England expects.

6. Shepperton to Staines

Shepperton is nice.

I’d ended my walk there the previous afternoon and been cheered by the essential decency of the place, the elegant 1920s (or maybe earlier) layout of the high street with its parallel lanes for deliveries and parking off the main through road, its solid looking terraced buildings, topped with Dutch gables, with their shops below and floors of office and flats above, and its charmingly human scale. I expected to Google it and find it held up as the epitome of early 20th century urban planning but not a word, not a peep, not even an old photo of how it was. Or how it is today, streets fully occupied by the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker* et al, independents and national chains both. Pretty much every one of life’s needs is catered for on this street. There’s even a funeral director maintaining a discreet presence down the end.

*Ok, an interiors shop but only the one.

It was late in the day when I got there the first time and Cathy’s Café (or the like) was beginning to shut up shop for the day so I queued at a Costa. Never my first choice, but it wasn’t the coffee I was after so much as a loo, comfort break opportunities being in short supply along the Thames. Ominously the way was barred with chairs and brooms.

Before I order a coffee, please may I use your loo?

Of course, you may. If you tell me what you want I’ll have it ready for you when you come out.

Relieved and refreshed I headed for the station. I stopped to ask a couple the way. Charmingly they walked me to the right road. Deep in the suburban jungle, end of the line Shepperton was a delight that afternoon.

It was still a delight next morning when I went back to continue my walk. A woman in a Shepperton in Bloom hi vis gilet was tending the flower bed around the Welcome to Shepperton sign, and people were in and out of the small supermarkets with Sunday newspapers and bottles of milk, waving and greeting each other. Shepperton film studios is just up the road and yes, they did make Dads’ Army there. Maybe the nostalgic conviviality jumped the fence. But then they also filmed A Clockwork Orange at the same time so I think I’ll scratch that theory.

Leaving the Niceville on Thames High Street behind I headed for the river, via Old Shepperton. They like to make things good and clear around here.

Old Shepperton. Also very pleasing.

The riverside was busy, a few boats going through the locks plus lots of locals out enjoying their regular Sunday morning strolls, their brunches, their gym time. This is just what we do. Nothing to see here was the message.

Yes, but why wouldn’t she put her handbag down as she steered the boat into the lock?

A pair of fishermen had set up an enormous shelter and dug themselves in very comfortably

while across the river a young woman strode down the river bank, into the water and swam gently downstream.

The Thames is wide here with lots of islands, both natural and manmade.

I’m not entirely sure what is going on here with the waterway but I do know that that weir gives me the heebeegeebees (?Spelling).

I passed three locks with their imposing Thames Conservancy dwellings. There’s no doubting that the river was once a very important thoroughfare, to judge by the grandeur of these buildings.

And there was a variety of other homes, from the old

I’ll take this one

to the new

…if this one wasn’t available

From the interesting

I’d guess it is completely fabulous inside even if a little offputting from this angle

to the blankly bland

I took an instant and irrational dislike to this place. Cannot really explain why.

Although I was still very much in the city, never out of sight of some building or other, I was beginning to sense a change in the river. I spotted the first of the boatyards

And from the transient atmosphere of the Central London path where I felt grudgingly permitted to pass through but not linger, now I was beginning to sense a grounded space. Benches on which to pause for a sandwich, gardeners working busily in the gardens (even if some were hired hands rather than the homeowners themselves), and a Scout group out for an expedition.

The enthusiastic Scout leader reeled off their route, breezily confident that I was as familiar with the local area and his list of streets and landmarks as he was. Why he seemed to be saying would anyone live anywhere else? I caught up with the boys at the next lock, just as they were being treated to ice creams. Not on the carefully planned schedule, I suspect, but a nice surprise on a hot morning.

The Staines rail bridge came into view, my cue to head off in search of the station. I have to admit that the walk was getting a bit dull but maybe that says more about my mood than about Staines itself.

Actually, it’s Staines upon Thames now. Really? When did that happen? Got anything on this, Wikipedia?

Staines became infamous as the home town of the fictional film and television character, Ali G… many local residents felt that the town’s reputation was suffering through its association with the character, Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of Ali G, praised Staines for being a “lovely, leafy, middle-class suburb… where swans swim under the beautiful bridge.” Partly in response to the reaction to the character, Spelthorne Borough Council voted in December 2011 to add the suffix “upon-Thames” to the name.

I have nothing to say.

Not sure I agree with you about the beautiful bridge, Sacha, but perhaps there’s a prettier one coming up.

Overall it was a nice walk, on a nice day, in a nice part of the world, populated by nice people

Nice is a word that was absolutely verboten by my English teacher. Her insistence on its non-appearance in any work that crossed her desk remains with me. It is, she held, a word that means nothing, it conveys nothing, it adds nothing. Instead we must find descriptive alternatives – agreeable, enjoyable, pleasant, charming. Well, up to a point, Miss Packer, but there are times when only nice will do. How else to describe the uneventful and the quotidian. Nothing much happened on this walk but what did happen was ok. Another banned word.

It was getting on for lunchtime by now and an air of anticipation was palpable. The Wimbledon Men’s Final was about to get underway, but it was not the only game in town.

Dog helps man fly flag.

England had reached 2020 UEFA Euro final.

Delayed a year by lockdown, the less than usual appearance of the England team in a football final – and one which happened to be scheduled to be played at Wembley, to boot – made this game impossible to ignore.

Even I, an avowed non follower of the beautiful game, thought I might take a look at the proceedings.

And then I got on the train and things began to get not very nice at all. Kick off at Wembley, North London, was at 8pm and I was in the South West suburbs, about 1pm. The match was ticket only, the pubs were ticket only, Trafalgar Square was ticket only and the usual big screens in the parks were mothballed. It was July 2021 and the country was still in lockdown, albeit relaxed a little. Masks were compulsory, distances were to be kept and large gatherings were banned. Football fans were urged to stay at home.

They didn’t.

Seven hours before kick off and the atmosphere was tense. Arriving back at Green Park station (where two days earlier staff and police had dealt with a deranged man slashing out with a machete), the concourse was crammed full of football supporters, shouting and singing, mostly drunkenly. I don’t know why they were there, other than for the acoustics, but perhaps they had hoped that the match would secretly be shown on secret big screens in the parks. Phalanxes of orange clad Underground staff watched warily. Both sides were waiting for something to happen but neither knew what it might be. I squeezed my way out, hugging the wall, and encountered a pair, perhaps grandfather and child, coming the other way. The girl, not more than 10 and proudly wearing her England shirt, was wide eyed with anticipation. The man, probably not a regular on the terraces, looked absolutely terrified as they descended into the mob. I still wonder what happened to them. They surely had match tickets but how far did they plough on in the face of increasing mayhem? At what point did he disappoint this excited girl and take her away to safety?

With relief I emerged into the daylight and headed back to my billet for a shower and a calming cup of tea. I wasn’t in danger but the journey back had become unpleasantly stressful. Not nice at all.

A word about my London billet. Although I have never served in the Armed Forces, nor had any exposure to that life, I find myself belonging to a Military Club through a long ago family connection. I have the greatest respect for those who have put themselves in danger for my freedom and security – and those who continue to do so – and thus I have the greatest respect for the Club. No matter how arcane the regulations I do my best to conform, even though the inexplicable to me contortions of the dress code fascinate. Take Exceptionally gentlemen may wear tailored shorts in the dining room until the end of breakfast.  I have so many questions about that one.

I watched the match in one of the function rooms, kitted out for the occasion with long, white cloth covered tables, carefully spaced out, and gilt chairs. Hard to imagine a greater contrast between this room and the scenes I’d seen earlier.

I don’t often notice ceilings but this was a bit of a corker

Years of adherence to the Club rules meant that I was shocked – I’m serious – to see a group of lads wearing England football shirts. Maybe up here with their families, I concluded. I scanned the room for a likely table of fathers. None to be seen. The penny dropped embarrassingly slowly. The lads were junior officers. And they say you’re getting old when the policemen get to look young.

The seats at the tables were all taken so I picked up a spare one and joined a group of singletons at the back, instinctively keeping our chairs at a distance. This was a jolly bunch and the conversation flowed. Some – like me – were up to see the sights, while others were staying overnight for an early meeting tomorrow. Few of us had any knowledge of the game but we all came with a sense of this being one of those events that are best enjoyed in company. Conversations began about how it had been Out There. Reports were exchanged of tense train journeys endured as football supporters streamed into the capital. And these were military personnel speaking.

Then the chat moved on to why we were all here. A lively pair of women from Yorkshire were being tourists for the weekend and were full of their trip to the V&A, a laconic American (I’ve been seconded), sportingly attired in an England shirt, mentioned that he’d served in the White House, and a rather tedious man, no longer in uniform, ostentatiously stood and stretched and threatened to go into detail about his back injury. He wasn’t to be diverted on to his day job. (Let’s just say I work for the government.) So does everyone else in this room, my friend. Losing no time, the Yorkshirewomen snapped up Mr Served in the White Horse for further conversation, while I was left with Mr Bad Back. Nice move, Yorkshire ladies.

The match started and the room quietened. The players lined up on the pitch for the handshaking and the National Anthems. First, the Italian one. Absolute silence, followed by respectful applause. Then it was our turn. The junior officers leapt to their feet, snapped to attention and sang out. The whole room followed. The volume was extraordinary.

Kick off. The audience was rapt. The Italians scored and then we did. Or maybe it was the other way round, I don’t know. But it was all good natured and every time a player, any player, did anything of note, the whole room applauded. Politely for the Italian footballers and enthusiastically for the English.

Eventually the match went to penalty shoot outs. By now, the singletons’ knowledge of the rules of the game had been exposed as pitiful and we had to take advice from the family section in the corner opposite us, an encampment of parents with neatly parked pushchairs and not always sleeping babies.

An Italian took a goal kick. Polite applause. An English player took a goal kick. Polite applause. So it went on, the collective breath held as each player took his run up, the collective clapping as each ball found (or missed) its target.

And suddenly it was all over.

While the family camp gently explained to the singletons why England couldn’t have another kick, the rest of the room was devastated. Hands failed to support heads bowed down in disbelief and disappointment.

But what’s that happening over on the right in this by definition partisan audience? Polite applause for the victors of a game well played.



Kingston to Shepperton

Kingston, Kingston, the years have not been kind. Such a promising start, what with all those crowning of Saxon kings, but now what have you come to? Department Stores on Thames, that’s what.

Here’s a view of the river from the station – a quarter mile away perhaps.

Here’s another shot of the water from a couple of hundred metres.

And having found the river here’s the view looking back into the town from the bridge.

Did someone lock the planning department up and throw away the key?

At least the Thames is on good form here. A long straight stretch makes it a great spot for rowing and even this early on a Saturday morning there were races in full swing.

The weather wasn’t exactly playing fair though, being that particularly trying combination of warmish but wettish. On with the cagoule to avoid the fine mistlike rain (but swelter inside), or keep cool (but get damp)?

I don’t think that these two were together; I think there was just a shortage of seats.

After a while the path began to run alongside the Hampton Court wall and a bit further on, I rounded a bend to see what looked like an elegantly dressed crowd climbing over it. Couldn’t work out what I was seeing until I got closer and realised that this was not a middle class storming of the palace but simply the way into a garden festival.

Not entirely sure why they didn’t use this gate.

And nor was the very chatty security man stationed there.

Are you here to stop people going in this way?

 No, not at all.

So why are they all walking all the way along there?

I have no idea.

Ferry boat captains offering rides between the show and the station were doing their best to entice the gardeners aboard but without success.

It seemed like fool’s errand to me at the time, what with the horticulturally minded coming from sturdy stock and all. Half a mile in the mizzle was not going to defeat these people. Then later, much later, when I found myself catching a stumbling man carrying a clematis in each hand on the Tube, it came to me – of course no one takes a ferry to the show, it’s those getting back from the show laden with leafy treasures that the ferrymen are lying in wait for.

One ferry that was rising above it all was this one, with its disconcerting One Way Only note.

They should call it the Catherine Howard experience.

At Molesey Lock there was this handy map of the Thames.

Also a lovely tea hut, a spotless public loo and a couple of friendly Thames Path walkers. Top spot, all told. The walkers were heading downstream and had walked without stopping for 12 days so far, with another two more to go. They were very enthusiastic about the path which was good to hear. We commiserated each other on the weather. I extolled the cagoule off and brave the damp approach. In return, she recommended boots off and let the feet cool down at lunchtime…

Excellent advice

… while he tried to convince the two of us of his post walk straight into the shower fully clothed trick as a means of getting both body and clothing clean at the same time. We were unconvinced.

And that was about it as far as I can recall, writing this some weeks later. The weather cheered up and on I went. Lots of boats and houseboats, riverside cabins and riverside houses. Another couple of ferries…

and a few odd things that caught my eye.

Then I was almost at Shepperton. I could have taken yet another ferry myself but wimped out and took the bridge. The waterways have got very complicated hereabouts over the years. Have a look.

C’est magnifique. Or time and space.

4. Kew to Kingston

By now it was early July. On this warm Friday afternoon there was an air of holiday time about, as I passed schools with windows open to let in the sunshine and let out the fizzing excitement of the not quite end of term day.

It was with giddy feelings of playing hooky that I’d landed up in the leafy forecourt of Kew Gardens station.  I’d caught a train from Bristol at 10, dropped my bag where I was staying, reached here and yet still people were eating lunch at the pavement tables around the station approach. Somehow it didn’t seem possible to have travelled so far in such a short time.

Kew is famous for being home to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew Palace. It is also undoubtedly famous for having the most enormous village green, across which the most difficult to cross road runs. Last time I was here was a Sunday afternoon, cricket was in full flow and I was very taken with St Anne’s offer of afternoon tea but concluded that no scone was worth risking life and limb dodging the traffic.

Also, I feared that there was some exception printed on that piece of paper stuck in the middle of the sign. Like teas every Sunday, EXCEPT TODAY.

The river, when I reached it, was tree fringed and rural looking despite being only 13 miles from Westminster.

On my side stretched Kew Gardens and on the other lay Syon Park – both one time country estates. But how to keep the riverside riff raff out while still enjoying the view? With an enormously deep haha – a ditch with a steep wall dropping down on their side so that, viewed from landowner’s side, the ground appeared to continue to the river but, seen from the waterside, the welcome mat was most definitely not out.

It’s a 3 – 4 metre drop with a ditch full of water at the bottom

Through breaks in the greenery I caught glimpses of visitors strolling in the gardens and once, disconcertingly, from nowhere came the amplified voice of a guide taking the less mobile on a motorised tour of the grounds.

From a visit to the gardens some years ago I knew that there was a place in the grounds which was amply furnished with picnic benches and an open view of the river and Syon House opposite. Luckily there was also a place in the cheap seats.

Well played, Joan.

I’d like to say that I ate my sandwich savouring the verdant loveliness and the peace and quiet. But a bench directly under the Heathrow flight path, even at the tail end of lockdown, was not as tranquil as it might look. I was mesmerised by the regularity of the planes, waiting for each to reach a certain point above the house before the engines of the next in line to land would begin to scream behind me.

At some point the palace grounds gave way to a golf course and across the water the occasional pretty vista appeared.

Then I was skirting Richmond’s Old Deer Park, the name of which should surely offer much comic potential but I could not think of anything. But what is interesting to this old dear is that in the middle of the park stands the King’s Observatory, built for George III (he of the madness of King George fame). Originally constructed so that he could observe a solar eclipse in 1769, he went on to use the place to develop theories about the passage of the sun and a universal time. And every time I read up on this it goes into my head and falls straight out again so that’s the extent of my shaky understanding. But what I can grasp is that while now the world calculates its longitude from the meridian at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, in King George’s time the meridian was here at Richmond.  So now when we talk of Greenwich Mean Time, back in the day it would have been Richmond Mean Time. Except time zones hadn’t been invented, but I’ll skirt over that one. No, I don’t know why it was moved 0.3023184’ east but I do know that until 1884 every country had its own meridian until a sensible person from each nation got together in Washington DC and they all agreed to have just the one. Time and space nailed down.

King George III’s meridian. Andrew Gough has an interesting theory on why this was the spot. See andrewgough.co.uk/articles_richmond

Anyway in a bold attempt to capitalise on something which exists only as an abstract concept, the line of the old meridian is marked out on the towpath. Not once, but twice for the river bends here and so the line is crossed twice. I hadn’t noticed the curve of the path as I walked and so my brain was completely fried on finding a second meridian line.

Richmond lock was up next – the first lock on the Thames (or the last depending on how you’re counting) closely followed by Twickenham Road Bridge with which I was swiftly besotted.

It’s the way in which this 1933 bridge incorporates all the practical necessities – railings, lighting, expansion joints etc – but does so with such striking Art Deco detailing. Naturally there was outrage when the plans were first unveiled.

Its neighbour, the 1908 Richmond Rail Bridge, is no less generous in its decorative flourishes.

Richmond was busy with waterside pubs and cafes, newly relaxed from lockdown strictures, full of people happily enjoying the afternoon sunshine, children feeding the swans and boat hirers getting their fleet ready for the season. It was all rather lovely.

The towpath wound on, sometimes amidst open ground, more often through green corridors with occasional gaps in the greenery to reveal large properties across the water and then the first of the ferries.

Ham House came and went, as did Eel Pie Island. Then Teddington began to hove into view. First a stone obelisk to mark the point at which the Port of London Authority cedes responsibility for the river to the Thames Conservancy (as was, now the Environment Agency).

A passer by saw me looking at the stone and started talking about it to me, beginning by telling me that his wife finds it all very boring. It wasn’t. Until he moved on to the birds that could be seen at certain stages of the tide downstream of here. As I had already come that way and birds are not my thing I began to see his wife’s point but anyway, a nice man and a nice chat. That’s another thing about walking alone. People come and talk to you and they usually have something interesting to say.

The stone used to mark the point at which taxes on cargoes were levied, he said.  And, I believe, the point at which the Thames is no longer tidal.

It was more of the same after Teddington but the weather was perfect and I was in the best of moods. Near Kingston, after school sailing clubs were drawing to an end and girls were larking about in the water, shrieking with laughter as they tried to swim in their life vests. I remember doing that when I was about their age.  It must be something that every generation tries and discovers how strange it is to swim when your buoyancy is so out of whack.

Kingston, as approached from the river, is more than a little unprepossessing. Not to mention Hotel California like in its lowest of low key station. I stepped off the path at the railway bridge, I followed the line into the town, I could see the track across the fence, I could see the platforms over the wire – but could I find the entrance? My first attempt took me to an elegant wood clad building bang next to the fence. Airy and spacious and generously equipped with cycle racks. Nothing to indicate where to go on the ground floor so I went up the stairs. More racks.

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la gare. It was the bike shed.

Back in central London 45 minutes later, I left the Tube station via an M&S store entrance half way up the exit stairs. I was on my own in London for these few days, so I was looking forward to a long shower followed by a quiet evening in my room, with my maps, my book and my picnic supper. I browsed the salads, picked up a selection and headed for the till. Probably took less than five minutes.

Although Green Park is at the intersection of the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines with the Victoria line (which I’d come in on), it has only two exits, one on each side of the road. So as I left with my shopping I was practically on top of the three or four police cars that, unheard by me, had just screeched to a halt across the street, not parked so much as slammed to a stop and abandoned in haste as the traffic piled up around them. I walked away along the road as five more police vehicles came belting down the street, sirens blaring and light blazing. They had blacked out windows and incomprehensible abbreviations on the sides and carried grim faced officers. Whatever was going on at the station it wasn’t fare dodging.

But it was nothing to do with me and I was walking further and further away from any risk of involvement and so I felt ok about it. I did message those at home to say that I was nowhere near in case whatever was happening made the national news and that was that. I got to my room, made a cup of tea and had a shower. Then my daughter sent a link to a report of a stabbing on the Jubilee line at Green Park. And I felt ok about that because I was on the Victoria line, not the Jubilee line, and anyway, I reasoned, if it was a stabbing most likely the attacker and the victim had some connection so I would have been safe even if I had been on that train, wouldn’t I? How swiftly I othered these two to reassure myself of my invincibility.

And that was that until I read this in the paper a few days later.

The Guardian. Monday 12 July 2021

Did I still feel ok about it? Yes and no. No, because some poor man just going about his ordinary life ended up horribly injured, physically and emotionally scarred for the rest of his days, through no fault of his own. No, of course I don’t feel ok about that.  But as it affected me, then yes, I got back on the Tube next morning without a second thought.

I was close, but not that close. I was not on that train. I never would have been. Were I, then maybe my luck would have been bad. But then maybe my luck would have been good.

And that’s all there ever is.

Rowing and rowing.

3. Putney to Kew: in which nothing very much happens, apart from a homograph.

After last time’s arid stretches, this next section of the Thames Path could not have been leafier, but first there was a fascinating old indicator board on the platform at Vauxhall’s Tube station, and then this intriguing backwater bookshop, already open at 9 on a Sunday morning.

Over the bridge and down on to the river path, not difficult to find this time. Even at this hour there was already an eight out on the river. Interesting to see some life on the river, I thought, wonder if I’ll see any more boats? I’d only walked into rowing central, hadn’t I? I was in the midst of a long line of boathouses, trailers, rowing paraphernalia, and crews arriving to mill around.

There were lots of rowers milling about, I promise you. It’s just that I don’t like sticking my lens in people’s faces so I waited until they were out of the way.

I don’t remember when last I saw Oxford and Cambridge’s finest battle it out in the University Boat Race but it really should have clicked that Putney is the finish line. Hence an enormous linear slip way – if that is the term – with the emphasis on slip by the look of the wet mud that covered it. (The start is at Mortlake I discovered later. The Harrods Depository is the only thing I could remember about the route.)

The Thames is very definitely still tidal here and signs on parking bays warn of the risk of flooding. Another sign proclaims that the Port of London has jurisdiction over these waters but unlike previously when it was fishing and loitering that they had in their sights, here they ban water skiing. Must be a different class of transgressor in these parts.

Not much further on and the Victorian villas fell away leaving me skirting what is now the London Wetland Centre, created from the site of four disused reservoirs back in 2000.

I’m sure it’s carefully managed by the WWT but it feels as though nature has reclaimed the space, making the towpath a lovely green space, peaceful yet busy with walkers, runners and cyclists enjoying their Sunday mornings. Very relaxing, very uneventful until the Harrods Furniture Depository took me by surprise.

Harrods Furniture Depository – fancy name for a stockroom for unsold tables and chairs – still a landmark even if now redeveloped into a residential complex.

Hammersmith Bridge was just around the bend, a delicately elegant suspension bridge.

A bit too delicate it turns out.

Yet again it’s closed to both vehicular and foot traffic due to cracks in alarming places. (Three IRA attacks over the years won’t have helped.) I did read that river traffic beneath the bridge is also proscribed at the moment but I looked in vain for a bale of straw. Something has to be done to fix this rather lovely structure but it’s hard to envisage how given the need for major repairs.

Another green walkway with signs of a recent high tide, the not yet dried traces of puddles. Here the path was more of a leafy corridor with occasional windows onto the Thames

According to the map, just to my left was another disused reservoir but all I could see was scrubby woodland. These photos make the trail look pretty empty and I did question whether I should be anxious being there alone. I certainly didn’t feel so as there were actually a lot of people out and about. To be honest there rather too many of them and they were too regularly spaced when it came to the prospect of taking to the greenery for a comfort stop. When it comes to conveniences Never pass one by has now become my motto.

A bit further and Barnes began to make its presence felt. On the outskirts was this bench, a little forlorn.

David Sharp was the planner and instigator of the Thames Path and much else besides (for a very full obituary of David, see https://campaignerkate.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/david-sharp-father-of-the-thames/)

Then just before Barnes railway bridge there’s a pretty Georgian terrace.

Anneka Rice apparently lives in one of these houses and in a Ramblings episode, she and Clare Balding take to the path. Have a listen – they bring it to life much more eloquently than I can. (BBC Radio 4 – Ramblings, Anneka Rice on the Thames Path in London )

Chiswick Bridge in the distance with the tall Mortlake brewery building on the left.

Around about here signs on lamp posts and in windows began to appear protesting plans to convert Mortlake Brewery into flats. By the time I’d picked my way along a muddy stretch and walked another mile I had completely forgotten about these though and so I was perplexed by the derelict buildings that lined the path for what seemed an awfully long way.

A third green corridor and I was getting ever so slightly tired of them.

Because I am nothing if not picky.

Approaching Kew and the end of this walk I contemplated the stonework on the railway bridge (such detailing on such a utilitarian structure).

I mean, just look at the carvings even in that little tunnel which seems to serve only as a place for flood water to go.

From the river I heard two unseen voices raised in anger. I didn’t catch it all but one rower had upset another and he wasn’t about to apologise. A rowing row. Or a rowing row? Homograph heaven.

Is this wise?

2. Vauxhall to Putney Bridge: a bit of a rant.

On my first day of properly walking the Thames Trail, I was at Vauxhall Bridge early, ready for the off. I didn’t want to look too outdoorsy in the middle of Central London and I thought I’d nailed it with my outfit until I caught sight of my reflection at the Tube station. Masked up as required, I looked less flaneuse and more gentlewoman bank robber.  The dark glasses didn’t help. Still at least I had competently packed my bag. Apples, twice as many as I could eat in a day. A large cagoule, three maps and a guidebook, none of which I needed. And no sun cream, which I did. Plus a candle for a birthday cake. With nine holders.

No idea. Absolutely no idea. Carried them 30 miles before I found them.

I had, I realised, forgotten how to walk.

I set off with another look at MI6 and a bit of wondering about how anyone could ever find their way about in there given what appears to be the odd structure of the place.

Then I realised that I couldn’t actually find the river. I was standing on a bridge approach so I had to be warm but I couldn’t see how to get to it. I dived into a modern residential development, all multi level flats and small neat squares of gardens. Fenced gardens. Gardens which separated me from where I could see people cycling and jogging along the riverside. Not a good start. Nothing for it but to go back to MI6 and begin again. This time I waited until a swingy pony tail type ran past. I followed her and yes, there were the steps and there was the path. Ingenious. Surprised I didn’t get a call from the people over the road.

Plain sailing from here on, I thought. Keep the river on the right and straight on until Putney. 

After 100m the riverside way was barred and the trail diverted back through the flats to the main road. It was to happen over and over again. This stretch of the path passes through areas in transition;

the redevelopment of Nine Elms – look at the vehicles on the road to get an idea of the height of the buildings,
the construction of a mighty cross London super sewer, (great that they honoured women in this way but did they have to do it with boring machines?),
and the transformation of the former Battersea Power Station. How does anyone know what is going on here?

I got heartily sick of all the enormous residential developments, way out of human scale and devoid of signs of life, overlooking a river on which nothing was moving on this Saturday morning, and with a view across to more of the same on the other bank.

The developers of twenty or thirty years ago provided small – very small – public spaces, sculptures, and benches for passers by to appreciate, but today’s developers seemed intent upon designing out the person altogether. Or the person who hasn’t paid for the space, at least. Yes, I know that there can be major issues with antisocial behaviour but this privatisation of space was way beyond what is needed to mitigate that.

And the quality of the build is questionable too. Another diversion took the path away from the river as a newish development was undergoing what was signposted as facade remediation.

They’re either falling down or the cladding is unsafe.

I was not enjoying this walk. You’ve probably got that. I was getting crosser and crosser.

But if it was the inhumanity of the increasing scale of the cityscape which irked, it was the smaller signs of people living their lives which cheered. There was Battersea Park – quiet and beautifully maintained with manicured rose gardens interspersed with wilder woodland, sports pitches with boating lakes, expanses of grass to kick a ball about with traffic free roads to learn to ride a bike, and cafes with (hallelujah) loos.

Wandsworth Park was another delight, as was St Mary’s, Battersea, where a profits to charity coffee van outside the Church door and a few benches in the Churchyard provided a perfect spot for lunch.

Boat dwellers moored on the tidal reaches created their own ad hoc riverscape

and just occasionally a resident on dry land made their mark amidst the uniformity.

I had a long conversation with a lovely man leaning over his garden wall – how he’d come to be living there, how he’d met his partner, how they’d only moved in back in December, how he’d started his working life taking hundreds and hundreds of cuttings at a specialist shrub nursery in Shropshire and how excited he was about his plans for the garden which – he told me with can’t quite believe how lucky I am glee – was a whopping 200 sq m. We agreed that it was the most phenomenal stroke of luck, not to mention inexplicable, that the developers had chosen to leave this little patch of land free. Then he turned to ask me about my walk. Where does the Thames go?   Are you doing it for charity? Then Why are you doing it then? Tricky. Ask me when I’m done.

So today was a stretch to be ticked off rather than a great walk. What I do remember now is how, despite the almost total erasure of this part of London’s past and its replacement with the ersatz and the short term and the out of scale, the odd remnant that is particular to the city survives. The sign on Albert Bridge may look twee,

but the platform at Putney Bridge station has great charm.

The arcane bale of straw law had me fascinated. Yes, I know it’s nerdy to the point of tedium but I’ll be looking out for it for ever more.

See the bale of straw? According to a contractor’s notice Ancient laws about bridges and bales of straw are enforced for the next few months as repair works are carried out on Wandsworth Bridge. A navigation law requires that any bridge over the River Thames that is open to river traffic but has its clearance reduced must hang a bundle of straw from the bridge as a warning to boats… Whatever the origins of the law, it’s still in effect, and it is enforced.

And I’ll just shoehorn Battersea Dogs’ Home in here. It’s a workaday modern building constructed around a courtyard in which stands the cattery. But what a cattery…

Cats always find the best billets.

Much water, many bridges.

  1. London Bridge to Vauxhall: it’s been a while.

Lockdown, not lockdown, lockdown again, not lockdown again.

And then one day I was in the V&A Museum gift shop in front of this – a replica of an 1889 map of the River Thames.

The Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the River Thames from its source to London Bridge. 1889. James Reynolds & Sons.

A light bulb moment. Why not walk the Thames?

Which way? Upstream or downstream? Easy. London is endlessly fascinating and exciting, but I – a fully paid up provincial – also find it tiring, noisy and dirty. Starting in the city and walking my way out of it had to be the answer. And where to begin? The official trail has several starts, earlier and later points, subsequent extensions and the like, but I liked the simplicity of setting out from London Bridge. It’s where the old map begins, and there’s the Shard on the doorstep as a landmark against which I could measure my progress for the first few miles.

The Shard. Quite tall.

I am going to need all the encouragement I can find. Despite dog walks, my strength and stamina has dwindled away to the point where even five miles seems like an arduous trek.

A couple of weeks later I was back in London, ready for the off. I’d planned three days of walking with a museum visit booked for the afternoon I arrived. Not going to name the place as I was underwhelmed by it but it had achieved its purpose in preventing an old church being demolished. Just look at the glorious stained glass that would have been lost if that had happened. So maybe one and a half cheers.

Stained glass and maps – could there be a more perfect combination?

The directions advised taking the Tube to Vauxhall and walking from there. Turns out that Vauxhall is on the river (country mouse, like I said) and Lambeth is a mile or so downstream. I was going to inadvertently start the walk before I meant to. Add on a few more miles after the museum to get me to London Bridge and I’d be doing the whole first stretch backwards.

Might as well.

So I emerged into the daylight at Vauxhall, skirted the MI6 building and then was soon onto a long settled waterside walk with the Houses of Parliament coming into view across the river and the splendid former London Fire Brigade HQ building on my side.

Glorious friezes on the 1930s LFB building. It’s mermen fighting the fire in the bottom plaque. No, me neither.
Plus a few more prosaic illustrations for those who prefer firefighters in trousers.

Next up, the International Maritime Organisation – no slouches themselves when it comes to architectural adornments.

Would have loved to have known what that design brief was – We’re thinking that something a little bit decorative on the front would be nice – maybe a ship or something?

Then it was the museum and the very nice woman on the desk suggested I begin my visit with a trip up the tower for the view. (Look, they were lovely people, ok? It’s just that the permanent exhibition I found a bit thin. And the temporary display on the life and work of a big name showed her to have been a not particularly likeable person. In my reading of her life story. As presented.)

Anyway, the view from the top was indeed worth the climb. Make that two and a half cheers for the Museum.

Lambeth Palace just below, Palace of Westminster across the water.

Heading onwards, on a quiet patch of grass between the path and the road I came upon this unexpected monument to the quiet heroism of the SOE.

That these acts of courage took place years before I was born in no way reduces their extraordinarily selfless sacrifice but there is an element of tidiness in this commemoration. We know how the story ended.

But when it came to the next memorial, an unofficial ephemeral one painted on a wall opposite Westminster, my reaction was more visceral.

The only element of tidiness here is that all refer to the same two years. And we don’t know how the story ends. 

Have a look at Wall of love: the incredible story behind the national Covid memorial | Coronavirus | The Guardian and National Covid Memorial Wall – Wikipedia

The stretch of river bank from Westminster Bridge to Southwark is not my favourite. I think of it as crass and busy and grubby and somehow smelling sickly sweet. But today it was good to see people out on an early summer evening, watching the street performers,

going out and meeting up and living what we remember as a normal life.

I paused to take a photo of the river.

It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it? remarked a young woman passing by

It certainly is.

How to kill a man. And other stories.

The best thing about walking a canal is that you cannot get lost. It’s there, it’s big and if you stay on the dry side it’s nigh on impossible to go wrong. It’s hard to lose a canal.

But I managed it this time.

But before we set off, meet my wingmutt.

H before he waived his anonymity. He’s a mutt from mid Wales, product of an accidental encounter between a blonde of excellent pedigree and a dark brooding type down from the mountains. It’s a story as old as the hills. 

Huw belongs to our newly wed daughter and son in law. When they said that they were thinking of getting a dog, my reaction was predictable.


They got a dog.


He comes to me once a week. Tuesday’s Huw’s day.

We had a couple of dogs in the family when I was growing up but I’m clueless when it comes to canines. First surprise was that young dogs must not be overexercised. No more than five minutes per month of age is the rule. We’ve been building up but haven’t walked very far until now. That is not to say he has not raced hell for leather miles in happy pursuit of his ball in the park so I reckoned that at 9 months he could probably manage a few miles of canal walking.

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OL14. Thank you, Ordnance Survey

So we jumped in the car and headed up to Gloucestershire to the Arlingham peninsula. It’s an extraordinary quirk of topography – a meander in the Severn – which has created this almost-island no longer on the way to anywhere. Upper Framilode, now a backwater to a backwater, was once the starting point of a very early pair of canals linking the Severn with the Thames (and thereby the Atlantic with London). The first part – the Stroudwater – was built in the 1770s to join the wool town of Stroud with the Severn, so as to bring coal across the river from the Forest of Dean and beyond to power the looms.



An 1988 guide to what are now known as the Cotswold Canals. Handford covers the Stroudwater, and Viner the Thames and Severn and their writings are joined together in the middle. Much like the canals themselves

The Stroudwater is only seven or so miles long but traffic had ceased upon it by the 1930s and it was officially declared moribund in the 1950s. Nails were rammed into its coffin when it was truncated by the construction of the M5 motorway and the improvements to the main A38. (I am indebted to Michael Handford for his in depth, no stone unturned, account of the Stroudwater). My Dad, a civil engineer who spent many years devising plans for schemes to meet the demand for water from the burgeoning south east, recalls a colleague’s pet project to lay a pipe the length of the canals to channel Severn water into the Thames and thus into the drinking water of Londoners. It didn’t come to anything but it does illustrate the extent to which the canal was perceived as redundant.

But times change and, given the revived interest in boating, there is now a move afoot to restore the canals and reopen the route.

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A contemporary plan of the meeting of the Stroudwater Canal with the River Severn. Thank you, Michael Handford. My red scribble shows the bit that has since been infilled and turned into a very des res.

What strikes me as a major problem is that the first lock and its ancillary land and buildings –  that’s the bit at the entrance to the canal from the Severn which I’ve ham-fistedly marked on the plan –  has long been sold off, filled in and turned into a private home and rather a nice garden. There is no watery way through and I don’t think they are going to take kindly to the arrival of the diggers. But the energetic people bent upon canal restoration have a plan and it’s a nifty one.


Anyway, let’s get on with the walk. Turning away from Lock House, there it is. Rather green and weedy but undeniably recognisably a canal.IMG_4994 (2) There’s a row of charming canal side cottages and a couple of old pub buildings, one still very much in business. Not much further and the canal is completely choked up. IMG_5167 (2)

Then it’s over a stile, follow the footpath, and – hang about – where’s it gone? Now we’re by a waterway but it’s definitely not a canal.

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Where did the canal go?

Another dog walker tells me it’s the River Frome. Hmm. We plough on. Not much further and we’re in the grounds of a school boathouse and then straight out onto the wide expanses of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal. Yes, it’s an intersection, a canal crossroads and all a bit exciting as there’s a lot going on here.

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Looking over as the Stroudwater crosses the Gloucester & Sharpness

Along a bit to one side is the remnants of the lock which evened up levels of the G&S and the Stroudwater (How come I didn’t come out there? Where’s the canal been in the interim?), across the bridge is the old Junction house and over on the diagonal is a fascinating looking boat builders’ yard,

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The boatbuilders’ yard. What’s that lifeboat doing there?

behind which is a new marina, excavated since my 1999 map was published. IMG_5046 (2).JPGSuddenly it’s all busyness and here is the answer to the canal restorers’ dilemma of how to link the Thames to the Severn. Forget the stretch I’ve just walked, leave it to slumber, but instead direct boaters southish down the G&S to meet the Severn at Sharpness.

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Thank you again, Michael Handford

Nifty indeed, eh? (see https://wordpress.com/post/womanwalkingblog.wordpress.com/1505 for a bit about that neck of the woods).


Carrying on along the Stroudwater was plain sailing for a bit before the broad, straight way gave out and the map told me to take a detour along a road for a short way. This is the Thames and Severn Way and it’s an officially recognised long distance path. Not on the ground hereabouts it’s not. I saw one sign, just one. In a completely unhelpful place. Hmm, again.

From here on it was a bit of a game of hide and seek. Seek the canal, seek a sign of the path that is marked on the map but not on the ground. Light relief came in the form of another dog walker on a way through the long grass that I was not 100% sure was actually a path. She was bent double but straightened up when she saw me and explained that she’d been doing her back exercises (I can think of easier places to do them, but go ahead) and that her handbag sized pug had a thing about pups which is why he was letting rip at Huw (How could he tell? He’s enormous). We were in the midst of an interesting conversation about I forget what when her eye caught something in the hedge.

Oh my God, that’s henbane

What’s henbane?

It’s what they used to kill Socrates.

Really? Isn’t that cow parsley?

That’s the thing, it looks like wild carrot but it’s got the blood red streaks along the stem. It’s lethal, don’t go near it.

How much would you have to take to kill you, I asked. She didn’t know. So we stood in a field and Googled it for a bit. Then thought that perhaps that was the sort of question you posed on someone else’s phone, not your own.

Actually, I don’t think that henbane is the right name. But I can’t remember what it is.

That rather ended the conversation so we moved the dogs away from the poison tree and parted.

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It’s hemlock, not henbane. Five or six leaves should do it.

We came to a bridge over the river. We’d lost the canal again. The map indicated that it was over yonder at the far side of the field but that if we continued to follow the river we’d end up where the two waterways met.  I didn’t fancy either plan. There was a third option – take the way that Ms Henbane had presumably come along. That would lead us back towards Frampton on Severn and the map promised that we could divert back to the G&S canal in a big loop. Good. Farewell Stroudwater, you’ve had your chance.

This turned out to be a great bit of walking, through fields high with crops, edged with poppies and cornflowers and yes, cow parsley (or wild carrot/Nottingham lace/Anthriscus sylvestris. I checked for blood red streaks and found none).IMG_5114 (2).JPG Birds were singing and on the breeze drifted the church bells sounding the quarters. IMG_5083 (2).JPGThere was the dog and there was me and there was no one else about. It was all completely and utterly lovely.

At the end of the field we had a choice: follow the signposted path straight on or take the (not signposted but mapped) track to the right. Forward would get us to Frampton on Severn but would mean a longer walk back to the car for Huw, right would cut out a large corner.  Now I am the Ordnance Survey’s greatest fan but even I have to admit that they do have a weakness when it comes to how they mark their tracks. Footpaths, bridleways and other rights of way are marked in red or green depending on the scale of the map. Thoroughfares are marked according to their road designation and can be assumed to be public access. But tracks, those little roads marked in narrow black lines, how does the map tell you whether they’re private lanes or not? It doesn’t. It leaves you to work it out for yourself.

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That’s definitely a track, isn’t it?

I could see the track, I could see how it lead to the roadway across the field, I could see it wouldn’t take us into anyone’s back garden, and I could see that it looked about as well walked as the definitely public access path we’d just come.

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This was signposted as a public footpath

So I took a chance and we turned right.

After a mile or so, even Huw’s confidence in my decision was faltering. But before we got chapter and verse on this we had to contend with the gate. On the other side was the road, behind us a long walk back. In the way was a chained and padlocked gate surmounted with barbed wire.

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Happily I couldn’t see this sign until I was over the fence. Sorry for trespassing, Oatfield Farm. It was an oversight.

No room to wriggle through the hedge so it was over the top for me and through the middle for him.

Back on the side of the law, we were soon at the swing bridge over the wide Gloucester & Sharpness canal and then over to the far bank and headed for the café. As Ms Henbane had hinted it was not great (she’d heartily recommended the one in Frampton on Severn instead but it wasn’t on our route). Never mind. Huw was beginning to flag and we still had a couple of miles to go. I had a bottle of water for him and his bowl so I poured him a couple of dishfuls which he slurped down. I know nothing about dogs but I wanted to get him something to eat so I went into the café to see what I could find. I do know now that chocolate kills dogs (tell that to the dogs we had when I was child)  but I reckoned everything else on offer would be ok. The rock cake looked the least unappetising so he and I shared one as I drank a cup of tea. It was more a 80:20 split than a 50:50 one as it was ghastly, but he loved it. Next day I learned that dried fruit kills dogs too. What with the hemlock, the barbed wire, and the lethal currants this outing was turning into one death defying moment after another.

But these things happen in threes so we staggered on after our break.

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Approaching the junction again. Gloucester 8 miles. 

After the mild perils came the stories. A man packing up his fishing stuff on the canal bank began to chat.  This man, a plumbing and heating engineer (didn’t like school, no good at exams but give me a length of pipe and it all makes sense…)  had paid to have his family tree researched. All that had been found appeared to have come as a surprise to him. My grandfather, now he was a plumber too. Never knew that. Must be in the blood. And my grandmother on my mother’s side, turns out she was illegitimate. She was brought up by her grandparents who lived on a farm around here and I was doing some work for the doctor who lives just on the corner over in (he named somewhere I’d never heard of)  and I saw that the address was similar so I asked him. And he said that the farm was next door to him. I never knew that. He knew the woman. Said to call round. 90 years old and always first in the pub, the lady is, he said.

Did you go?


Do you know why they left the farm?

No idea. But you’re from Bristol then? Some of my ancestors went there but then they came back again. But guess what? I had my DNA analysed too and guess what it found from my blood?

(I think I know what you’re going to say)

I’m 2% Nigerian. I’m Nigerian from the knees down.

It took a while to take our leave of the plumber, a genial man who was simultaneously excited about his family history without being at all curious about what was beyond the genealogist’s report. Plots of several novels were spilt out onto the bankside right there – the love child grandmother, the farm that was left behind, the African forebears – but he wasn’t about to pick them up.

The final stretch of the walk took us off the Gloucester & Sharpness canal and back along the Stroudwater spur again. Outside the pub there was an elderly man sitting on the edge of the canal, legs in the water. Another conversation. Another story. This time a comedy.

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The expanse of canal directly in front of the pub.

The man’s accent was so broad that I couldn’t understand a word he said. Eventually, after some pantomiming of Huw wanting a swim and me not letting him, I got my ear in. He was pulling reedlike vegetation out of the canal and once he’d finished the ones he could reach he said he was going to go out in his boat and pick up a load more.

That Mrs Rees – Owen, she always says she can’t understand why the water’s clear down here but it’s never that way up her end. She never sees me doing this. And I never tell her.

And, because these things happen in threes, on to the churchyard for the final story: a tragedy. And a mystery.

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Such a tragic loss to one family. But why the different names? And why was the twin sister never named?





‘Let us now praise famous men’*. And a woman who is not a bit well known.

(* an earworm ever since I was drilled to sing the anthem in my girls’ school assembly.)

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Hebden Bridge

Mid June and it should have been a heat wave. When I booked the weekend in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, I had visions of striding out, slathered in sun cream, Panama at a jaunty angle. Along the Rochdale Canal I would go from our towpath cottage in Hebden Bridge, west to Todmorden one day, east to Sowerby Bridge the next, and then return to spend the balmy evenings outside enjoying a bottle of wine as the world floated by. Well, that didn’t happen. Too rainy the first day so instead it was off to the Todmorden Agricultural Show for T and me, picking our way across the soggy fields. And the long hot evenings? We battened down the hatches and switched on the heating. All very enjoyable, of course, but not what we had anticipated.

Next day there appeared to be a window in the downpour forecast so, encouraged by Yorkshire born and bred T, I decided to stop being a Southern sissy and step out.

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Black Pit aqueduct, where the Rochdale Canal crosses the River Calder. On Boxing Day 2015, the town was flooded when torrential rains caused the river waters to sweep down through the streets. The water level in the Calder at this point shown here was so high that it engulfed the canal.

I got 200m and it began to rain.

But enough of the moaning. Hebden Bridge is a really, really interesting place. There’s definitely a dissertation to be written there. It was known as Trouser Town back in the day being a centre for the production of corduroy, Nowadays it is better known as the lesbian capital of the UK if this rather dusty piece in the Guardian is to be believed (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/jul/29/theobserver.uknews2) (and look, someone’s already done the dissertation). Whatever. It’s post industrial, but prosperous, packed with creative types, independent shops and artsy crafty endeavours. Strung out along the River Calder and the canal, it sits at the meeting of two steep river valleys and is an attractive town in all senses.

We’d had a look at Todmorden the previous day when we’d changed buses on our way to the Show so Sowerby Bridge, on the outskirts of Halifax, was in my sights today. T had a bit of work to do so he decided to hop on a train and meet me at the other end. Yorkshire (North, South and West Yorkshire – all of them) is a bit of a foreign field to me so I was keen to see what it was like. The hills, the drystone walls, the building stone all looked different, the accents and the place names sounded different. I mean, I have no idea how to pronounce some of them – Mytholmroyd I didn’t attempt, Sowerby I was shaky on after my inept inflections over Todmorden. These sites were named by speakers of another tongue, not the Brythonic Celtic types that hold sway along the coastlines of Wales and the far South West. 

I’d read that settlements along the Upper Calder Valley sprang up with the mechanisation of the textile industry in the early 1800s and the completion in 1804 of the Rochdale Canal (the major commercial link between Manchester and Leeds until the railway in 1841), so I was expecting urban and signs of manufacturing. But as the UK textile industry today is a shadow of its former self, I anticipated that, with production having left the valley (the country even), then I would find only remnants of the industrial heartland of the past. Unsurprisingly, many of the old mill buildings in Hebden Bridge have been converted into housing, studios and workshops but would I find this repurposing all the way along the canal?

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A mix of new, old, and converted residential units

Or would I find dereliction of the Turn Off The Lights, Close The Door, And Let The Roof Fall In variety? Well, no, not so much.

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This building has been firmly mothballed but with an attempt to make the place look still occupied. There’s clearly been a dispute over whether imitation mock Georgian glazing bars would look better than a more modern style

Some old sites have been purposefully razed, while elsewhere new industrial units are sidling up to the water’s edge. Others are reincarnated as bases for newer commercial enterprises, some more unexpected than others. If you’re wondering where the 89a to Blackheath has got to…

What can I tell you about this stretch of canal? It was a very pleasant walk.IMG_4714 (2) There were a couple of locks, a tunnel, a few villages along the way, and some tiptop waterside gardens. And more commemorations of local worthies than I had expected. There was Ted Hughes at Mytholdroyd, his birthplace; there was Bramwell Bronte at Sowerby Bridge station, where he’d worked for five months; and there was Edward Kilner with his eponymous lock,

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Kilner’s Lock – not named for the man behind the jars but for a lawyer associated with the canal.

The fragrant Lady This or Mrs John That may have graciously tapped a commemorative trowel on a foundation stone a century ago, but Miss Ainsworth made me stop in my tracks.IMG_4742 (2) It’s not often a woman in her own right is commemorated on a plaque. 

Approaching Sowerby Bridge and just as I was trying to get a look at this place, IMG_4752 (2)squinting at what I thought was one of those Why Not Take On The Lease Of This Pub? banners that hang hopefully from the peeling woodwork of some forlorn inn, and wondering who on earth would ever go there for a drink there was a voice behind me. They’re doing a good job there, aren’t they? It’s looking really nice, isn’t it? Er no. A brisk woman fully kitted out for a long hike, lipstick exactly matching her fuchsia fleece (kudos for the attention to detail), had caught me up. Turns out the place is being renovated by a charity working to give homeless people in the town the construction skills to find work and move off the streets. So yes, they are doing a good job there actually. But I still don’t know who on earth would ever go there for a drink.

Sowerby Bridge is no Hebden Bridge. Sunday morning may not have been the time to see it at its best, but it remains more as it was than as it could be.

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Cobbled streets in Sowerby Bridge

But when we got down through the town and up the other side to the station (I’d met up with T by now) it all began to get a bit Richard Curtis, a bit stereotypical soft focus, rosy glow, old time Yorkshire.  First, there was the former station café, now an independent enterprise, offering a long list of refreshments to early morning commutersIMG_4772 (2) and later in the day a vast range of ales, whiskeys and gins – and coffee too – amidst a huge collection of railway memorabilia which cleverly hit the entertaining note rather than the specialist enthusiast one (www.jubileerefreshmentrooms.co.uk).

If I were a regular on the Leeds to Manchester line I think I’d be planning to hop off for quick one on the way home.

Then after a leisurely coffee (yes, it came with a Nice biscuit – when did I last have one of them?) and a quick train ride we were back in Hebden Bridge, in a main line station which appears not to have noticed the passing of the last 50 years. IMG_4774 (2)

And then, as we left the platform the sound of a brass band drifted towards us. Now we knew that there was to be a band competition that afternoon (it was billed as the Hebden Bridge Band March and Hymn Tune Contest) but hadn’t expected to come across bands limbering up in the town park. IMG_4777 (2)But there they were and there were more of them gathering in the centre of town ready to march down the street,

arrange themselves around a sculpture in a giant knitted condom and then to play their hymn and reprise their march tune.

12 bands were competing in all, 11 local and one from Canada (no idea) so it was quite a crowd. As the by now hot and sunny afternoon wore on and thirsts were addressed, the atmosphere shifted from pre performance nervous anticipation to post march relief. Ties were loosened, jackets were removed and instruments were scattered about.

A grand day out. Yorkshire? What’s not to like?

Hot and Cold Wars

I begin in a spirit of reconciliation.

Portreath – it’s not you, it’s me. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong, it’s just that I’ve found you a little, well, odd.

It’s not that I expect to find every little spot along the way set up please me and the rest of the carrot cake eating classes. I really don’t. To be brutally frank, St Ives, I find you just a little bit too much with your artisan meringues that could crush a hamster; Newlyn, I love your quay with your stand there and look if you must attitude (but get out of the way of the forklifts because don’t you go forgetting that this is actually an industrial area); and Hayle, you’ve had better days, but your regeneration projects are looking great and everyone loves a trier.

But Portreath? You’re none of these and I just can’t work you out. Your harbour’s commercial life ground to a halt fifty years ago, and now you’re like a place turned in upon itself, a post-industrial spot cold-shouldering the huge expanses of golden sand at the end of the street. And in a part of the world where everywhere else has its eye on the grockle geld, I find this unusual.

Anyhow, I’ve got that off my chest so let’s look at this bunch of happy kids having a lovely time on your sands and move on. (See, I said it’s not you, it’s me).IMG_3818 (2)

When I planned these few days in Cornwall I had envisioned striding out as far as Perranporth but what are plans for if not to be changed? Two and a bit days of walking turned into one and a bit when I woke up on our second morning, looked at the weather and thought meh. Instead T and I headed off for a day of ambling at Heligan (lovely) and Mevagissey (also lovely). And so it was on the third day that we packed up and left our cottage and headed back to Portreath to get just a little further along the path before we had to hit the A30 for the drive home.

Porthtowan was the new destination and, though a short three mile stroll, the map suggested that it could be a more interesting few miles than the previous outing. There was an airfield on the headland just above Portreath for a start. Although it was shown as in use on my 2003 map (a charity shop bargain – it’s not as though they are going to move the sea, are they?), it was marked as disused on the 2015 version I consulted in the library before I left home (just making sure). From across the bay, I’d seen that there is still a giant golf ball there so I was curious to see if the path would allow me a closer look.

I was quickly up and out of Portreath and passing remnants of wartime buildings across the fields. IMG_4047 (2)A bit of Googling when I got home told me that the airfield  – formerly RAF Portreath – dates from 1940 and served as a Fighter Command station, a ferry stop-over for aircraft bound to/from North Africa and the Middle East, a temporary stop-over for USAAF and RCAF units, and then as a Coastal Command station. In 1950, its day was done so most of the site was returned to the government although today it remains a listening post with its long-range radar coverage of the south western approaches to the UK. That’s what’s in the golf ball. I got this from www.forces-war-records.co.uk/units/667/raf-portreath and there’s a whole load of other information out there on the place, but I was soon lost in a sea of abbreviationsand defence jargon (it’s Remote Radar Head Portreath now, by the way). I have never served in the military nor, other than my father’s National Service, have I known anyone spend time in the Forces so this is all a very foreign field to me.

Back to the walk. IMG_4068 (2)Without knowing any of this history at the time, the golf ball led to me assume that something was still going on in there, but the screaming of the stock cars racing up and down the runways on a Sunday morning suggested that the site was otherwise pretty much demilitarised. So the plethora of signs came as a surprise. There was this one, rather weatherbeaten and faded, which looked like it’s been there a while.IMG_4056 (2) But these looked pretty modern for a disused base.

I didn’t notice the fence at first. The coast path runs its whole length alongside – and in some case through –  privately owned land so it is normal to be separated from the adjoining fields by fence, wall, or bank. Only in extremis would it occur to me to try to access that land. IMG_4053 (2)But this pristine fence went on and on, even after the noise of the race cars was fading away behind me, and even in the face of the steepest of climbs it traced its unwavering line.

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Someone really doesn’t want anyone going in there.

At the top of the hill I found myself in amongst more remnants of wartime defences, platforms on which (I’m guessing) munitions were placed and a watch kept, with a trench dug to allow personnel to come and go undetected.IMG_4085 (2) It was a lonely spot, bleak on a late spring day, hard to imagine how it would have been on a winter’s night when the threat of invasion was real.

A little further on was this.IMG_4094 (2) Another military reminder? No, it’s the protective capping of a disused mine shaft. I was away from old defences and back amidst the remains of the tin and copper industries which straggle along this coastline. Those rungs were strange. Their stopping after a couple of metres suggested that the bottom was close below. IMG_4093 (2)It wasn’t. I dropped a stone to see how long it would take to hit the base. I didn’t hear it land.

Along the way were the preserved residues of Wheal Tye mine, with maps and interpretation boards (that shaft is 600 feet deep – sheesh) and a chimney painted with a faded graffitied protest of which I could make out only the last word.IMG_4097 (2) A word which made no sense to me here on the north coast of Cornwall.

I was almost in Porthtowan by now. Below me, the glorious beaches opened upIMG_4124 (2) and as I rounded the corner of the track to begin the descent into the village, I found the garden of my dreams.IMG_4128 (2) I don’t think I could improve on this.

IMG_4126 (2)Porthtowan is a pleasant place and it lacks Portreath’s gloom. There was coffee. There was carrot cake. I went home happy.


But after a few days some of the things I’d seen on the walk were niggling at me. I’ve no right to know the reason for the indefatigable fence – defence secrets must, of course, remain secret – but still I was intrigued. Here’s the air base on my 2003 map.

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Thank you, Ordnance Survey

And here’s the same spot on the map on a 1962 version, 12 years after the RAF left.

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Thank you, maps.nls.uk


A bit of Googling revealed an alter ego for this remote airfield.  From 1950 to 1978 the site was known as CDE Nancekuke. This led me down a whole series of online rabbit holes from official reports, to amateur explorers’ sites, via the conspiracy theorists to the frankly bonkers UFO brigade, all of which come with their own spin and levels of credibility. This was only meant to be a Sunday morning stroll and you come to indulge me in the telling of my What I did on my holiday tales, so feel free to call it a day right here.

But for a short summary which may perhaps hint at why Portreath is as it is, read on…

Jumping straight in, I read that captured war time stockpiles of German nerve agents and research documents identified GB Sarin as suitable for the UK to develop for use in potential Cold War chemical warfare. Production began at Porton Down, near Salisbury, but in 1954 it was relocated to the disused former RAF air station at Portreath – renamed Chemical Defence Establishment Nancekuke – which became the United Kingdom’s main chemical weapons research and development facility.

By 1956 international tensions were judged to have relaxed sufficiently for a halt to be called to production, but not before more 20 tons of Sarin had been stockpiled at Nancekuke. From then until the late 1970s, the facility was used for the manufacture of riot control agents such as CS gas, and the development of medical countermeasures, training aids, and the development of protective Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) suits used by the British Forces

The closure of CDE Nancekuke was announced in 1976 and by 1978 all remaining stocks of chemical agents had been destroyed or transferred by road to Porton Down. Other chemicals were neutralized, returned to the commercial chemical industry, or buried on site alongside debris from dismantled plant and buildings. (There’s a very full account of this at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/413768/20150227-FOI02229-Annex.pdf).

The underground explorers at www.subbrit.org.uk identify old quarries and abandoned tin mine shafts as dumping grounds for the waste, along with a valley where the ground level was raised by 20 feet by the dumping of rubble, waste chemicals and quantities of asbestos from demolished buildings. (www.subbrit.org.uk/sites/portreath-reporting-post/)

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That would be here

Concerns have since been raised about the subsequent effects on the environment of the area and the possibility of leaching of dangerous substances into the water table or the sea.

Several hundred local civilian workers were employed at Nancekuke, all bound by the Official Secrets Act. In Parliament in 2000, Candy Atherton, MP for the area, sought to raise the above average incidence of sickness and premature death in this cohort of the local population,

The key time for the production of nerve gas…was the 1950s. During the four years from 1955 to 1959, there were 306 cases of respiratory disease—almost double the numbers for the following years… Some 41 men died—nine during employment and 32 after leaving the establishment— between 1950 and 1969… Some complicated statistical analysis was applied and the conclusion was reached that such a death rate was lower than the national average. If a small company employing 150 people lost 41 current and former employees among a relatively young and healthy cohort, alarm bells would ring…Those men were working not underground or at sea, but in a factory and a laboratory environment. (https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/2000/jan/18/nancekuke-base)

In his response, John Spellar, Minister for the Armed Forces, refuted her contention that something untoward had been going on.


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Graffiti reads ‘…made here kills Vietnam’. Chemical weapons produced at Nancekuke were, it is believed, used offensively by the United States until 1964. Candy Atherton, MP. I am not aware of any chemical warfare agents being transferred to the United States, other than a few laboratory samples. John Spellar, Minister for the Armed Forces (https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/2000/jan/18/nancekuke-base)

And so back to Portreath, to the small village that has lived with that secret place up on the hill for going on 80 years. Bound officially not to tell the truth about the unexplained comings and goings, the untimely and unlikely sicknesses, but bound unofficially to hear the rumours – I’m beginning to get the smallest inkling of why you are like you are.

To the lighthouse. Again.

IMG_3760 (3)Back to Cornwall for a few more days of coast path, beginning where I began last time, a year or so ago (https://wordpress.com/post/womanwalkingblog.wordpress.com/6377).IMG_3745 (2)Godrevy Point at the far end of Gwithian Sands was the spot but this time, instead of taking the Age Concern minibus to the start I had my own driver in the form of T who agreed to drop me off and meet me 7 miles later with such alacrity that I knew that a clandestine Full English had to figure in his plans somewhere. We actually reached the National Trust car park at practically the crack of dawn as we were both on city time when it came to waking up. But still the car park was hosting a good few surfers’ cars and vans.

Off I went in one direction and off went my husband in another.


I seem to have taken a great many And So We Say Goodbye shots of Godrevy lighthouse. I like this one best.

The National Trust own and manage the coast land here and, in that much of their work was imperceptible to me, and in that I very much appreciated their re routing of the path to allow for recent cliff falls, I did find some of their signage (and that of other charities) a little intrusive.

But it is a difficult balance to achieve and I have nothing against seals.

I thought I’d heard of excellent carrot cake being found on sale at the café hereabouts and I do love a piece of carrot cake. I hadn’t checked my sources too closely and so the first place I had my eye on turned out to be public toilets. Disappointing. In the fullness of time, at about the moment I walked off the edge of my very first OS map and onto the second (woohoo), I arrived at the café at Hell’s Mouth – the very place – but so early that it was yet to open and, to be honest, it was too early for cake, even for me. Still, I passed by with some regret but later, on rereading Jude’s post, I realised it may not have been so bad after all. (https://cornwallincolours.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/hells-mouth/).

I walked on as the way, although high up on the cliff,  ran flat and close to the road for several miles. Car parks popped up from time to time. It was turning into the least interesting section so far and I was growing rather fed up. It did give me time to reflect on my new walking/trail shoes and award them 9 out of 10.

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Ugly  brutes, aren’t they?

Still not 100% right. The quest continues.

Lovely array of wildflowers along the way though – bluebells, primroses, violets, red campion and a whole load of nameless others.

Just as my inner moaner was starting on the Are We Nearly There Yet? whining, the path dropped away, right from the top of the cliff to a few metres above the beach.


Didn’t see that coming.

A steep down followed by a steep up. That’ll teach me to get bored. Just time to catch my breath at the top and WHAT? Here we go again, all the way down and all the way up again. A double dip. Not sporting. Not sporting at all.

Then it was around the headland and into Portreath, my morning’s destination. I have to admit that I found the place a little odd. Its raison d’etre was as a port used to export tin and copper from the local mines across to South Wales for processing and to import Welsh coal to power the mine machinery. As I saw a bit more I came to admire its plucky ingenuity. IMG_3809 (2)I mean, would you build a harbour here on this wide expanse of gently sloping sands?

At one side of the beach walls were constructed to create the narrowest of channels to form the harbour. The skill that must have been required to navigate that unfeasibly tight passage is extraordinary.IMG_4042 (2)

The village itself is rather unusual. Although equipped with the requisite golden sands (and some truly ugly, crassly overdeveloped properties), just behind the beach front car park is an estate of 1970s housing where the old maps show were once coal yards. IMG_4040 (2)Throw in several derelict bungalows around which property developers must be circling, a couple of not very enticing pubs, a beach café reeking of chip fat

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Farm fresh premium pre-fried chilled chips? 

and a (much nicer) cycle café where we drank coffee amidst the frames and the inner tubes and it was all a bit of a mishmash.

I couldn’t wait to leave.

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But what’s that giant golfball up on the hill above the village?

That’s for the next walk