
The current Syon House dates to 1547, when the Duke of Somerset began landscaping the grounds, including raised terraces for the formal gardens. The natural historian Dr William Turner created the first botanical garden in England here.
In 1748 Sir Hugh Smithson (as he then was) acquired Syon House and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, after his marriage to the Duke’s daughter, Elizabeth Seymour. By that time the formal style of the gardens was no longer fashionable – the new owner called Syon 'ruinous and inconvenient' – and many plants and trees had been destroyed by severe weather.
A voucher from August 1756 'A Bill for the new worck by the water side' reflects work done in creating the Serpentine River, running 500 metres from west to east at the north east side of the estate. Two bridges were built – at the north and the west – and the nearby Flora’s Column also dates from this period. Other vouchers show payments to nurserymen, including John Williamson, for seeds, bulbs, plants and trees.
In his second phase of work at Syon Brown created a park to the west of the house and a second lake, along the line of ditch flowing southwards. This 1.6-hectare (4-acre) sheet of water was originally spanned by a bridge designed by architect Robert Adam (1728–1792, Wikipedia), who had also remodelled the house (now listed Grade I, Historic England).
The Wilderness and Serpentine River
Around 10 hectares (25 acres) of pleasure grounds lie to the north and north-east of Syon House. The East Lawn links this area to the 7-hectare Wilderness, a serpentine walk leading south-west from the house towards the church. The Wilderness was bordered by a brick wall to the west and by a 1 kilometre long ha-ha (sunken wall) to the east, which separated the level grounds from the riverside tidal meadows.
The Wilderness is thought to have been laid out before Brown’s time, but he introduced new planting, including lilacs, laburnums, honeysuckles and viburnums. Six cedars (Brown’s signature tree) were also planted there.
To the north was an area of informal woodland and Brown’s Serpentine River. The wooded area was planted with oaks, copper beeches and swamp cypresses. Brown also designed clumps and winding belts of trees creating views across the Serpentine, towards the north bank of the Thames and across to Kew and Richmond.
Syon House after Brown
The improvements made by Brown at Syon over a 20-year period were later recorded on a plan of the estate for the 2nd Duke of Northumberland. Syon House remains in the ownership of the Percy family. Both the house and gardens are open to the public. Recent work to the grounds north of the Great Conservatory has restored Brown’s Serpentine River to its 18th-century layout, and the second lake can still be viewed from public areas, though only anglers can get close to it.
Sarah Rutherford, Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens, National Trust Books, 2016, p 116
Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1975 edition, p XX
Capability Brown's account book, page 57: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000148
London Parks & Gardens Trust: www.londongardenstrust.org/features/BrownatSyon.htm