Nell Gwyn

“Brentford is two miles of misery.”

Dr. Johnson

“Brentford has greatly improved”

Peter Ackroyd

Once upon a time… around 1670, King Charles 2nd bought his new mistress, the ‘pretty, witty’ actress and all-round good time girl Nell Gwyn, a pet griffin which she kept at her house on the Butts Estate in Brentford. A griffin, by the way, is a mythical fantasy creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Note the word ‘mythical’. They were highly regarded as powerful and majestic beings.

A Griffin

One day, the story goes, Nell’s pet griffin fell into the River Brent and was washed down to the Thames where it was presumed drowned. The griffin however had managed to clamber ashore on Brentford Eyot (opposite the Waterman’s Art Centre) where, with a resourceful nature and a centuries long lifespan, it struggled along on its own, until…

1771, when Joseph Banks, the enterprising and enthusiastic botanist, returned to Britain after a long tour to Australia with Captain Cook aboard the ‘Endeavor’. Included amongst the many plant specimens that he had collected for Kew Gardens, Banks also brought with him a griffin that he had found on an island in the Pacific. For want of anywhere else to put the creature the griffin was housed in the newly built Pagoda in Kew Gardens just opposite Brentford Eyot… and barely 100 yards from another griffin which had been loitering there, alone and forlorn, with no one to talk to since curly wigs went out of style a century earlier.

THE COAT OF ARMS OF BRENTFORD AND CHISWICK

The two griffins got together on Brentford Eyot and before too long it was populated by a whole colony of the mythical beasts.

Now anyone who knows Brentford or has read any of Robert Rankin’s ‘far fetched fiction’ set in the borough knows that it is a weird place — a place of ancient gods, mysterious visitations from other dimensions and occult occurrences… all of which are very appealing to mythical beasts like griffins. Encouraged, the griffins, now overcrowded on Brentford Eyot, moved in the town itself. Their name started to crop up all over the place – The Griffin Pub, the Griffin Brewery, Griffin Park where Brentford Football Team play and so on. Two of the mythical beasts even took up residence on the coat of arms for Brentford and Chiswick holding a shield. According to one website they have also been seen!

During the middle of 1984, a Kevin Chippendale was strolling along Braemar Road,(adjacent to Griffin Park) when he observed a strange creature in the skies near the Green Dragon apartments, rather coincidentally! He claimed that the beast resembled a dog but with wings and a beak. Mr Chippendale saw the creature again in the February of 1985 and said that the apparition bore some resemblance to the creature painted on the sign of the Griffin Public House.

A friend of Kevin’s, an Angela Keyhoe also claimed to have seen the flying monster. She was on a bus journey when she saw it sitting on the gasometer next to the Waterman’s Art Centre. She said it resembled a giant black bird. Several passengers on the bus apparently saw the creature, and so did psychologist John Olssen, one morning whilst he was jogging near to the Thames. Sightings seem to escalate, and the legend was featured in the press and also on ‘The Six O’ Clock News’.

— from http://beastsoflondon.blogspot.com/2007/04/brentford-griffin.html

Of course the immediate reaction to all this is it was an elaborate hoax. However – could these events in Brentford have been shaped by what the writer Peter Ackroyd describes as “territorial imperative”, or genius loci? This argues that the character of a place is determined by the place itself and not by the people who live there. Brentford is a mysterious place because it has always been a mysterious place – and will always remain so. As Ackroyd writes…

“Whenever the opportunity and location are offered, (a place) replicates its identity. It is a blind force in that sense, not susceptible to the blandishments of planners or politicians…”

ROBERT RANKIN

The popular writer Robert Rankin who grew up in Brentford would agree with that. Having noted that the town sits within a mystical triangle formed by the Thames, the Grand Union Canal and the M4 Rankin suggests that Brentford is a portal to the underworld. His evidence can be found in the first letters of the suburbs that surround the borough ….Hounslow to the West, Ealing to the North, Chiswick to the East and Kew to the South. Put them all together and you get HECK, as in “what the heck!?” – and as any amateur heathen knows Heck is a contraction of Hecate, the night walking, crone Goddess of the Crossroads and Queen of the Netherworld. Spooky!

I’ve always thought that Brentford had something weird going for it. When I cycle across Syon Park towards Brentford the wind is always against me as if it is trying to keep me out. When I return the wind has turned as if it is trying to keep me in. Is there a force field here? Try it for yourself. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid!

To enjoy more of the outlandish mysteries of Brentford you should read Robert Rankin’s Brentford Trilogy – which in true Brentfordian style has 8 books.

  • The Antipope (1981) about resurrected Alexander V1 the last Borgia pope who moves onto the Butts Estate.
  • The Brentford Triangle (1982) – The natives of Ceres (once the fifth planet in the solar system) go househunting in Brentford.
  • East of Ealing (1984) – A Satanic takeover of Earth is thwarted by a temporally-relocated version of Sherlock Holmes
  • The Sprouts of Wrath (1988) – The decision to site the Olympic Games in Brentford is a plan by the evil Kaleton to turn the stadium into a monster to destroy humanity.
  • The Brentford Chain Massacre (1997) – A man has found a way to clone Jesus from the Turin Shroud.
  • Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls (2000) – A rock group comes to Brentford with a lead singer who has the power to heal the sick.
  • Knees Up Mother Earth (2004) – Property developers plan to dig up Griffin Park, the borough’s beloved football ground, to find the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.
  • The Brightonomicon (2005) – Surprisingly this one is set in Brighton!

— from Martyn Day