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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.