Sunday, 29 March 2020

THAMES: 9) Death in the Willows

After every storm comes the calm. And for the moment, what a calm.


The river’s been holding out on us. Not anymore. The floods and clouds recede over a flawless dreamscape. The Chiltern hillsides erupt in fresh spring blooms, the screech of red kites slices the air, and through it all the everlasting ribbon of crystal-smooth water glints in the sunshine. Welcome, it says, to Wind in the Willows territory.

"Nice? It's the only thing," said the Water Rat solemnly as he leant forward for his stroke. "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing," he went on dreamily: "messing—about—in—boats; messing—"
"Look ahead, Rat!" cried the Mole suddenly.
It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

And so the dream crashes to a thousand splinters.

Oh make no mistake, this dream, in this place, on this day, is reality. You can walk in this gorgeousness, immerse all your senses in it, feel better for the fact it exists – and then you can weep. Because realities constantly change, and all realities are in contact with each other. All that this is, indicates all it is not. And what this is not, it will be soon, for this is the calm before the most terrible storm in their lives.

So beautiful. But a thing a) is usually more than it seems – especially in England – and b) by existing, implies the existence of its opposites.
The picture has four sides. Underneath lurks English class violence in the ruins of modernity. To the left, upriver, up the flow of time, the winter tempests rage and the floods rear up to claim their due. And to the right, it careens down the stream of time toward the doom that has now arrived: COVID-19, the pandemic that has laid bare to the English, and all humankind, the disgrace of their social and political arrangements. All that is needed to complete this sorry meta-picture is the alien civilisations off the top, studying us with alarm and concern and wondering how the hell, with a planet so abundant as this, we could have got it so wrong.

Yet in the dreamscape of the Thames valley, many have found it easy to tune out what lies beyond its frames.

"Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World," said the Rat. "And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all. Don't ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here's our backwater at last, where we're going to lunch."

But now the coronavirus has come in for its lunch. Though invisible to the eye, it pinches all one’s senses round the picture-frame of this progress through the best of the Thames valley so far, undertaken just before the pandemic exploded. Walkers leave the paths to semicircle round each other at wide berths; nervous conversations are overheard in pubs and parks. Most telling of all, the water itself is empty of people.

That is unthinkable, because this stretch ends down a long and famous straight in the settlement of Henley-on-Thames. Henley is the command centre and primary base of the English rowing establishment, a juggernaut we first encountered on its University Boat Race in London and must now confront in its nest. As such, one would expect the Thames here to teem with boats, bristle with oars and erupt with the grunts, heaves, hollers, sweat and megaphone-assisted admonishments of an activity tethered to English national pride with the toughest of ropes and regimented to military extremes as they drill for their lives…


…but not today. The river is silent. And when an enemy is fearsome enough to confine the boats and paddles of Henley to their racks, you know it heralds the end of an era.


Start: Marlow Bridge (nearest station: Marlow)
End: Henley Bridge (nearest station: Henley-on-Thames)
Length: 13.6km/8.5 miles
Location: Buckinghamshire – Wycombe; Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Wokingham; Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire

Topics: Bisham Abbey and the Temple Mills, The Wind in the Willows, Hurley, Medmenham and the Hellfire Club, Remenham, Henley-on-Thames and the Plagues

Sunday, 15 March 2020

THAMES: 8) River Shamans



The river rages. It has had enough.

An unsettled winter has broken on England in a sequence of devastating storms. The Severn watershed in the west of the country has borne the worst of it, but the Thames next door is also on the warpath. Even now the rear end of February’s onslaughts rampage down this valley of privilege with no concern for where the humans think its banks should be. The ferryman dares not cross, the trembling resident watches the water lap over his windowsill, the farmer beholds her flooded fields and clutches her face in despair, and the professional dog walker cannot find the way to go.

North from Maidenhead Bridge. Maidenhead is protected by the Jubilee Channel but even here the riverbanks are at their limit.
England is a flood-prone country, and for thousands of years the Thames has made this abundantly clear to anyone who dares settle on its floodplain. Yet this latest round, in the midst of both acute political degeneration and a global climate emergency, has washed down to a graver sense that something is seriously wrong.

Then just in case people weren’t getting the message, along has come COVID-19. This virus has held up a mirror. In it, instead of rigorous, calm and informed international cooperation and care for one’s citizens, we see instead the posturing hollowness of the authoritarian ego-trips which now pass for governance among prejudiced and panicking populations. It has laid bare a world where human beings are not the authors of the social contract, but disposable meat for the macho cannibals, free-market cultists and eugenicists who have overrun their politics.

Modernity, the human future, was never supposed to look like this. After the horrors of the twentieth century there was no excuse. A reckoning is sure to follow.

That said, a reckoning will do no good unless it offers a way to come out on the other side: on a path of healing, of rebuilding the togetherness they should have got right the first time. Humankind, including the English, must build systems that empower their compassionate natures rather than their nasty ones, and become a presence worthier of this world and this universe. If they wish to stick around in it there’s no other choice.


This involves obvious practical measures. For the English, an immediate end to austerity and deportations, and the prosecution of those policies’ architects, would be a good start. But the damage of these depredations goes beyond the physical. It has cut deep into individuals' and societies' souls, so the journey is also a necessarily shamanic one.

The English are not known for their shamans. A shaman bridges the ordinary world with all those other worlds that transcend it – cultural worlds, emotional worlds, spiritual worlds, or worlds further still. Across the shamanic bridge, relationships are built that heal and enrich their participants, and valuable things are exchanged, things unmeasurable and far more meaningful than the narrow range admitted by that fantastical chimera, the economy. On the shamanic journey, prejudice and panic are left far behind as the human consciousness pushes past its perspectives, travelling to the very furthest places it can reach.

In some societies, in particular many indigenous ones, the shaman who opens the way to these places fulfils a formal role. In England, as in many nations which believe their modernity makes these journeys no longer necessary, the office of shaman does not exist.

But that does not mean there is no-one who tries.

Stanley Spencer’s View from Cookham Bridge (1936). At one level, a scene of perfect ordinariness in an English riverside village. Yet the longer you look on its colours, its patterns and lights, the more the simultaneous presence of other worlds comes crawling up your bones…
There are few great overarching constitutional dramas on this section of the Thames. A parade of towering castles and extravagant palaces, elite public schools and hallowed legal texts has lined this valley all the way from London, but here they shall fall away as the water itself resurges to centre stage.

It is the river, after all, that must be supreme in any shamanic considerations in reach of it. It shapes and dominates its peoples’ physical reality, yet is constantly on the move between that reality and others. Just as it has carried these people from town to town and spun the wheels of their mills, has it not ferried their consciousnesses to far further destinations? Has it not powered their mills of imagination to create what could not have come from this reality alone? What magic in this water has the English Christians still pouring it on foreheads for their baptismal rituals, or shapes the bridges of their engineer-heroes from mere functional crossing points into artistic masterpieces that bring their pride to tears?

These floods have created many temporary ponds and lakes along this subtler stretch of the Thames. Perhaps they can be windows on some of that magic.


Start: Maidenhead Bridge (nearest station: Maidenhead)
End: Marlow Bridge (nearest station: Marlow)
Length: 11.2km/7 miles
Location: Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead; Buckinghamshire – South Bucks

Topics: Boulter’s Lock, the Cliveden Set and Profumo Affair, Cookham and Stanley Spencer, Cock Marsh and Winter Hill, Marlow (via Budapest)

Sunday, 16 February 2020

THAMES: 7) The Eaten

Eton College. What a pain.

The cannon is because they knew we were coming.
There is no straightforward way to handle this one. Most English people know of Eton College, if more through its mythos than the thing itself. And one does not simply know Eton College. Generally speaking, to know Eton College is to either adore it or to resent it to every monied brick in its crenellations.

Why, indeed, does a school need crenellations?


Perhaps to call it a school is misleading. It is a school, of course – the most infamously exclusive in England (and needless to say, one of the most expensive) – but only in the first instance. In the ways that matter it is so much more.

What we have here is an England. Eton College is an embodiment of this country, or rather of a specific vision of it which, though only a tiny minority of its population ever passes through its doors, wreaks so reekingly powerful an impact on the majority that it needs no introduction. A vision so storied, so intractable, that to its detractors, and there are many, Eton is no less than the principal sausage-factory of England’s white, male, upper-caste forces of destruction and the ultimate locus of fault for the ruin of their land.

Thus while physical Eton nests safe and snug in the Thames Valley, imaginary Eton is a castle under permanent siege. And behind its walls, as much as anywhere else in the world, there is no hard border between reality and imagination. That, perhaps, explains the crenellations.

Is it fair to lay guilt for so supreme a crime at the gates of one mere school? The real significance of the condemnation of Eton in these terms is perhaps less literal, more mythic: a permanent counter-mythology which, in crashing upon the school’s mythology, becomes half the dialectic nest of narrative power which sustains the legend of Eton. But in factual terms the case is not without grounds. To say nothing of its graduates’ perpetual dominance in media, commerce, religion and the military, the twenty prime ministers it has manufactured include both the individual who instigated the Brexit crisis for no reason, David Cameron, and the one who now consummates its descent into the abyss of authoritarian nationalism, Boris Johnson. This entire saga can and has been read as the continuation of a tussle between these two bully-boys which started in Eton’s playgrounds: rollicking, soaked in seven varieties of bodily fluids, now spilt out to nation-wrecking scale. And then, goes this telling, once the country’s breaking is complete, the lives of everyone in it laid waste, and their chisel lodged securely in their mortal wound to the post-World War II European peace settlement, these Etonian man-boys will bear none of the consequences but march away across a burning horizon, underpants overflowing with multiple multimillion-pound incomes for doing nothing while they slap each other’s backs, chortling at what a fun game it all was – and really believing it.

The game. Here and in the wider English public-school universe, this seems to be the operating principle, the nexus to which everything returns. The world is your game, and this is how you play it. If that means the Boris and Dave Show is Eton’s doing, how often has the same been the case for the political currents that shaped England and Britain in the past? Conspiracy theories are dangerous and should not be mistaken for serious consideration. But the distance between reasonable suspicions on the one hand, and the mythic image of this place as the puppeteers’ tower behind so many of England’s imperial misdeeds and perennial structures of oppression on the other, is not great enough to satisfy scrutiny.

What shall we do with it? There is no getting around it, because cross the bridge from Windsor and there it is, lording upon the northern bank where it secretes a power uniquely its own. A power not jewel-studded or glintingly solid like the stone towers of royalty it faces across the river, yet nonetheless every bit its equal and in practical terms quite possibly its superior. Its crown is made of different material: subtler, less tangible, wafting and oozing and sausaging rather than towering, all the more challenging to pin down for how it is in that very swirl of myths and symbols, ever elusive to those they are designed to ward away, that is concealed the source of Eton’s power.

Upon Windsor Bridge, facing upriver (west) with Windsor at left and Eton right. The college’s old boathouse facilities at right have been re-done into apartments; instead of the river they now train at a colossal artificial lake further upstream.
Less a school, then, and more a phenomenon: one built right into the heart of both the stories and power relations of the phenomenon called England. Its class system, its problems of race and gender, its land, its empire, and now its post-imperial nervous breakdown – everything refracts through the Etonian prism in ways that are impossible to grasp, because as soon as you get close, it moves, teasingly, just enough, like the well-timed evasive twist of a cricket bat, then chuckles down at you that you’ll never really get it because after all, it’s just a game, and you’re not special enough to play it.

Maybe so. But it so happens we’re playing a larger game here and Eton is in the way. Let’s devour some sausages.

Your barricades will be of no use, Eton College.

Start: Windsor Bridge (nearest stations: Windsor and Eton Riverside; Windsor and Eton Central)
End: Maidenhead Bridge (nearest station: Maidenhead)
Length: 10.5km/6.5 miles
Location: Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead; Buckinghamshire – South Bucks

Topics: Eton College, Eton’s backyard, Boveney and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church (which is special), vampires (Oakley Court) and cannibals (Monkey Island, Headpile Eyot), Bray, Maidenhead

Friday, 31 January 2020

THAMES: 6) Curse of the Magna Carta

Once upon a time two reptiles sat by the river. One was a lizard which could open great frills around its head to appear much larger than it was. The other was a chameleon, constantly changing its colours to match its surroundings.

So might have opened Rudyard Kipling, the poet of empire, who had quite a fondness for animal fables. Instead, when he made his contribution to the legend of the riverbanks ahead in 1922, his preferred imagery was less animal, more animist:

And still when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays
Across the reeds at Runnymede.

To which we might reply: well go on then?

Runnymede. Lots of mud, but no shudder. Was Kipling’s idea of English ways the same as the Thames’s?
Seventy-five years later, in 1997, I arrived to find an England rapt in triumphalist swagger. The Soviet Union had fallen. A fresh-faced Tony Blair had just swept to power. They had won. Their stories had won. They had won history.

To any suggestion that this country had serious problems, let alone that it was not as free and democratic as it claimed to be, the standard response was mocking hostility. The scorn for dissent and difference here alienated me even before its deeper structural cruelties, especially of gender, made that alienation catastrophic over the years to follow.

And then that history burst from the grave and clamped its bloodied hands round their necks on 9/11. Real history had kept going, indifferent to their myths, and in their reverie it totally blindsided them. It then unleased two of the most distressing episodes in England’s modern history, and these, at last, have shaken the general population’s confidence to its roots.

One was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No-one who lived through that here will have forgotten the ugliness it brought down on the English social atmosphere (which nevertheless pales before what it did to Iraqis). The other is the unfinished Brexit-austerity-racism nightmare of the 2010s, whose most potent symbol is the blistering eruption of Grenfell Tower, a funeral pyre of something which, for its absence, the English psyche now unravels. The least that can be said coming out of these bloodbaths is that the gulf between England’s self-congratulatory myth of democracy and human rights on the one hand, and its inveterate tendencies to casual and mean-spirited violence on the other, appears to trouble far more of its people than it did at the turn of the millennium.

North from Staines Bridge to a land of legends. How much has this view changed in those twenty years? How much in eight hundred?
I didn’t have to wait twenty years for that. In 1997 my instruction in the gap between myth and reality was immediate, traumatic, and lasting. Entering an English boys’ school brought me in contact not with accountable leaders but a bristling-moustached, foam-at-the-mouth adult authoritarianism the likes of whose bellowing arrogance I had never encountered, even in a far less likely bastion of democracy, colonial Hong Kong. And the pupils, far from being a courteous and enlightened citizenry that knew its way round a social contract, exhibited instead a barbarism that was hysterical, violent and sometimes plain racist, eagerly following their scripts in that divine-right-of-adults diorama. If it was all to meld into a single message, it would have been this: We are a democracy, so STFU.

In that shock and turmoil one image has never left my memory. The back wall of the history classroom, packed floor to ceiling with parchments. Each was brown with a red wax seal, and though the handwriting varied, each’s text began, in huge capital letters, with the words: ‘JOHN, BY THE GRACE OF GOD, KING OF ENGLAND…’ before the text size diminished to illegibility.

English history was a morass to me. I had had next to no exposure to it and its contents were totally foreign. Kings with weird numbers after their names instead of Chris Patten; cryptic symbols everywhere like lions (but they don’t have any?) and fleur-de-lis (but they don’t like France?); important people named after places they had nothing to do with and weren’t pronounced how they were spelt, and endless random wars for no sensible reason. I went by the English name John then – were those suspicious documents directed at me? What would I want with the grace of their god? My history teacher’s name was also John. Was this about plastering his authority all over the wall, revering him as no less than their king?

That wall of charters, unexplained and ever-present, loomed over two years of English history lessons which, for lack of foundation and context, left me lost at sea. It was only much later that I pieced together what it was about. It was what they had studied the previous year, which I had missed on the other side of the world. It was the foundation. And the foundation revolved around a single document, one they deemed so important that they got each boy to re-create his own, dunk it in some yellowy-brown chemical to make it look historic, then hoist it high with the others so as to dominate the visual experience of the history classroom through all the centuries of material that followed.

Eventually I managed to put a name to it. Magna Carta. In English imagination, possibly the greatest story of all – the key word, of course, being imagination.

The Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede.
There are facts, and there is myth. Both matter in history. In this particular history, the myth has mattered a hundred times more.

But charters are made of paper, and paper, real or mythic, has two sides. The English’s claims to democracy and rule of law are writ on the sunlit side. How often do they look on the shadowed side? They do not – because it screams. It screams a racial exceptionalism which wetted the chops of undying English authoritarianism and drove it on a genocidal rampage across the Earth. They do not look, because it still burns their eyes.

Oh yes. Today’s journey through the meadows where Magna Carta was verbally agreed (not signed – signatures as a binding instrument came much later) shall not be the same pilgrimage made by a neverending crocodile of approved storytellers, excited lawyers and awestruck schoolchildren. My path is the dark path and here it leads through the underworld. Come, if you dare face a reckoning with the Runnymede Horror.

Staines Bridge in the light of an especially cold winter morning. Staines’s significance as a ford town as explored in the previous section will be of continued importance.
Oh, and there is also a great big fortress called Windsor Castle. That might be important.

Start: Staines Bridge (nearest station: Staines)
End: Windsor Bridge (nearest stations: Windsor and Eton Riverside; Windsor and Eton Central)
Length: 12km/7.5 miles
Location: Surrey – Borough of Runnymede; Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead

Topics: The Magna Carta – history and mythology in Runnymede and Dark Runnymede; Old Windsor, Datchet, Windsor Castle, the Charter of the Forest

Friday, 17 January 2020

THAMES: 5) Cross Purposes


Today we have a tale of two towns.

Chertsey and Staines emerged for opposite reasons. One was for going to, the other for going through. Each owed this to a singular crux: in one case a house of the Christian cross, in the other a river crossing. Those structures are long gone, yet the towns they birthed stand to this day as important crossroads on the river. Add to that that one can hardly cross their paths without being made cross at the political situation, which has seriously crossed a line, and you begin to – well, that’s enough talking across them.

Although, it really did cross a line. And don’t take my word for it. In the present constituency, Runnymede and Weybridge, it was a line too far even for some individuals on the highest balconies of the party responsible.

On the electoral map we are now well into hardcore Tory Thames, blue surrounded by blue. In the December 2019 election they changed their minion in parliament regardless. This was because up till then it happened to be former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. It isn’t anymore.

Chertsey Bridge is approximately the same colour as Philip Hammond’s lugubriousness.
Hammond controlled this country’s treasury during some of the cruellest years of the Tory austerity programme and must take his share of responsibility for its dire human rights abuses. Yet relatively speaking, he was a moderate: more concerned with outcomes – however poorly he assessed them – than ideological zeal, preferring to deal in arguments rather than slogans. Ultimately this found expression in a stubborn resistance to a hard Brexit which turned him into a hate figure for the Brexit-rapture demagogues who clawed their way to power under Boris Johnson. At the crunch, Hammond was one of twenty-one Tory MPs expelled from the parliamentary Conservative Party, some of its grandest veterans among them, for voting against Johnson’s Brexit deal. Like many other conservatives he has since wandered into the political wilderness, no longer at home in a party he believes has left him.

It is one of the many subplots of England’s present crisis, and one which will most trouble the hearts of old Tory heartlands like this. The death of English conservatism, a tradition devoured by its own children. It always had its grievous flaws and made terrible mistakes. It had its part in the worst atrocities of industrial exploitation and colonial racism. But somewhere in there was also a more scrupulous dogs-and-meadows-and-fireplaces conservatism that meant something better than violence against dissidents and minorities. An honest and venerable tradition existed, born from legitimate shock at the carnage of the civil wars and the French Revolution, whose instinct was to place a steadying hand of caution on the shoulder of swift and hot-headed change; that enjoyed discussing disagreements over tea and earnestly sought to learn from them; that did not beat its chest about the wonders of industry and empire, but made pragmatic use of those systems to try to do good with their own little bits of them. A conservatism, that is, with integrity in its bones – integrity which to the Brexit revolutionaries, in their contempt for truth and hatred of dissent, has been totally indigestible. Those bones, spat out with dripping conceit, are all that remain of the English conservative tradition: scattered, lost, with a body no longer, washed away on the river.

Today’s direction of travel: the view north atop Chertsey Bridge.

But that is what the river does. To the people who live on its floodplain, it brings possibilities and it takes them away. But it does not choose from them. Only they, the English and their predecessors and successors, can do that. Let’s look at a few they did.

Start: Chertsey Bridge (nearest station: Chertsey)
End: Staines Bridge (nearest station: Staines)
Length: 6.4km/4 miles
Location: Surrey – Borough of Runnymede, Borough of Spelthorne

Topics: Chertsey Abbey, Laleham and the Earls of Lucan, the Penton Hook, Staines

Thursday, 9 January 2020

THAMES: 4) Into the Valley of Imagination


Dawn of a new year, and a new phase. Our journey up the Thames’s central valley begins here, and like the future of its people, the first light of 2020 finds it lost in fog.

The triumph of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party (a.k.a. the Tories) in the December 2019 general election presents the English people with a new phase in their own journey. Our exploration began with them mired in a protracted struggle over whether to leave the European Union – ‘Brexit’. As of now, Brexit is secondary. The new government heralds not only the triumph of the Brexit movement’s most fanatical high priests but a far more ambitious project of cultural transformation, whose values have manifested over this decade in the Tories’ austerity and hostile environment policies – or to call them by their proper names, social and ethnic cleansing. 

Swans seek their breakfast on the river below Kingston Bridge, shielded by fog from the world of human folly.
No secret was made of these leaders’ admiration for the darkest demons of twentieth-century nationalism, whose violences of gender, race and class, and contempt for the very concept of truth, have burst back out through the crust of the Earth in so many places worldwide. The English saw what they stood for. They chose it anyway.

The most violent consequences will fall on those who did not choose it, who did not consent, and this will bury once and for all the English’s claims to a democratic polity. As for those who did select this: they have chosen their fate, and will learn the cost when the lights at the end of their tunnel turn out to be the fires of hell.

The river, which precedes and outlasts their mistakes, shall guard the true light in the meantime.
As for their organised resistance, the opposition Labour Party crumbled dramatically in England’s fallen industrial heartlands to the north as its traditional working-class supporters deserted what they saw as its arrogant and complacent leadership. Here on the Thames, that world could not feel further away. The Thames valley, so the stereotype goes, is the winding spine of England’s protected southeast: the lounging, cosseted, corpulent body of the octopus which sucks the rest of the country dry. Monopolised by some of the most privileged sections of English society, these provinces are some of the wealthiest in the country and have returned a nigh-unbroken ocean of Tory blue in election map after election map, disturbed only by the occasional red or yellow blip in headstrong urban centres like Reading and Oxford.

They include the domains of some of the Tory Cabinet's most absurdly impervious figureheads of mediocrity. Beyond Kingston we must cross the constituency of Esher and Walton, then Spelthorne, respectively the lairs of foreign minister Dominic Raab and business minister Kwasi Kwarteng, two of the most accomplished performers in the vacuous trolling that has become the signature of Tory politics. In spite of this both were returned comfortably in the election, the former in the face of a committed challenge from his opponents, the latter by an overwhelming 20,000-vote majority.

That speaks foreboding things about the populations we are about to traverse. The crimes of Boris Johnson’s Tories – whose ideologies seek and mock the death of people like myself, and whose abuses have brought hideous suffering to my friends in marginalised communities – make it discomforting to venture into strongholds of such evil. How uneasy lurks the prospect of accepting its populace as they walk past, as though their murderous voting behaviour can be excused? How irrefusable the instinct to hold them to immediate account right there on the towpath one by one?

If they are to be spared it then let it be out of respect for the river itself. It is above their sordid politics, does not deserve to be poisoned by having them pushed in it, and might yet have important stories to tell about just what twisted things had to happen in order that a nation, any nation, could put itself in so small-spirited and shameful a position.

Today's section is broad, so click if you want a better view.
After all, what can explain the middle Thames’s unyielding grasp on the neck of English society if not some sturdy historic roots? At a glance, these appear as varied in shape and texture as they are deep. From the constitutional totems of Kingston and Runnymede to the elite scholastic keeps of Oxford and Eton, from the commerce of rich monasteries and industrial boomtowns like Reading to the warlords’ big damn walls at Hampton Court and Windsor Castle, the wealth and power of this valley is as much in its stories as in its physical stuff – as much in emotion and imagination as in armies and bank accounts.

The armies and bank accounts give them power, but it is the stories that have turned that into structures of power. Resisting siege after siege from their critics and passing it down from one generation to the next, these bastions on the river guard their power well. They are the Privilege Forts of the central Thames valley, and a notebook, camera and pair of walking boots might not enough to topple them. Nonetheless, England’s redeeming characters will continue to siege them, and can only liberate their treasures on an understanding of how they came to be what they are, their habits and assumptions, their strengths and weaknesses. On this account, it might be hoped, this passage could one day be of some use.

Start: Kingston Bridge (nearest station: Kingston)
End: Chertsey Bridge (nearest station: Chertsey)
Length: 17.7km/11 miles
Location: Greater London – Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, Borough of Richmond upon Thames; Surrey – Borough of Elmbridge, Borough of Spelthorne, Borough of Runnymede

Topics: Kingston upon Thames and the emergence of England, Surbiton, punting in Thames Ditton, Hampton Court, Molesey and the waterworks, Sunbury and Walton, the Shepperton and Weybridge Ferry

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

THAMES: 3) Arcadia


The chill light of a winter morning falls on Putney Bridge, riding a tide that rises beyond the capital city. Having cleared the urban core, the water’s mood changes dramatically as it swings hard to the south in a great ninety-degree bend. Could this be a memory of 20,000 years ago, when the glaciers of the last ice age advanced all the way down here and shunted the Thames to the south?

Coincidence or otherwise, the bottom of that arc sends it right into what in a single human lifetime has become the corner of the Greater London conurbation, where on meeting the water that falls from the English interior, the sovereignty of the tides finally ends.

The limit of the tidal Thames, at Teddington Lock.

But more than water comes and goes this way. For thousands of years before trains and motor vehicles the river was the prime means of travel for the people of its watershed. Far better after all to let the tides take you where you want to go than drag yourself and your belongings up and down the muddy, potholed, bandit-ridden land routes.

If you had the means and status for it, that is. Under English class hierarchy, this privilege of escape from the struggles of London was primarily the preserve of those on the highest levels of the social pyramid. Above all that meant the monarchy, whose palaces and hunting grounds duly colonised all the best floodplain they could grab off the common folk. In their wake came their obligatory orbiting constellations of nobles, clerics, sycophants and concubines, some of whose families still occupy these prize mansions and riverside villas. Theirs are the upriver domains of Richmond and Kingston, towns whose roots lie in the legends of English royalty, but the intervening distance was settled by the middle-class affluents on the next tiers down as they popped up through the thick foam of the industrial revolution, into the fresh river air, and followed the old nobility out that way. Entranced by the splendour of the riverscape, these escapees imagined up and passed down an Arcadian paradise of swans and ducks and herons, of comfortable housing whether ruddily historic or ostentatiously gentrified, of lazy promenades lined with elaborate lamp-posts and hanging flower baskets, along a riverside of leaves and willows everywhere managed and in places manicured.

Yet the question, the very English question, remains. Who is it for?


Before we embark, ongoing events should serve as a reminder that history is alive around us. Not two days after the previous section’s article there was a terrorist attack at one of its most prominent landmarks, London Bridge. The attacker stabbed two people dead in the hall of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers before being shot by police on the bridge, having been subdued by, among others, someone wielding a narwhal horn from the aforementioned institution. This violence fed into one of the dirtiest and bitterest general elections in this country’s living memory, in which, as has typically been the case, the old royal lairs on the path ahead were some of the most fiercely contested constituencies in the country. Past and future, local and global: all are present and inseparable.

It was not a regular election. The outcome has struck a whole new level of shock and despair into many people and looks likely, to say the least, to irreparably alter the destiny of Britain and England. But even in this extraordinary instance, the boroughs of Richmond Park, Twickenham, and Kingston and Surbiton defied both the national trend and that of London’s division into working-class Labour Party urban areas versus white and affluent Conservative Party sub-rural outskirts. This corner alone chose a third option and put in Liberal Democrat MPs with comfortable majorities: the sole phalanx of Lib-Dem amber on a map that has otherwise scattered it to particles.

Pinned between core and periphery; shaped by both upstream and downstream worlds but not entirely of either. Who are the people who live on the riverbend, and what makes them different?

Start: Putney Bridge (nearest stations: Putney Bridge, Vauxhall)
End: Kingston Bridge (nearest station: Kingston)
Length: 20.9km/13 miles
Location: Greater London – Borough of Wandsworth, Borough of Richmond upon Thames, Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames

Topics: University Boat Race, Barnes, Hammersmith, Chiswick, Mortlake, the National Archives, Kew Gardens, Syon House/Abbey, Richmond, Isleworth, Twickenham, Teddington Lock