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)?
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…
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then just before Barnes railway bridge there’s a pretty Georgian terrace.
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).
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.
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.
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;
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next up, the International Maritime Organisation – no slouches themselves when it comes to architectural adornments.
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.
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 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
The other day the excellent Annie, who writes amusingly, movingly, and thought provokingly at nohatnogloves.wordpress.com, asked if I’d like to chip in with my thoughts on a matter that is currently exercising her.
Well, of course I would, and might she consider returning the shot with a few words of her own? Good grief, she was back within the hour with this splendid piece – a great read. So, in a first for this blog, we’re going for simultaneous publication. I’m over at https://nohatnogloves.wordpress.com/ and she’s got the floor here.
Over to Annie…
Walking: it’s the way forward
When it comes to walking, it must be said that I am a fan. It was not always so and, when a teenager, I didn’t care for it at all. I had a very brief stage of trying to walk barefoot – it was 1973, I was a mere child of nature – but found that was extremely unwise. Litter, broken glass and dog poo was everywhere and, to be frank, I looked like a fool. Long hair, long skirt, bare feet and a limp. Very cool. I rather liked being driven about at the time. My father, on the other hand, took a view of walking that came into conflict with my own leisurely style. I used to go to work for him in the summer holidays and we would travel up to London on the early train and then cross the City post-haste, Dad always setting a pace that made me irritable and laggard. Waving his rolled-up newspaper, he would stride ahead, constantly telling me to get a move on. But I was wearing platforms. I might as well have tried staggering with bricks on my feet.
Image from The Diary of a Nobody on Pinterest. Annie claims Mr Pooter as her stylist
Things did change, especially when I left home and went to live in London. I would spend days on end walking, walking, walking around the City, crossing the river and back again, getting myself happily lost. After a while, it became the most sensible way to get somewhere quickly, picking up short cuts and back-doubles, hurrying round slowcoaches and dodging the traffic. I regularly walked about six miles a day to work and back in the early 80s, sometimes in very inadvisable footwear. With my friend Carol, I would regularly stagger home in the small hours, teetering on heels and stopping off at the takeaway for chips. Wonderful way to prevent a hangover and cheaper than a taxi. Back then, wearing special walking shoes was a mystery but my feet never seemed to suffer. I enjoyed the peace and the opportunity to enjoy my thoughts, often dreaming the miles away as I pounded up and down Wood Lane and under the Westway, heading for work by Wormwood Scrubs.
By the time I had moved to the village where I now live, walking had another very useful purpose. In the early 90s I suffered from depression – started quite mildly after my son was born, got worse when my dad died, exploded a couple of years later – and walking was a real boon. I joined up with some friends after we had dropped off our children at the school doors and we strode up hill, down dale (literally, this is Yorkshire), chatting and sharing the joys and otherwise of our lives. It was very helpful indeed and I began to feel that I could find a way out of this downbeat way of life; thankfully, I was right. I still walk to loosen up my mind or stave off feelings of anxiety because I know that the moment I turn out into the street, things will start to look and feel different, lighter.
I don’t mind walking in bad weather or fine as long as I have the proper footwear (no more platforms) and the right outerwear (the misery of being cold and wet) and I am happy walking city streets or slogging up hills. Deserts, mountains, valleys, concrete and tarmac – walked them all. As I have vertigo I may well get wobbly in certain situations – coming down, not going up is the dangerous bit – and when that happens I transfer to my bottom and a fine array of swearing. It helps. Sometimes it startles people.
Some years ago, my friend Astra and I decided to do the Moonwalk night-time walking marathon. We trained with real intent and bowled up at Battersea Park on a splendid May evening with a golden setting sun. It was brilliant, if agonizing by 5am. We laughed ourselves stupid when trying to wee behind tiny bushes and thoroughly enjoyed the reactions of drunken Londoners when they encountered the mass of bra-wearing women who seemed to have taken over the streets. As dawn broke over West London, we urged each other onward; by the time we got to Kensington Gardens all we could think of was the pain in our backs. Almost too weary to cheer, we walked together through the gates of the park again and literally staggered into a taxi. God knows how we got out. Think Pats and Eddie in Ab Fab. Pretty close. We did the Moonwalk a few more times so it just goes to prove that you can forget pain quite quickly, like childbirth.
I do enjoy walking with friends but am mostly happy when walking alone, thoughts running free, setting my own pace and getting somewhere, even if that is just to the local Aldi for a bottle of milk. There is no technique to what I do and no scheme of improvement, rarely a swinging of arms. I have seen what happens when you stop moving about and it isn’t appealing. As the years go by I will probably slow down a bit, maybe even resort to using a stick. Do I have plans for more walks? Yes, certainly. I should like to do at least a part of the pilgrim route of Santiago de Compostela and, closer to home, the Pilgrims Way across the Downs. Not all in one go, but in stages, stopping off to admire things along the way and having a good lunch.
Things connected to walking that I love:
Stout shoes, fine socks
A snack in the pocket
Never worrying about how I look (not confined to walking)
Getting in a hot bath afterwards or a cold shower, depending on weather
Thinking without pressure
The wonderful film The Way
It really isn’t the destination, it is truly the journey.
Bit of a hiatus in blogging activity hereabouts recently, not because I haven’t been out and about but rather because my Iphone has taken to going doggo on me. Snaps a few photos and then the thing goes as dead as a doornail. Now you may think that this is a world class workwoman blaming her tools situation and you would probably be right but – if this doesn’t sound too pretentious – I tend to think in images and recall through photographs, so I get quite lost if I don’t have a few to fling around the place.
So what shall I tell you about all the walking we did in our long weekend in London?
First, there is the joy of wandering through a big city and chancing upon unknown, unsuspected parts just off the main track (I’ll say flaneur now so I need never mention it again). I’ve come very late to these discoveries. I was wont to hop off the train and head straight down the rabbit hole to the subterranean systems to get me to where I was going. But one day I looked at a map, saw that Central London is not actually that big in the scheme of things and realised that a brisk walk above ground may well get me there about as quickly as a ride under ground, with a whole lot more to look at along the way. (Like I said, I’m very late to the party on this one). Second, in doing all of this wandering considerable distances get racked up. Ten miles for me on Sunday – no wonder my feet were weary.
Some of these steps were measured around galleries (the British Library and the Royal Academy. The RA café – what a revelation… a few blocks from Piccadilly Circus but a world away), others shuffled about bookshops (Hatchards and the giant Waterstones) and quite a number more were strode around Kew Gardens (what a great sanctuary of green). But many others were wandered and wondered. Why for example does Islington’s main street (Upper Street. Or the A1, if you prefer) offer quite so many bakeries? There are the ordinary, large chain bakeries and there are the artisan bakeries – I’m with them so far – but then there are the gluten free bakeries and – yes – the sugar free bakery. Let them eat cake indeed.
I stumbled across the magnificent Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street (yes, late again) with its superb travel section (www.dauntbooks.co.uk) where, amidst the maps and guides, I found a novel set in the actual Corfu village to which we’re headed this summer. Have no idea what it is about but I could not pass it by.
With an afternoon to myself, I set out for a purposeful walk and, though I am trying to give them a rest, it was a canal which drew me to it. The Regent’s Canal from Little Venice, just above Paddington to – in my case – Regent’s Park, although it does trace an 8 mile route across the city to reach the Thames further east. These few miles showcased a variety of Londons. The carefully fenced off, manicured waterside lawns of the mansions near the park into which I suspect few but the security guards and the gardeners ever step, the ad hoc cultivating of the banks alongside the long moored narrow boats, and the rather jolly barge shaped planters in the open spaces in front of a somewhat challenging block of flats where – despite this being in the heart of a busy city – only birdsong seemed to disturb the peace.
The canal was built as an industrial highway so in places the ugly necessities of the metropolis do intrude – a huge electricity generating station, busy streets and the new developments around Paddington Station, for instance – but overall the canal was being busily enjoyed by a crowd of Sunday afternoon strollers.
No doubt many of them were drawn to the Little Venice basin where the Inland Waterways Association Canalway Cavalcade was taking place.
Photo courtesy of The Daily Telegraphy 1.5.17 (Spot the priest? More on him later)
This involved a joyous conglomeration of narrow boats filling every available spot on the water, with stalls, displays and activities taking over on dry land. I cannot say that either folk singing or morris dancing does it for me but clearly they do for some, and most of them were there enjoying the spectacle. It was as if some amateurish (in the best sense) country fete had somehow been transported into the heart of the sophisticated city. It was great. My abiding memory? This has to be the blessing of the boats. That’s what it said in the programme and here’s a picture of how it went last year with the Anglican Bishop of London decorously doing the honours, with some form of Mayoral personage having his back
This year, the task fell to a different cleric, a white cassocked priest with a custodian helmeted police officer as his wingman. If this were an Ealing comedy (which it very nearly was), I would say that the copper was not there to defend the clergyman so much as to protect the public from the priest and his wild, but powerful, sprinkling of the Holy Water. Built like a rugby player, the Father’s energetic dispensing of Blessings was soaking the faithful and the unfaithful alike, a fact that he, the wet and the wary all seemed to find uproariously funny.