A SLOW WEEKEND IN WEST LONDON: VISITING BRENTFORD LOCK
For the Slow Traveller who doesn't want to stay in central London, either because they have already explored all there is to see there or they want to see a different side of the city, staying in the outskirts can offer an entirely new experience. Staying in areas such as Greenwich, Chislehurst and Brentford can feel like you are visiting an English town rather than part of the megalopolis which is the capital city.
Brentford Lock, on the western outskirts of London, is on the River Thames and right in the middle of several of the largest green spaces in the city: to the south is 139 acres of Syon Park, 330 acres of Kew Gardens and 2,500 acres of Richmond Park. To the east is 105 acres of Thames Wetlands, to the north is 500 acres of Osterley Park and 186 acres of Gunnersbury Park - all of them vast expanses of green spaces filled with woodlands, open heath, deer parks, formal gardens, walks and a few historic houses.
This is a part of London where the Thames gets to lap at riverbank rather than buildings, where the city isn't constructed around tourists but around the residents, where old London hasn't yet been fully replaced by steel and chrome. It may be a place where mass tourism is slowly encroaching (Heathrow is about 5 miles away) but it is a place where green spaces and nature are still able to firmly stake their claim.
Often overlooked by visitors to the city, I visited with my son for a unique city break; we were looking for something a little different, somewhere for locals rather than sites catering for tourists. We wanted to see if we could find the quiet, verdant spaces where we could sit under trees, spot the wildlife on riverside strolls and enjoy a picnic or two in the grounds of stately homes.
We arrived on a lunchtime train from Clapham to Brentford, leaving the multiple train tracks and hurrying crowds behind us and seeing the landscape open up on the 20 minute journey to the western suburbs. Allotments and playing fields replaced the concrete, and brown brick houses with lawns and window boxes replaced the high-rises. There was exuberant buddleia growing everywhere; amongst the tracks, over the walls and in all the neglected spaces, it was good to see that it gets the chance to grow here unlike central London which is manicured and controlled to within an inch, every space treated as profit-generating real estate.
It was a 12 minute walk from the train station to our hotel, the IHG Brentford Lock, which is right on the river. We dumped our bags and headed straight out to explore, following the canal to Boston Manor Park, then back through Brentford and past Kew Bridge. What struck me the most is how the area seems to be a place of contrasts; modern blocks of balconied flats juxtaposed with small, terraced houses, smart looking restaurants bedecked with fairy lights and menus of over-priced connoisseur coffee contrast with small, shabby retail units and cafés doing all day breakfasts.
Something called The Brentford Project seems to be taking over. A massive development of apartments, waterside restaurants and lanes filled with 'carefully chosen' independent shops is being constructed and there is no shortage of cranes and builders in the area. While I can see that development is necessary and that this is an area undergoing much needed regeneration, it seems a shame that 'authentic' London is being pushed out. I do hope that the Victorian wrought iron lampposts, tiled pubs, terracotta fire station and Art Deco building on the main road all get to stay.
The new apartments which have already been built are thankfully not too high and they look very exclusive, with polished gardens, fountains and huge balconies - looking in an estate agent's window I saw that you would be lucky to get change from £1,000,000 for the smallest of these flats.
Our walk took us along the waterside with views over the docks, canal and boat yards. We loved the houseboats and spent a long time deciding which were our favourites - some had plants everywhere; tumbling tomato plants, raspberry bushes, clematis climbing over the tiller. Some boats seemed to be permanent residents, with bamboo screening to hide them from the path, and with their own postboxes. We walked through an old boat repair area for the canal with an ornate roof, green water and colourful graffiti everywhere, ending up in Boston Park, a large green space flanked by office buildings but filled with wildflowers and even a small orchard.
Heading over Kew Bridge we watched a family inexpertly paddle-boarding up the Thames, peered through railings to more exclusive riverside apartments with the most immaculate weed-free lawn I've seen outside a stately home, and started down the Kew Riverside Walk.
With Kew Gardens on one side and the open expanse of Syon Park on the other side of the river, it felt like we were back in the countryside of home, rather than just 8 miles from Trafalgar Square.
While my son tackled the playground at Waterman's Park, I sat on a bench overlooking the water, admiring the willows on the riverbank and watching the world go by. As the sun set and dusk drew in, we headed back to our hotel for a meal, ending the evening with a stroll around Brentford Lock, appreciating the lights reflected in the water and watching a heron standing just a few feet away from us. The irony didn't escape me that in the wilds of Wiltshire where I live, herons are something you see in the far distance which fly away as soon as you get near. Here in built up London is the closest I've got to one, staring back at me disdainfully and without any fear.
The next day was our planned trip to Kew. We have visited just once before, several years ago when we made the mistake of driving and had the stress of finding somewhere to park in busy Richmond. This time, it was a quick stroll over the bridge, about 25 minutes in total from door to door, and feeling very smug about the ease with which we got there, we sauntered through the grand entrance of Elizabeth Gate.
Arriving early, we took advantage of the lack of people and strolled around the touristy bits first - the Palm House, Kew Palace, the Hive and the Treetop Walk, wanting to see them before the midday crowds arrived. Kew Gardens are a fabulous place, my favourite of all the Royal Parks, and not just because you don't run the risk of being mown down by an electric scooter or stepping in something nasty. The grounds are immaculate, lush and grassy with such an incredible variety of mature trees, and the glasshouses are so ornate and packed with exotic flora that you rarely get the chance to see elsewhere in the country.
We had taken advantage of the Great British Staycation picnic offer from our hotel, where the hotel packs up a picnic for you, complete with picnic bag, and with this slung over my shoulder we felt very comfortable wandering away from the crowds and the cafes to find our own quiet little spot of Kew, knowing that we wouldn't go hungry.
The Kew website has articles on both its quieter areas and one on its best picnic spots - the Mediterranean garden appeared on both lists, so that is where we went. Sitting on a bench amongst the olive trees, we were joined by a glossy looking pigeon who hopped around our feet, onto our picnic bag and even onto our knees in his quest for a piece of pork pie.
We stayed at Kew all day, mooching around the far flung corners of the gardens. With no pressure to get back to the car before parking ran out, or to catch a train, we could take our time. Sitting quietly on a bench by a pond, we were rewarded by the sight of a tiny moorhen cautiously stepping out of the reeds, its tiny stumpy wings flapping furiously every time its mother fed it. There is a lot to be said for sitting peacefully, even in a popular tourist attraction such as Kew, and waiting to see what may turn up - it was enchanting.
We ambled back across the river to our hotel for a light supper and comfortable beds at the end of a long but peaceful day.
The next day was sadly our last. In the morning we visited Syon House, a privately owned stately home with huge grounds. It is only a 10 minute walk from our hotel and we got there for opening time, a move which was well rewarded as we mostly had the place to ourselves. We got to enjoy the Conservatory without any crowds; it is a magnificent building and I far preferred it to the huge glasshouses of Kew. Syon House was equally as impressive with lavish Robert Adam interiors and beautiful grounds. A walk by the lake was so tranquil and rural that only the aeroplanes overhead brought you back to the fact that you were in London.
We finished our visit with a very civilised meal in the onsite restaurant at Hilliers, and then walked the 20 minutes back to Brentford train station. Waiting on the quiet platform in the hazy sunshine, just the odd pigeon pootling around and the wind rustling the buddleia, we could have been a million miles away from the capital city.
We would so easily have stayed several days longer if we could as there are so many other green spaces in the area - I particularly would have liked to have had the time to visit Richmond Park, the largest of the Royal Parks and famous for its deer, as well as Osterley House, a much filmed Georgian country estate which is now owned by the National Trust and which I have been told has an interior as impressive as that of Syon House.
We both found Brentford to be a surprisingly peaceful place to stay and best of all, it gave us a very different perspective of London. We are familiar with the gloss of central London so it was fascinating to see another side of the city, one which felt much more genuine and 'lived in'. I suspect it will look entirely different in a few years time when the redevelopments are complete, but for now it felt like time spent in authentic London.
What amazed both of us though was the amount of green spaces in the Brentford area within just a short distance of the High Street and it reinforced my belief that it is entirely possible to be a Slow Traveller in London if you just know where to look.
If you are visiting Brentford there are plenty of other parks, gardens, stately homes and museums to visit in the area >>
Staying at IHG Brentford
There are limited independent accommodation options in the area, but we found the Holiday Inn an excellent base for our stay - central to everything as it is on the High Street and 12 minutes walk from the train station.
The place must have incredible sound proofing as we couldn't hear any planes or traffic noise from our room, and the beds were exceptionally comfortable with crisp white sheets and feather duvets (many reviews seem to mention the comfy beds so we clearly aren't alone in our appreciation of them).
Best of all was its location right on the water and next to the historic gauging dock which was so pretty, particularly by night.
The picnic provided for our day out was both filling and delicious - it needs to be booked in advance of your day and comes in a chilled picnic bag. You can choose a traditional Ploughmans or a Continental Picnic, and vegetarian options are available.