Sunday, 5 November 2017

TADS #17:The Thames Towpath (or A River Runs Through It).

At the end of the 2016 TADS walking season I wrote a blog in which I decreed, honestly, that it'd been our best year of walking ever. In something that will hopefully soon become a time honoured tradition, I'm very pleased to report that that is no longer the case. 2017, and the walks that made it up, proved to be an even better year.

Last month's stroll around Wadhurst may've fizzled out a little but the deer of Knole Park and the ponies of the New Forest more than compensated. Better still was our beautiful April afternoon around the gardens of Blenheim Palace, a spectacular clifftop constitutional from Hastings to Winchelsea, a strenuous two day trek along The Ridgeway, and, of course, my brilliant birthday weekend in Cambridge.

Better still Neil, Bee, and Eamon had joined us for many of the walks, and for our last walk of the year, along the Thames Towpath from Richmond to Twickenham, we had the pleasure of welcoming Eva (our 12th TADS member) into the fold. Hopefully she'll be able to join us again when we start the 2018 season.

Unfortunately Teresa had cried off with earache, Rachael was otherwise engaged with firework based activities, and Virginie remains a long term absentee due to parental duties but that still left nine walkers (Pam hadn't let her poorly ankle deter her), all to be found loitering around Richmond train station at midday on Saturday moaning about rugby and horse racing fans taking up all the seats on the trains.

From Richmond's High Street, The Quadrant, we took a right down a snicket whose moniker, Brewer's Lane, belied its narrowness. Brewer's Lane opened up on to Richmond Green, verdant and autumnal, cushioned with crisp brown leaves and home to more seagulls than people. It's so posh round here that the guy sat on the bench on his own was drinking coffee, rather a can of Tyskie.
Cutting a diagonal swathe across the green towards a crenellated villa we then turned down Old Palace Lane to the riverside. Past the site of the former Richmond Palace (erected in the early 16c by Henry VII and home to him, his more famous son Henry VIII, and his grand-daughter Elizabeth I), past a 'Trumpeters Lodge' (which sounded like something more at home in Viz's Profanisaurus), and then past some lovely white terraced houses and the very inviting looking White Lion pub. A fascinating stretch before we even reached the water but TW9's answer to 007 might need to be a little more subtle in the future if s/he's not to be found out. 

Just south of Twickenham Bridge, the brown silty water of the Thames was flowing with some pace down to Corporation Island and Richmond Bridge. Canoes and swans both took advantage of the unusually speedy currents while, on the towpath itself, half and full marathon runners (many caked in mud) streamed past on a regular basis.
The jumble of pubs at Richmond Riverside were beginning to fill up but if we'd not stopped at somewhere as enticing as the White Lion the likes of The Pitcher & Piano and The Slug & Lettuce were not likely to pull us in. Instead we passed under the oldest surviving Thames bridge in London. Richmond Bridge was built in the 1770s to a design by James Paine and Kenton Couse and you'd have to go way upstream, as far as Abingdon, before you'd find an older bridge still standing across the river.

As the river gently curls round in to Petersham Meadows, inscriptions on benches sit as misty eyed memorials to those who've loved the water here in the past. This spot has long been seen as an Arcadian idyll and the views stretching back to the enormous Richmond Park or across to Marble Hill Park can be quite spectacular in summer. Even on a grey, but mostly dry, November day they impressed.
One of the runners passing us wasn't interested in the view though. Most politely trotted by, some thanked us, some looked too knackered to talk, but the guy who seemed to think shouting "I'M IN A RACE, I'M IN A RACE, I'M IN A RACE" at us would make us walk through a kissing gate quicker was to find his plans backfiring. The angrier his interjections got the more time we seemed to have. I've done a fair bit of running over the years (including races) and, usually, the organisers make very clear at the start that, as runners, we're sharing the towpaths, parks, and roads with walkers, cyclists, and even cars and to treat them with respect. Perhaps the guy was on for a personal best. Let's hope he didn't get it!

There's a ferry, Hammerton's, that takes interested visitors across the river to Marble Hill House at this point. It wasn't running, and we'd not have had time anyway, but the creamy Italianate, Palladian, facade looked quite pretty from a distance. It's the former home of one Henrietta Howard, the Countess of Suffolk, who was George II's mistress and lady-in-waiting to his wife, Queen Caroline. A menage a trois that, according to the trusted tome that dictates our walks, was no secret and continued despite, or perhaps because of, the story that the two women "hated one another very civilly". Howard's lavish lifestyle in Marble Hill House included entertaining the poet Alexander Pope and writer of the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and 'man of letters' Horace Walpole.

On our side of the river stood Ham House. Built in 1610 it's more than a century older than Marble Hill House and, like Richmond Bridge, it's Grade I listed. A grassy avenue of lime trees flanks, and frames, the Stuart pile, built for the first Earl of Dysart (a whipping boy for Charles I) and greatly expanded by his daughter Elizabeth and her husband the Earl of Lauderdale, variously Charles II's Lord High Commissioner and Secretary of State.
The upkeep and decoration of the building left the family debt ridden, however, and little changed within Ham House for the next three hundred years until, in 1948, the National Trust acquired the property and commenced with restoring it. Now it's open, at a price, for visitors to experience its cherry garden, its 'Wildernesse' maze, and its orangery which, by all accounts, serves up a decent selection of scones and veg tarts. We weren't hungry yet. We marched on.

Not far from Glover's Island a heron was spotted in a nearby willow tree but the next major point of interest was Eel Pie Island. Eel Pie Island can only be accessed from the Twickenham bank, the west bank, of the river and we were on the east side, on the Ham Riverside Lands. In the sixteenth century pies and ale were sold on the island and legend has it Henry VIII stopped off en route from Whitehall to Hampton Court to sample the wares, which certainly seems plausible looking at the size of him.
It's most famous now for its sixties heyday when steamers would bring revellers down the Thames to watch assumedly riotous gigs by The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, and no lesser act than Long John Baldry's Hoochie Coochie Men. I visited the island on another walk about fifteen or so years back and found it, these days, to be a very self-consciously artsy place, with no vehicles except bicycles and canoes, where people had dismembered doll parts, in lieu of flowers, decorating their front gardens. Quirky and twee but nonetheless likeable.

This stretch of the Thames marks the end of the Tideway. An obelisk marks the point where the Thames ceases to be tidal (or starts to be tidal if you're walking in the opposite direction). Looking over to Strawberry Hill the landscape on our side of the river was surprisingly rural considering we were in London.
It's not what it seems though. Prior to World War II the meadows between Ham House and Teddington Lock hosted gravel pits and industrial landscapes that offended many a sensitive aesthete's eye. Land reclamation began in the forties using rubble from bomb damaged parts of the capital further east. Since that day the land has been carefully managed to give the impression of unspoilt countryside. The photographer Fay Godwin, in her series Our Forbidden Land, showed how even something as seemingly innocuous as landscape itself had become politicised and weaponised. Here was one clear example of that in action. 

The runners were finishing their race somewhere near Canbury Gardens and we too were in need of a brief rest. We popped in to the bustling and agreeable, if understaffed, Boater's Inn where a few of us sampled a pint of Southwark Brewery's Jaocb's Island Amber Ale. Sat in the garden on one of those delightful days that blesses the change of seasons from autumn to winter with a generous helping of sunshine, the pint proved as potable as the company was clubbable.
There was to be no 'two pint mistake' however, time was of the essence, and we continued on Kingston Bridge where, alas, Shep had to depart the walk. Like Rachael he was another one who'd fallen foul to the fireworks. He'd agreed to help out lighting rockets etc; at a family event and his parting wish was that should we source some of his favourite Bangla beer in the Indian restaurant later that by no means whatsoever were we to send him photographs of it to rub it in. Hmmm.

Crossing the river, now bathed in the wistful tones of the late afternoon light, in to Hampton Wick we picked up the wide open Barge Walk that winds it way for a couple of kilometres around Hampton Court Park and the Home Park golf course. It's not until the river takes something of a dogleg that Hampton Court Palace comes into view. The chimneys longingly reached for the skies that, all of a sudden, had taken on an amazing orange colour. Either Shep's fireworks were more impressive than we could've ever guessed or some other shepherd somewhere was very very delighted.
The sky, the palace, and, now, a rainbow if we looked north. All these sights aligned to create a most delightful aspect and it was only ruined by Pam having to leave the walk at this point to head off to a 50th birthday party in London Bridge.

Now there were seven. Looking back across at Hampton Court Palace (built for Cardinal Wolsey in 1516 and purloined by Henry VIII thirteen years later before Cromwell moved in and, later on, Christopher Wren renovated it during the reign of William and Mary) and turning into Bushy Park (where me and my friend Cheryl, in 2012, competed in a 10k race without having to be rude to any of the park's regular visitors) we were beginning to lose the light. There was certainly no sign of the park's supposedly abundant red and fallow deer.

Around the Diana Fountain and down Chestnut Avenue we'd done nearly a full 180 degree turn and found ourselves back in Teddington. Kathy and Eva hopped on a train and myself, Adam, Bee, Eamon, and Neil retreated to The Hogarth pub on Broad Street for a couple of pints of London Pride and a chat about music and politics - as ever.

On the High Street we chanced upon Prem Indian restaurant where a table for five was found promptly. Not only did they serve Bangla beer, they also served something called Bangla naan! Pictures of Bangla were taken and despatched to Shep as promptly as possible before we tucked in to a tasty, if fairly standard, Indian menu. It was just right.
Adam was the next to leave so the now dwindling group repaired to The Teddington Arms. There was a live duo knocking out Otis Redding's Hard to Handle and various other covers. A table full of half eaten cheese and cakes, a sign wishing someone called Borg a happy 30th, and the duo launching into a highly spirited rendition of Patty and Mildred Hill's timeless birthday anthem was all it took for us to realise that we'd, rather unwittingly, crashed a private function.
Everyone was friendly but a further round of drinks was ruled out, a tough decision at the time but definitely the right one, before I bade a fond farewell to my Hillingdon based friends and took a train from Teddington to Clapham Junction, the overground from Clapham Junction to Peckham Rye, and a 63 bus up the hill. I was home, in bed, just after 10.30pm on a Saturday night. I'd have probably stayed up later watching Match of the Day if I'd had a night in but I'd had a lovely day and I was quite happy to quit while I was ahead.
Thanks to everyone who made this year's TADS season of walks so very enjoyable. That's Shep, Adam, Teresa, Pam, Kathy, Rachael, Neil, Bee, Eamon, and Eva. Thanks also to those who popped out to meet us along the way. That's Stuart, Rachel, Luke, Sam, Jake, Bugsy, Carole, Dylan, Tony, Alex, Ben, and Tracy. I, for one, can hardly wait to get going again in 2018.

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