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.