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Bentley Priory and its immediate environs has been in the ownership of the Air Ministry since 1926, at which time part of the wider estate lands also became a public park, now known as Bentley Priory Open Space. The estate has its origins in the early C13th as a house and land belonging to the Priory of St Gregory in Canterbury, an Augustinian priory founded in 1171. In 1536, at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, what was by then largely farmland was taken by Archbishop Cranmer and later became Crown property of Henry VIII, before passing into private ownership. A house is marked on maps of the early C18th and John Rocque's map of 1754 shows Bentley House. The older building was demolished and the present house was built higher up the hill in 1766 for James Duberly, an army contractor, who had acquired the estate in 1755. In 1788 it was purchased by the Hon. John James Hamilton, who later became the 9th Earl and the 1st Marquess of Abercorn. He enlarged the grounds through land enclosures from Harrow parish by a series of Acts of Parliament between 1803 and 1817 but by 1816 the grounds were over 200 acres in extent. He also remodelled and enlarged the house, which was renamed The Priory, engaging the services of architect Sir John Soane between 1788-98. Soane's work included a porte-cochère on the north front and a new reception wing. The house was subsequently enlarged by Sir Robert Smirke in 1810-18. The Marquess entertained many prominent members of the Tory Party at The Priory, and his illustrious visitors also included William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Richard Payne Knight and Sir Uvedale Price, with whom he discussed landscape improvements among other things. Price became famous for his 'Essay on the Picturesque' of 1794, in which he advocated the great landscape artists such as Claude and Salvator Rosa as models for improving the landscape, theories he developed through practice on his own land.
After the death of the 1st Marquess in 1818 the estate was inherited by his grandson James Hamilton, then aged 7, whose guardian was the Tory politician Lord Aberdeen. Aberdeen also corresponded with Price on topics including landscaping and in 1821 the latter recommended he seek the advice of William Sawrey Gilpin (1762-1843), painter turned landscape gardener and exponent of the Picturesque style. A map of 1822 shows elaborate shrubbery gardens around the house, and its lake and approach were probably the work of Gilpin who worked here in the 1820s. Gilpin later remarked on these features in his 'Practical Hints on Landscape Gardening' (1832), drawing attention to 'the small but beautiful artificial lake [. . . ] where the form of the lake, the conducting of the walk, the beauty of the openings to the water, and the appropriateness and variety of the interposing masses, groups, and single trees, &c., afford a striking example of the correct taste that executed the whole.' Other landscape features included a Cedar Garden to the north of the house that may also have been the work of Gilpin. Now built over by private housing development, this garden was praised in 1850 by William Keane in 'The Beauties of Middlesex': 'a beautiful flower garden adorned with all that art and good taste could supply'. In addition to its cedar trees, it had a rose garden, an orangery, a large artificial rockery, two summerhouses and wide walks.
After he came of age in 1832 the 2nd Marquess of Abercorn only occasionally lived at The Priory and in 1846 it was leased as the home of the Dowager Queen Adelaide, for whom Summerhouse Lake was formed, apparently incorporating the earlier body of water. One of the summerhouses in the Cedar Garden was a favourite tea room of hers, now surviving in the grounds of a C20th house. She lived here until her death in 1849, by which time the house was known as Bentley Priory. In the Brooks & Green Sale Catalogue of c.1848, the Terrace Garden south of the house had a French flower garden descending to lower pleasure grounds and park, where there was an ornamental fountain. In 1852 the estate was purchased by Sir John Kelk, railway engineer and building contractor, who became Treasurer of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1865-6; he was involved in the RHS garden at South Kensington and was contractor for the Albert Memorial. Kelk improved his property at Bentley Priory, making Italianate additions to the house including a Tuscan portico, a clock tower and a large conservatory on the west side that was later demolished in 1939. He developed his glasshouses, creating bedding schemes for the Terrace Garden with the assistance of his gardener Mr Rutland. The Upper Terrace Garden became known as the Grand Italian Garden, and had cut beds, urns, seats, yews and laurels. He reputedly employed over 20 gardeners, and he may also have been responsible for removing 3 of Soane's ornamental buildings, a thatched lodge, a hexagonal dairy and a greenhouse. Although simplified, much of the C19th design remains today, including the upper and lower terrace gravel walks running east to west with flights of steps linking the terraces at each end. The Lower Terrace has a central semi-circular balustraded platform with a circular basin and fountain, which in Kelk's time was decorated with beds and gravel paths.
In 1880 the estate was put up for sale and its park and pleasure grounds were described in Sale Particulars by Driver & Co. It was purchased for £75,000 by London restaurant and hotel magnate Frederick Gordon, who wanted to add to his hotel chain. He converted the house and grounds into a 'first class residential hotel', which opened in 1885. In order to provide good transport to his hotel, Gordon formed his own railway company and the Harrow and Stanmore line was inaugurated in 1888. The London and North Western Railway agreed to operate the line and the first train ran in 1890, Gordon agreeing not to run Sunday services for 40 years, to satisfy local opinion. Unfortunately the hotel proved unsuccessful and after Gordon's death in 1908, Bentley Priory became a girls school until 1924.
In 1926 the estate was broken up, with c.100 hectares sold to a building syndicate, who divided it into lots, enabling Middlesex County Council to purchase c.36 hectares of land as part of the Green Belt for a public park. The Air Ministry purchased the mansion and 16 hectares of land, including the formal gardens. In 1936 RAF Fighter Command moved into Bentley Priory and in WWII it was used by Inland Area (Training Command), the centre of the air defence system under Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, and it was from here that the Battle of Britain was carried out. The RAF remained here after WWII, and in 1968 other operational defence command units were transferred here. The main entrance from the north-west end of Common Road is marked as a carriage drive on Greenwood's map of 1819. Now the entrance has a WWII plane set in the grass next to a mature cedar tree, and beyond the entrance are various C20th administrative and other buildings, replacing shrubberies, a paddock, carriage drives and the bowling green. Of the C19th gardens by the mansion, the Victorian terraces with urns and the circular pond with fountain survive to the south. A small neo-classical monument to a child called John James Hamilton who died aged eight is near the house, but his story is a mystery, and it is not known when the monument was erected. Below the Lower Terrace an oval lawn slopes to the south, the RAF land now separated by a security fence from the public park.
The land purchased by the MCC was transferred to the GLC, and came into the ownership of LB Harrow in 1968. It remains chiefly woodland and pasture, crossed by various footpaths. Heriots Wood to the east contains vestiges of ornamental planting in the ancient woodland that includes oak and hornbeam, Midland and common hawthorn and birch, with a few cedars, a yew, and odd patches of laurel. There are substantial remains of the C19th ornamental planting around Summerhouse Lake, where laurel, yew, rhododendron and one stunning parkland oak can be found, reputedly the oldest oak tree in Middlesex, with a trunk 9m in circumference, estimated to be c.400 years old and pollarded some 200 years ago. The importance of the lake was recognised in 1974 when it was designated a nature reserve, a management committee was set up in 1975. The site of the old summerhouse from which it takes its name was destroyed by vandals in a fire, but it was here that Sir Walter Scott reputedly wrote his novel 'Marmion' (1808). Old Lodge Way in the south was until the early C20th an entrance from Stanmore Park, and in the south-east corner of the park is Boot Pond, so-called because of its shape, which in the early C19th was part of Stanmore Park rather than Bentley Priory. Cattle graze in the public park in the summer and a private deer park is adjacent to the public park to the east of Heriot's Wood, which has a herd of fallow deer.
EH Register; Uvedale Price 'Essays on the Picturesque II' (1768) and 'An Essay on the Picturesque as compared with the sublime and the beautiful' (1794); J N Brewer 'The Beauties of England and Wales: London and Middlesex' X, pt IV (ii), 1816; Illustrated London News: 25 November 1848, p328, 13 December 1884 pp578, 580; Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England London 3: North West' (Penguin, 1999 ed), p257; William Keane, 'Beauties of Middlesex',1850, p113; W S Gilpin, 'Practical Hints on Landscape Gardening', 1832; Dorothy Stroud, 'The Architecture of Sir John Soane', 1961; J Willis, 3 articles in the Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener, 20 August, 10 September and 12 November 1868; J Potter, Bentley Priory, A Provisional History (unpublished thesis, Architectural Association 1994); 'An Illustrated History of RAF Bentley Priory' (n.d. 1998?); Walter W Druett, 'The Stanmores and Harrow Weald Through the Ages' (Hillingdon Press, 1938)