Twyford Abbey is an historic landscape setting encompassing a listed house and garden walls. Between 1807 and 1809, owner Thomas Willan engaged architect, botanist and geologist William Atkinson to build a mansion in a romantic castellated gothic style, incorporating an earlier moated manor house. To this were added an impressively walled garden of approximately 0.5 hectares, a picturesque pleasure garden and park, and nearby St Mary’s Church was remodelled in gothic style. During the C20th various extensions and alterations were made to the house, which the Alexian Brothers, an order of monks, ran as a nursing home. The property has been vacant since 1988.
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The large house and grounds of Twyford Abbey, and the adjacent parish church of St Mary’s (q.v.) are situated within the parish of West Twyford. Despite the name Twyford Abbey, there is no record of any monastic establishment having existed on the site. The first written record of West Twyford is in the Domesday Book of 1086, where it is described as a parcel of the demesnes of the canons of St. Paul’s, and six tenants were recorded as living there. In 1181 the community is recorded as having a chapel, and by 1251 a survey records a church with an ancient tower and two altars. Later the parish became depopulated so that by the C15th or early C16th the manorial lords were able to enclose the lands into their demesne. By 1596 the parish is noted as having only one house. The house is later described by Lysons as standing near the church and surrounded by a moat. Ownership of the manor passed through various hands. By 1694 Sir Joseph Herne is recorded as the owner, and through marriage the manor came into the possession of the Cholmeley family.
By 1800 Thomas Willan is listed as tenant at the manor of West Twyford. In 1806 he purchased the manor from the Cholmeley family, which then encompassed the whole of the parish except for 12 acres. Willan was a wealthy landowner, stage coach proprietor in the City of London and major leaseholder at Marylebone Park Farm renting 288 acres of the 543-acre estate. A sketch map attributed to Thomas Willan shows a moated enclosure with buildings, surrounded by orchards and meadows, and the River Brent to the north. Between 1807 and 1809, Willan engaged William Atkinson to design and build a gothic mansion, lodge, large walled garden and picturesque pleasure garden and park and to remodel St Mary’s Church in gothic style, and it is at this time that the house and grounds were fashionably renamed Twyford Abbey.
Atkinson (c.1773-1839) was an architect, geologist and botanist. He was a former pupil of James Wyatt, before becoming architect to the Board of Ordnance. Atkinson was a renowned country house architect who specialised in the design of romantic gothic revival houses, usually based on an irregular, asymmetrical plan with a profusion of battlemented towers and pinnacled gables. In 1805 he published ‘Views of Picturesque Cottages with Plans’, giving a detailed account of the picturesque and how it could be achieved. His interest in the landscape is first encountered in his proposals for the setting at Scone Palace, which were implemented in preference to the designs put forward by Thomas White, Repton and Loudon.
Throughout his career Atkinson designed and built a number of kitchen gardens with the associated vineries and forcing houses, and gained renown for improved control of heating in greenhouses. At Woburn Abbey, some time before 1833, Atkinson designed a four-acre kitchen garden, with gardener’s house, hot houses, pine and melon pits etc. with a similar layout as Twyford. He also acted as building consultant to the Horticultural Society when it set up its garden at Chiswick in 1821. In addition to a passion for fruit growing and propagation, his horticultural interests included Turkey oaks (Quercus cerris). A native to south east Europe, Turkey oaks were introduced into Great Britain in the C18th as a quick-growing alternative to the English oak. Atkinson also introduced a type of Roman cement to the London market that was produced in Yorkshire and became known as Atkinson’s or Yorkshire cement. Atkinson’s keen interest in geology and botany is also noted in the description of his garden at Grove End, Atkinson’s villa on the Eyre Estate, Marylebone (much of which Willan had previously farmed), which was planted with ‘the rarest trees and choicest plants’ and furnished with ‘specimens of the varieties of English stone’.
At Twyford Abbey, Atkinson filled in the moat and the new mansion was built around the existing house. The main entrance to the house was positioned on the west facade overlooking the small church of St. Mary’s (now just outside the boundary of the property). The plan of the house is asymmetrical and incorporates castellated parapets, octagonal towers, buttresses and tall chimneys, the whole covered in coarse-textured cement, probably Atkinson’s cement. On the southeast corner a large high, single-storey conservatory was built, with windows of gothic style tracery, large corner buttresses and castellated parapets creating the nearest thing to a glass wall as could be achieved at that time. Keane describes the conservatory as adorned with ‘large specimens of old scarlet geranium trained up the pillars; the passionflowers, and other climbing plants, are formed into wreaths, and hang in fine flowing festoons from the roof.’ The house has a slightly elevated position in relation to the surrounding land giving the building a prominence and creating terraces to the south, west elevations. Both the little church and the lodge had ‘various Gothic ornaments’, such as parapets, buttresses and a stucco rendering.
In 1815 the land at Twyford Abbey was described as ornamental and the garden-scenery being ‘laid out with much simplicity and good taste’. Later in 1850 Keane describes the setting thus: ‘A carriage road, through an irregular avenue of trees, runs for a considerable distance through the park, and then enters an avenue of elms, which forms a noble approach to the mansion…[which] is rendered impressive...by the massive solidity of its component parts…the prospects, over the park, are diversified by the circular clumps of trees; which are favourable exemplifications of that style of landscape-scenery.’
To the north of the house, and linked by a curtain wall were the stable blocks, coach house, brew-house, bake-house, and dairy laid out in the form of a rectangular courtyard with a hexagonal lantern tower to one corner. Behind the curtain wall was a courtyard garden, with grass plots and walks with a 60 foot well in one corner.
The stable yard in turn linked directly to the large walled garden to the north, enclosed by an impressive Flemish bond brick wall, similar in plan to that which Atkinson later proposed for Woburn Abbey. Keane describes it as containing ‘good fruit trees’, and vineries forty feet long by sixteen wide. A stove of thirty feet by twelve, contained a large plant of Musa cavendisshii and a Passiflora bonapartia in full bloom. Later photographs clearly show the glasshouse, gardener’s cottage and associated chimneys as well as the layout of the garden. According to Kearney the pleasure gardens of the house were on the east side, encompassed by trees and walks extending to the river Brent.
Considering the whole scheme: approach, parkland, buildings, and gardens, it seems highly likely it was conceived as a complete picturesque landscape by Willan and Atkinson working in partnership. Atkinson’s book certainly shows that he had a keen appreciation of the picturesque, as espoused by Gilpin, Knight and Price. He is likely to have read Knight’s ‘Analytical Enquiry into the Principles of Taste’, published in the same year as his own book. Atkinson would also have been familiar with the work and writings of Humphry Repton. At Twyford can be found the romantic situation; the picturesque setting of the buildings within the trees; the oblique approach offering tantalising glimpses of the house through the trees; the variety of indigenous rather than exotic trees and their spacing in small groups or singly, rather than in larger clumps; the varied and intricate skyline of the parapets and chimneys of the house; the gravelly exterior of the stucco to house and church to create an atmosphere of antiquity or venerable gloom; the walks around the property to enjoy the views of woodland and river; and finally ‘some sacrifice of picturesque beauty to neatness near the house’, by way of the terraces around the house, and the small courtyard garden. In the researchers’ opinion the kitchen garden wall although listed by EH as C18th, is also almost certainly the work of Atkinson.
Willan’s daughter, Isabella and her husband John Kearsley Douglas (who took the name Douglas-Willan), occupied the new house with their family until Douglas-Willan’s death in 1833. After 1837, Isabella divided the estate into three lots and let it to tenants. In 1890, William Allhusen bought the house with 19 acres and the advowson of the church for £11,500, and spent £5998 on the property.
Gradually the remainder of the parish was sold off. In 1897 land was sold for the Willesden workhouse infirmary site, and in 1900 other land was sold to the Royal Agricultural Show for a permanent exhibition ground, however, the show was only staged here from 1903 to 1905. The station was named in honour of the Prince of Wales who opened the show. The showground became the Park Royal Estate, and in 1913 the first factory was built on Coronation Road. In 1935/6 the construction of the North Circular Road led to further building of factories and housing. Colonel Douglas Willan was still the main landholder in 1908, but after the WWI all the remaining land was sold, much of it to Guinness Brewery which was built 1933 -1936.
In 1902 Allhusen sold the house and park to the Alexian Brothers, a lay Catholic order established during the Middle Ages in the Rhineland and Low Countries to care for the sick and poor. They were formally declared a religious Congregation by Pope Sixtus in 1472. The Alexian Brothers’ first order in the UK was established in Manchester in 1875. When Twyford Abbey was bought they at first looked to receive '20-30 invalid gentlemen'. An advertisement in 1913 reads: 'Twyford Abbey in 20 acres of beautifully wooded ground opened by Alexian Brothers for reception of aged, infirm and convalescent gentlemen. Private rooms from 1 to 3 guineas per week'. They also ran the home farm.
A description of the Abbey and its grounds was included in a publication of 1927 and gives a vivid picture of the rural nature of the Abbey, when hay meadows surrounded the house and the farmyard led down to the banks of the River Brent: ’Between the mansion and the home farm is a most picturesque walled fruit and vegetable garden, in which one or two monks, in their long black habits, were walking, making a picture that might well have been set back in the Middle Ages. [...] The monastic farm, with is whitewashed cottage and buildings and the picturesque farmyard, is a pleasant spot. The monks are good husbandmen, and when we were there were busy building a new rick from the new-mown hay from the meadows that lie on the south side of the house and form so pleasant a vista from the terrace. [...] The cows, now grazing in a meadow nearby, and the pigs are well housed in brick sheds, and the runs are full of fowls, turkeys, geese and ducks, while many others wander at will over the farmyard and meadows.
The Alexian Brothers made numerous alterations and additions during their ownership to provide extra accommodation and facilities. In 1904/5 they added a wing to the north of the house and Willan’s two stables were converted to a new chapel. A misunderstanding had arisen over ownership of St Mary’s, which meant that the church could not be used for services by the Brothers and it was returned to the C of E in 1907. Extensive alterations to the western façade include a two storey extension with octagonal towers at both ends and a central square clock tower, all with castellated parapets in gothic style. This is joined to the original house by three storeys with balconies at 1st and 2nd floor. An arched doorway links this extension to the walled kitchen garden. In 1914, the original conservatory was replaced by a two storey structure in similar gothic style.
For the duration of WWII the house and farm were taken over by the Guinness Brewery, who afterwards retained the rent of the farm. The Alexian Brothers continued enlarging the house including a new church built in 1958 which incorporated the old one as a Lady Chapel. The lodge was modernized in 1964 when the windows were changed and chimney pots removed. Also in 1964 the walled garden was cleared of all vegetation, garden buildings and paths in order to create a residents’ garden, but this work never carried out. In 1966 a projecting accommodation wing was added to the east façade.
In 1973 the Alexian Brothers lost their appeal to demolish the house and develop the grounds for residential purposes, in order to fund more up-to-date premises on an alternative site. Twyford Abbey was sold in 1988, from which time it has remained vacant.
Various schemes for development of the site have been proposed in the interim, but to date (2011) none have been approved. In 1983 Brian Rayment, Conservation Officer with Ealing Borough Council, considered Twyford Abbey and the rural landscape that surrounds it to be unique in Greater London; ‘a rare Gothic Revival building on a site of the original habitation of a Parish in London does not exist and perhaps never has existed anywhere else’, noting that the grouping of house, tower, stables and coach house, walled garden and farm buildings are more than reminiscent of a Medieval Abbey, unusual in gothic revival sites which replicate facades but rarely medieval plan forms.
Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England London 3: North West' (Penguin, 1999 ed); Richard Essen, 'Ealing, Hanwell and Greenford', Sutton, 1997.
LPGT Volunteer Research by Sophie Seifalian and Zoe Cain, 2011 (see bibliography in research document)