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.

Nice.