This article first appeared in the November 2015 London Historians newsletter. Since I wrote it, the abbey has been sealed away behind high metal fencing, as if to confirm the purposeful neglect of its current owners.
I grew up in Kingsbury, North West London. I now live in Ealing. Between those two places lies a stretch of the North Circular I must have driven hundreds if not thousands or times.
But it was only recently I noted a wooden fence close to Hanger Lane – on the left as you travel east and roughly opposite the Hoo-Hing Chinese food emporium. Behind the wooden fence, is wilderness – characterised most obviously by an array of Giant Hogweed that more than amply live up to their name. They tower ponderously over the fence like watchtowers or searchlights.
And, it turns out, they hide a secret.
Behind that fence lie the ruins of the Grade II-listed Twyford Abbey, an early 19th-century Gothic revival mansion designed by William Atkinson. Actually, ruins is an overstatement: the building was only really abandoned in the late 1980s. But it will become ruinously impossible to save soon.
At first sight of the name one instinctively assumes the building must be a relic of Henry VIII’s enthusiastic plunder of the Catholic Church. There has been a house on the site of Twyford Abbey since around 1290. It has, at times, been a manor house, a farmhouse and a mansion surrounded by a moat. But there wasn’t a religious order here until around 1902, when the Alexian order of monks took it over and began to use it as a rest home for the elderly.
Ironically, then, the name Twyford Abbey predated its use as a religious house. The man who had the house built in 1806 – Thomas Willan – also responsible for filling in the moat – simply thought the Abbey suffix added a suitably gothic touch to the already gothic vision he had for his grand new home. Which is why he employed William Atkinson. Gothic revival was what Atkinson did.
His is best known now perhaps, for his work on Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence. But he also has many other houses to his credit, among them Lismore Castle, Scone Palace, Bretton Hall, and Hylands.
And it seems appropriate that he worked for Sir Walter Scott on Abbotsford, too. Atkinson’s historicity, like Scott’s, was sentimental and sweeping, unfettered by what we might now call granularity – a true desire to replicate in any detail the forms of Gothic architecture – but deep in romantic sensibility and therefore truer to his own time than perhaps he knew.
It is now sandwiched between the North Circular and the A40, with Diageo’s headquarters and the Central Middlesex Hospital hemming it in closer. Its grounds as much as its buildings, are much fallen from what they were. Parcels have been sold periodically for perhaps 150 years. The Willesden Workhouse, the Royal Agricultural Society and Guinness – hence the presence of Diageo – have all benefited from the desperation of the Abbey’s owners at different times.
And its story speaks sadly to the neglect that comes to property that falls between the cracks of the planning and heritage systems. The house was listed in January 1973, most likely in response to a request from the Alexian order to have it demolished. The order abandoned it in 1988, and it has slowly fallen into neglect ever since.
I recently spoke to architectural historian, writer and urban regeneration specialist Denna Jones, who is passionate about the neglect of Twyford Abbey. Jones was initially drawn to the building by its status as a lost gem of gothic revival architecture.
“In terms of Gothic architecture, I love it because despite popular and admired sites like Strawberry Hill, I think there’s still a bit of an attitude that gothic revival architecture is de trop. It isn’t,” she said.
But she recognizes that its importance is more than architectural: put to proper use, the regeneration of Twyford Abbey could have a transformative effect on the local community. “Twyford Abbey is a Grade II listed building with central London location on an undeveloped 5.4 hectare site,” she said. “There is huge potential to not only save a fine gothic revival building but to do something imaginative with the site that will address in part London’s housing crisis.”
It is hard to see how that might happen. The site is currently owned by Twyford Properties Ltd, a shell company registered in a tax haven whose owners – in common with far too many property developers in London, are unknown.
Twyford Properties Ltd has applied to Ealing Council on several occasions with different plans for the property. All have included partial demolition. The most recent, in 2012, was to turn the site into a luxury hotel and spa. All its applications have been turned down.
The company has shown no interest in maintaining or preserving or developing the site ever since. All it seems to have done since acquiring it is to put a large fence around those areas that provided access and to put a sign across the gate asserting its ownership.
I asked Denna if she could see a way forward for Twyford Abbey. “The first task is to save it from further deterioration,” she said. “Lack of duty of care by its owners clearly demonstrates their interest in the site is financial not heritage, not history, not as a community asset. There are thousands of examples of historic buildings disappearing because owners relied on benign neglect to do the dirty work for them. Immediate enforcement is called for and the council must issue an Urgent Repair Notice to the owners.
“The second task is to recover this community asset from its current owners whose actions or lack of actions demonstrate they are not suitable care takers of a heritage and community asset. What seems to be missing is a campaign to save the house and property. It’s critical that a third party of enthusiasts steps up to negotiate the future of the site along with the council and owners.
“Given the owner’s failure to maintain the site in even a perfunctory manner, I ask whether there is scope for the Council to pursue either a CPO or EDMO? Or if an Urgent Repair Notice is issued and the owners fail to make good on it, does that open the door to force a sale? I don’t know the answers but these are questions that must be raised and answered.
“The Council’s principles of development include a clause that where there is evidence of deliberate neglect or damage to the heritage asset, the deteriorated state should not be taken into account in the planning decision.”
My personal wish for the site – beyond restoration – would be for it to become a working arts space – part gallery, part studios, part theatre. West London needs an equivalent to, say, Whitechapel Gallery in the east. Twyford Abbey has excellent transport links, after all. What West London very much doesn’t need is another property being renovated and turned into luxury apartments.
Denna’s preferred solution, however, is both contemporary and rooted in the history of urban London. “If we could think beyond traditional housing,” she said, “then I would advocate considering how the site could accommodate light industry with attached artisan housing. These sites are being lost across London. Peter Guillery’s book The Small House in Eighteenth Century London demonstrates how the London we know was built by small artisans and builders. I’d like to see if we could adopt aspects of that model as the spokes around the hub of Twyford Abbey.”
Whether we can do anything to effect change is questionable though. Again, perhaps more radical and creative thinking is needed. It’s a question I put to Denna. “The site needs community advocates – and I don’t just mean people in Ealing,” she said. “I mean a global community of advocates. Would a new kind of social media ‘public subscription’ work, for instance? Public subscriptions were once common. They allowed for the building of sites such as Devonport’s Column. The Statue of Liberty was built in part by public subscription. “Maybe Kickstarter is the new style public subscription and we could use it save Twyford Abbey.”
Whatever the answer, we urgently need to create a sustained campaign to save this site from the neglect of nature and developers alike.
Denna Jones’ most recent book was Architecture: The Whole Story, published by Thames & Hudson in 2014.