We found ourselves at Osterley on the last day of the season, Wednesday 30 October 2013. It was a chilly autumn day, but the sun was shining in a blue sky. We had driven up from Gatwick via the M25 and through the outer suburbs of south west London toward Hounslow, where we had joined the slow traffic moving along Wellington Road (where my great grandmother lived before she died in 1946), then turning into the Great West Road (A4) toward London city. I thought of the letter Mum received from John Weston in 1972, which I have at home in my files, where he describes the Great West Road, “opened in 1922”. When we lived in England in the early 70s the M25 had yet to be built, there was no M4 (which could be called the “Greater West Road”) and the A4 had nothing like the volume of traffic it has now, a four lane highway leading out of London toward the west country.
A sign to Osterley directed us up a small suburban street which ended in another street encircling the great estate. We drove through the gates and left the streets of London behind, entering another world. The long drive led through fields of green, cows grazing peacefully, dark and quiet woods beyond the meadows. The house and its estate are owned by the National Trust now, since they were given to the state after the Second World War by the then Earl of Jersey. The house is not visible from the city streets. The avenue of oaks by which we entered the estate is not the main drive up to the house, which enters from the other side of the park. We parked the car beside the fields and wandered through a copse of trees which screens the house from the outside world, autumn leaves and wet underfoot. Emerging we skirted a lake and caught sight of the columned portico of this grand house that is Osterley.
It was, as I mentioned, the last day of the season. Now, as in its previous glory days, Osterley House is largely closed down for a part of the year, and on the day we came there was a distinct feeling that everything was winding up for the coming winter. Osterley has never been a permanent residence, at least not since the present grand edifice was built in the mid eighteenth century on the foundations of a previous tudor mansion that had stood there since the Middle Ages. The Child family, who came into possession of the house in the early 1700s as repayment of a debt, were immensely rich and rebuilt the older house which was falling into disrepair, but made the new residence a showpiece of architectural and design excellence. No expense was spared in the rebuilding and redecoration, but it was created largely for entertainment purposes, although they used it as their country residence in the warmer months. Of course there was a “skeleton staff” of more than twenty servants and workers in residence all through the year and for them it was their home. But the owners had another house in London, in Berkeley Square, and it was only when the trees were in full leaf and the grass was green and lush that they relocated to Osterley. The house eventually came into the Jersey family through various marriages, but after the Great War it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain because of the huge costs. It remained in the family until after WWII but now it belongs to the nation.
The garden parties which became famous in the late 1800s were really long weekends when the family invited guests to enjoy their summer residence with them. They were socialite affairs, for the successful and aristocratic, and many famous people came to mingle and gossip with the English elite. It was the height of the Victorian era and Britain ruled the world. The garden parties continued into the twentieth century, at least until the war broke out in 1914. In those first decades of the 1900s my grandfather was growing up in the villages nearby, first Heston, and later Lampton, which stand next to each other on the western and south-western perimeter of the great estate. Now these villages have been swallowed up into the London suburban sprawl. It is a very different scene now to a century ago.
For us, Osterley was a pleasant glimpse into another world. We walked through the house, stopping to listen to National Trust guides who told us stories about the rooms and their furnishings, and the people who once lived here. The glory of the former days is preserved as a museum, a reminder of how life was at one time for the rich and famous of English society. The gardens and estate around are as beautiful now as they were then. But it was hard for me to transport myself back a hundred years to when my grandfather grew up in this area, and imagine what it was like for him running over the fields or through the woods chasing rabbits, or how it could ever have been that his mother Mabel Simmonds could have attended one those famous garden parties.