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
Here, unusually in this land, is a place whose name sounds like what it meant. The Barnes peninsula was named for its granary barns that supplied the manor of Mortlake, of which it was part till Barnes village grew in its own right.
These low-lying fields were more isolated than nearby Putney. As Barnes village abided on the west side of the peninsula, the farmlands and estate grounds on its east, named Barn Elms, seemed to preserve more of the river’s wild underlying character.
|The view up the east flank of the Barnes peninsula. The outskirts of Putney are on the left, the grounds of Fulham Palace on the right.|
|On the Putney riverside the stylish bricks and stripes of Kenilworth Court, built in the 1910s, offer a flavour of the storied affluence ahead.|
The riverbank out of Putney is lined with rowing clubs, which could be taken as a sign of a recreational turn in land use if you are prepared to stretch the definition of ‘recreational’. In English professional sports, especially those with a certain status in its elite public school establishment, competitive rowing can be observed to occupy a place further from recreational and closer to military, with a seeming purpose not so much in propelling one’s boat faster than other people’s as in turning hapless youngsters into ferocious, red-faced, iron-disciplined, burning-sinewed engines of destruction.
Perhaps I carry some bias here, having encountered that rowing juggernaut years ago in the course of exploring more peaceable boat-racing cultures on this river (punting, if you must know – maybe more on that further upstream). Either way, it is one of the pinnacles of that rowing culture that does most to fix the following stretch of the Thames in English imagination.
|A long slipway caters to the stampede of rowboats in and out of Putney’s rowing clubs.|
|Putney Bridge in the morning haze. It is here that the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race begins.|
In February 1829, a letter made its way from a college of the University of Cambridge to the University of Oxford, challenging the latter to a rowing race ‘at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation’. This race was held far upriver near Henley, but when they gave it a second go in 1836 they brought it here to London. In no time ‘The Boat Race’ had grown into an annual tradition, held every year since the 1850s except during the world wars.
Because this was and is a sexist country, all these race crews were men. Sports and elite academia both tend to be bastions of misogyny in such societies, likely due to men’s fear that any reminder of women’s strength or intellect, respectively, would re-awaken women’s power to annihilate those patriarchal power structures by demolishing the fragile lies on which they are built. A women’s race began only in 1927, more than a hundred years after the men’s, held in Oxford with crowds of people on the riverbank jeering their offence at the idea of women rowing. Not until 1964 did the women’s race stabilise as an annual event, and it was only in this decade – yes, that’s right – that it came here to the same course as the men’s, although the two are still held as separate races.
The Boat Race quickly became a fixture of the English cultural calendar. Every year it brings excited crowds onto the riverbanks ahead, where they pack the pubs and cram onto the bridges to cheer for the racers as they pass, while millions more follow it on television or the radio. Both universities take the race seriously as a reflection of their increasingly interrogated prestige and set their teams preparing months in advance, so both have had their share of victories, though as of this year Cambridge is slightly ahead in both men’s and women’s races.
At the end of the rowing base arrives the Beverley Brook, a Thames tributary from the green fields of Merton to the south. With it a significant threshold is crossed, for this is the start of the towpath. It is the first point on this route where the paved or cobbled urban riverside gives way to a dirt track.
Despite towpaths’ popularity with joggers and dog-walkers today, they were built so people or animals could haul boats along before the advent of industrial engines. They are a common feature along England’s canals, where they were specifically designed for horses, but since these functions were made obsolete by road, rail and air travel towpaths have largely survived by turning into recreational walking or cycling tracks.
And indeed, it is people out for just that sort of casual exercise who seem to populate the Barn Elms towpath today. On top of that, their strolling is of a class register distinct from people downriver. In general they are whiter, older, in less of a hurry, and converse in Received Pronunciation about their relatives’ conformity to bourgeois norms like the nuclear family, education ladder and pretend monogamy. On a brighter note, there are lots of pleasant dog encounters to be had too.
|This is clearly a managed riverside, with trees tagged and cropped and paths kept in good condition.|
Hidden over that grassy brow is possibly the Barnes peninsula’s richest treasure. Where formerly languished some obsolete reservoirs now spreads the London Wetland Centre, whose hundred acres of wetland habitat are the new home for a thriving community of feathery creatures. It was opened only in 2000 but the organisation which runs it, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, was founded in the 1940s (by Peter Scott, son of Captain Robert Scott of Antarctica fame) and has long campaigned for the protection of these critically important wetland environments.
These green and pleasant lands contrast with a more muddled mix on the north bank. Through the old Middlesex settlements of Fulham, Hammersmith, Chiswick and Brentford, the entitled landowners and middle-class city escapees jostled with millers, brewers and boat-builders who approached the water out of industrial and commercial interest, if usually with smaller spheres of influence than the City big beasts. The result is a patchy mosaic of prosperity and poverty that continues as the regeneration brigade makes its move on those that did not make it into the new millennium.
The appearance of Hammersmith Bridge in 1827, the Thames’s first suspension bridge, finally flung the noose of civilisation round Barnes’s neck. But like so many of the downstream bridges it began to buckle under traffic, especially once the Boat Race got popular and over ten thousand people at a time crowded upon it to watch. So they replaced it in 1887 with the current structure, another Joseph Bazalgette design, but while admittedly attractive – not to mention strong enough to survive three IRA bombings – it did not match the other new bridges’ success at handling modern traffic loads. After years of on-and-off closures it is now shut to vehicles indefinitely while they work out what to do.
Hammersmith itself is thought to have been an old Anglo-Saxon fishing village, with its name suggesting a notable blacksmith or forge. Its main draw was that its ground was gravelly rather than marshy, making it attractive both for the monied escapees’ villas and for small-scale riverside industries. Some of these also made use of a tributary long vanished into the local sewers, whose name, which survives in Stamford Brook station on the District Line – from ‘stony ford’ – likewise whispers of stabler earth here. Today Hammersmith is a jumble of offices, shopping centres, arts venues and pockets of architectural heritage, anchored around its service as a major transport junction.
|The waterfront of Hammersmith, with its embankment, low-rise buildings and riverside pubs.|
There then appears the first of several small river islands that string the meanders ahead. The locals call them aits or eyots, a very old term with the same Old English root as the word island which this area – perhaps in a sign of its own insularity? – has somehow preserved separately.
The first of these, Chiswick Eyot, shields the district of Chiswick from view. Like Hammersmith it has long served as a transport hub, being on both the river and the west road, and grew as a community with a complex economy of its own. As well as the fishing and boating there was farming: they cultivated willows (‘osiers’) on the Eyot for making baskets and furniture, and the barley grown here was said to be particularly good, which in turn made Chiswick a prominent beer-brewing centre. This status consummated in industrial times when it produced Fuller, Smith and Turner, better known as Fuller’s, who still run pubs up and down the country on the output of their famous Griffin Brewery.
|The birdsong here is noticeably richer than in the urban core. Green parakeets, who have very effectively conquered large swathes of several cities worldwide, have powerful strongholds in this corner of London.|
|The rest of Barnes’s disused reservoirs are now the designated Leg O’Mutton Nature Reserve. Look, I don’t come up with the names here.|
Only then, down the peninsula’s west flank, do you come to Barnes itself. The village is old, at least twelfth-century, and was relatively remote and agrarian till they opened Hammersmith Bridge, followed in the 1840s by a railway link. Its farmers and gardeners could now more easily sell stuff across the river, while London’s escape middle class found in it a fresh place of refuge. Steadily suburbanised, they have nonetheless made efforts to preserve the old village’s picturesque heart with its green and pond.
|The Barnes waterfront. The railway bridge is an 1890s replacement of the original 1849 structure, and like most large buildings and bridges along here has become a popular landmark in the Boat Race.|
|This key probably drains the river. Have they tried turning their country off then on again?|
|A seventeenth-century pub at the edge of Barnes, with Mortlake visible in the distance.|
The centre of Barnes is still quite small, and its riverside soon blends into Mortlake. This was the dominant manor in the area stretching south into what is now Richmond, but the riverside village itself was limited to a single street, while the rest – now a London commuter suburb – was predominantly rural. It might have stayed a nondescript fishing settlement – its name implies a stream (lacu) with salmon (mort) in it in Old English – had not King James I financed the creation of a major tapestry works here in 1619, staffed mostly by skilled Flemish weavers from what is now Belgium.
Most of Mortlake’s development took it away from the river, where its main landmark is another big brewery. Unlike Fuller’s in Chiswick, Mortlake’s Stag Brewery changed hands several times and was finally closed down after 2010.
|The old heart of Mortlake. The concrete Chiswick Bridge was added in 1933 to link it to the Chiswick peninsula as both settlements’ populations grew. The head of the latter is now dominated by sports fields.|
|This area has fewer embankments and river walls than downstream, making it far more vulnerable to flooding. After heavy rains it is common to find these waterfront paths completely submerged.|
|The former Stag Brewery. Its final operator was the American brewing company Anheuser-Busch which produced beer for its Budweiser brand here.|
|The derelict brewery was sold in 2015 to a Singaporean development company and, like so much else, is slated to be turned into apartments.|
Mortlake effectively ends at Chiswick Bridge, which also overlooks the finish line of the University Boat Race. The Ship pub, which sits in the shadow of the brewery and is hundreds of years old, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that when once each year its premises and riverfront swell into a heaving mass of triumphant inebriation.
|The Ship. The road in front is also heavily exposed in flood conditions, and there are warning signs advising that parked cars can be washed away.|
|Just short of the bridge is the finish line of the University Boat Race (‘UBR’), marked on both sides of the river.|
Here the Thames turns south. In so doing it defined this corner of land for the people who first named it Kew, or Kayho as it used to be: a hōh, or spur of land, described for its key (quay) or cæg (key shape).
Kew emerged much like its neighbouring districts out of the royal leisured interest in escaping London by river, but then took a turn in completely its own direction as its gardens sprouted exotic plants and drew in specialist botanical researchers. While it charted a unique path of its own round the outside of the river bend, the east side remained a little more isolated. The large Mortlake Cemetery appeared here to catch Hammersmith’s overspill, as did a sewage treatment plant.
|The sewage farm was closed in the 2000s and has now been replaced by this Kew Riverside housing development. It is directly accessible from the towpath and will be in serious trouble once sea level rise and storm surges overwhelm the Thames Barrier.|
|Over the years I have had personal encounters with the Thames in several places. Here I once shook hands with Death. We shall not discuss it.|
Then, in 1977, Kew’s eastern backyard was joined by a major public institution, the most important of all as far as history is concerned. The National Archives, formerly the Public Record Office, moved here when its old home on Chancery Lane in the City began to run out of space. This is the official public archive of England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own), and looks after an enormous treasure trove of documents going back more than one thousand years: government papers, legal records, maps and plans, statistics, correspondences, wills and other materials, a great deal of which anyone can browse online and make bookings to come view the originals.
Some of England’s fabled national treasures are kept in this collection, including the Domesday Book and one of the four 1297 re-issues of the Magna Carta. But perhaps richer still are its fragments from a millennium’s worth of lives lived up, down and across English society, into which even a random sample can give startling and remarkable insights. Indeed, a large number of people who come here are private individuals investigating their own family histories.
|The National Archives complex, of which a better view is afforded from the windows of the District Line between Gunnersbury and Kew Gardens stations. I recall exploring its records before travelling to Guyana and unearthing records from its departure from the British Empire in the 1960s, including a letter to the British queen from an indigenous Guyanese concerned about his country’s ethnic strife, which began: ‘Well Mrs. Elizabeth II…’. With it was stored a reply from a Foreign Office mandarin telling him that as Guyana was now independent, he should direct his concerns to its new president.|
A more curious aspect of the National Archives site is that it has a little nature reserve in its corner, claimed to house one of Britain’s only communities of the extremely rare Two-Lipped Door Snail (Alinda bilplicata).
|Around the riverbend the gentrifiers of Brentford raise their cladded banners.|
Brentford, Kew’s counterpart across the river, is distinct. It sits on the Great West Road and crosses another tributary, the Brent, right where it spills into the Thames (hence Brent-ford). This is a very old river, with both its name – of deep Celtic origins – and the settlement at its bottom well pre-dating Roman London. Heavily worked in industrial times, it expanded in human importance many times over when they connected it to the Grand Junction Canal – now the Grand Union Canal – in the 1790s, thus making Brentford the link between London and the national canal network which served as the bloodstream of this country’s industrial revolution.
With so many people and goods moving through its strategic situation, Brentford emerged as a bristling commercial and industrial centre. For a long time it was in effect the provincial capital of largely agricultural Middlesex, a barnacle of hard work and seedy political fisticuffs on a reef of indolent country mansions. Its factories, workshops and wharves coexisted with market gardens and prosperous professional neighbourhoods in a flux reminiscent of the Thames below London in microcosm, and despite the collapse of English industry this continues today. Now it is the unaffordable-housing regeneration squads who descend on Brentford, along with numerous large corporate headquarters taking advantage of its position at the head of the latest corridor to the west, the M4 motorway; their employees, in suits and ties, walking to work through derelict warehouses and haunted boatyards.
Brentford has its own ait, a great long one which shields much of the town from view. Apparently this was deliberate: it was planted with tall, thick trees in the 1920s so visitors to Kew Gardens, by then open to the public, wouldn’t have to see Brentford’s gasworks.
|The river Brent comes in from the west, having passed through Brentford’s locks where goods coming down the canal were weighed and charged tolls. Brentford was also the site of a small but extremely significant battle in 1642, early in the civil wars. On their way in to take back London the Royalists overcame a small Parliamentary force defending the ford town, but robbed and abused the citizenry such that a huge throng of angry Londoners then came out to confront them alongside the Parliamentary army up the road at Turnham Green. Taking London might have ended the war when it had barely begun, but unprepared to risk a monumental bloodbath the king’s forces fell back upriver, ultimately spreading the war across the country.|
The Royal Botanic Gardens are what really made Kew’s name, and in their field that name is internationally celebrated. With a collection of some 8.5 million varieties of plants and fungi it is one of the largest and longest-established botanical gardens in the world. It is a leader not only in the aesthetics of the English gardening tradition – attractive landscapes, spectacular greenhouses, colourful flowers and so on – but also in its scientific work of collecting, studying and conserving a planet’s worth of flora. Its massive banks of seeds, tissues and DNA from countless plant species ought to be useful one day if, as presently seems likely, humankind persists in its intent to wipe out as much life on Earth as possible.
That such an installation took root here, in this corner of the Thames, seems an interesting accident of history. Kew marks the start of a long and continuous stretch of pleasant riverbank which, because of that pleasantness, was monopolised by successive English royal dynasties. Their interest in Kew goes back at least seven hundred years, intensifying as it was drawn into the orbit of Tudor Richmond in the sixteenth century and soon sprouting a Kew Palace complex of its own. Its occupants were hardly atypical for their class in their enjoyment of green and pleasant landscapes with not a pauper or political dissident in sight, but it so happened that some of them, in particular Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg (of the Hanoverian dynasty – these were Germans), had a more eccentric flavour of gardening interests and in the 1760s had the gardens filled with exotic plants and fantastic structures like a towering Chinese-style pagoda.
|This is the ‘Dutch House’, the only surviving part of Kew Palace. Kew Gardens is not accessible from the riverbank and must be entered through its own sets of gates, so this and the following pictures are from separate visits.|
This in turn drew the attentions of professional botanists, all of them children of the confluence of the currents of science, industry and empire that now began to propel the English to a new level of power in the world. These were serious researchers who passionately devoted themselves to collecting as many specimens as possible and studying them to smithereens so that an empirical understanding could be built of plants’ relationships, ancestries, medicinal uses and economic applications, whether for the fun of it or to better serve the higher mission be it divine, Enlightened, Imperial or all of the above. Initially they worked with the blessing of the royal landowners, but by 1840 had turned these gardens into a research centre of such unique and potent national significance as to press them out of the crown’s hands and into government ownership, opening them up to the public that same year.
|The Palm House, built in the 1840s. Kew’s grandest greenhouse maintains permanent tropical conditions to look after a towering assembly of rainforest plants.|
This too fits a pattern in these parts: of estates once closed off for the enjoyment of the English ruling class, eventually relinquished, with varying degrees of struggle, so that ordinary people can now enjoy it too. But facing Kew across the river is an opposite case: of land seized by the entitled classes and kept ever since. Granted, most of Syon House, and its grounds of Syon Park, are also open to the public despite being the London residence of the Percy family, known in the nomenclature of English nobility as the Dukes of Northumberland. It even has a garden centre, of all things, and a café. But in that café’s outdoor seating area can be found an old stone barn. It does not fit in the picture because it is the last remnant of what stood there before the house appeared, at around the same time as Kew’s committedly botanical turn, and the secrets it harbours are dark and bloody indeed.
|Syon House, with the lion of the Percy family crest on top.|
Before Syon House there was Syon Abbey. This was one of the later of England’s old Christian monasteries, arriving here in the 1430s with a community of mostly nuns, along with a few male priests, who were followers of Saint Bridget of Sweden (the name Syon is from Mount Zion outside Jerusalem). In contrast to monastic stereotypes, this was a resolutely strong-womaned order known for the leadership of its female members as well as its promotion of independent thought and critical engagement in the political and worldly affairs of the time. The abbey they founded here was said to have grown into a thriving hub of cultural exchange, economic activity and cutting-edge scholarship, run by literate people from world-curious and often well-travelled backgrounds, and frequented not only by pilgrims but by the leading political and intellectual heavyweights of the day such as Katherine of Aragon and the great Dutch humanist Erasmus.
Until, that is, King Henry VIII brought his sledgehammer down upon it in the 1530s. Like many religious institutions in this country, the nuns and priests of Syon Abbey were willing to make compromises but could not in good conscience accept the king’s demand, by law, that they accept him, not the Pope, as the supreme religious authority in England. After they insisted as much to Henry’s enforcer Thomas Cromwell and his heavies, the authorities decided to make an example of them by dragging away one of their top priests, the Cambridge-educated humanist scholar Richard Reynolds, so they could publicly cut off his parts and burn them in front of him – penis, then guts, then head – along with dissident priests from other monasteries. They then returned one of his limbs to Syon Abbey, dangling it above the front gate in an attempt to terrorise its nuns into submission.
Instead the nuns demonstrated the correct response to authoritarian violence by redoubling their resistance. Cromwell and his inspectors bombarded them with threats and enticements for years on end, but none of it so much as made a dent in their iron wall of integrity. Only when Henry escalated his assault into the total subjugation of the English monasteries and seizure of their property did Syon Abbey fall – and even then the sisters refused to surrender, but rather packed up and left the country, carrying with them both the keys to the abbey and the bit of pillar where a hanging chunk of one of their own had failed to intimidate them.
For them there followed an epic exile of three hundred years through an unhinged and warmongering Europe: from the Netherlands, to France, to Portugal, through riots, religious warfare, pirates, hunger, disease, the monstrous Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and hostile political and social forces, even from their own Catholic authorities in Rome who tried and failed to impose the authority of male bishops on them. In spite of all these trials it is said they managed to maintain their serene monastic equanimity, entertaining curious locals and travellers and baking cakes for them regardless of their religious persuasions. At long last they made it back to England in the 1860s, still holding the pillar fragment that had dangled Reynolds’s body part, as this country’s anti-Catholic hatreds were at last simmering down. They settled in Devon, the only English monastic community to survive Henry VIII’s purge.
As for their old Abbey buildings here, the royals kept them for a time as a useful waypoint on the way upriver to centres like Hampton Court and Windsor Castle. They then passed through a series of entitled hands before ending up with the Dukes of Northumberland, who had them rebuilt and landscaped into the mansion they are today. But the Abbey’s genius loci got one last symbolic revenge on Henry VIII before following its community out on the tides. As he took over the church, the king had been confronted by a priest who warned he was like the arrogant and corrupt Bible character Ahab, who ended up with his blood licked by dogs. Sure enough, after Henry died in 1547, his morbidly obese and gout-stricken corpse spent a night here at Syon on its way to Windsor Castle. Bloated, putrefying and having spent a day rattling on the roads, it is said that it exploded out of its coffin, and when the repair crews came in the next morning they found some local dogs lapping away at his blood.
|Lick, lick, lick. Woof.|
Further inside the riverbend stands a hill. From some angles it might even look like a strong hill, or for Norman French speakers like the medieval English, a riche mont. It was Henry VIII’s dad, the Tudor dynasty founder Henry VII, who gave it this name when it brought to mind the Richmond in his Yorkshire earldom (although his family was originally from Wales).
|From Kew Gardens to Richmond most of the riverside looks like this.|
Previously the land from here to Mortlake was called Sheen, pragmatically meaning sheds or shelters (compare Barnes). The transformation of the west part into Richmond is why you still find East Sheen on maps, but no West Sheen (or indeed North Sheen, now absorbed into Kew). The centrepiece of that transformation was Richmond Palace, which no longer exists. Its grounds stretched up to Kew and included the fields between, now known as Old Deer Park since their use in the Stuart period as a deer-hunting park.
|A great swathe of Old Deer Park, seen here through the trees, has been turned into the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club. There is also a rugby field.|
|This marker invites you to imagine a straight line running through its slit, via the obelisk, to the faintly visible observatory in the background. The observatory was installed by King George III of the Hanover dynasty (of losing the American colonies and The Madness of King George fame), and together with the obelisks marked a meridian used for setting time before the introduction of Greenwich Mean Time.|
|Look, they did a science.|
Any of the monarch’s extended family enjoying Old Deer Park might have had a view across the river to Isleworth. This ancient hamlet rose to prosperity in the orbit first of Syon Abbey then the Duke of Northumberland’s Syon House, though even before those its own little port is said to have received trade vessels from as far as France and Scandinavia. The settlement pre-dates England, being named for the enclosure (worth) of someone called Gīslhere, who lost the G at some point but still bequeaths an s they do pronounce in this case. Any tongues yet undefeated can then try the Anglo-Saxon charter of 677, where it appeared as Gislheresuuyrth.
|Isleworth’s The London Apprentice pub, on record in 1731, overlooks the position where the Richmond Palace ferry used to run. Its name establishes the reach of the City of London livery companies all the way out here, whose apprentices would apparently row up to celebrate at this pub on their qualification as journeymen. It appears Father Christmas has got stranded on its balcony.|
|A former boathouse, transformed in the Hanoverian period into this pretty pink pavilion.|
The approach to Richmond crosses another threshold: the first lock on the Thames itself. Richmond Lock is the only Thames lock controlled by the Port of London Authority (PLA), and combines the functions of a lock, a weir and a footbridge: that is, it lets ships pass between different water levels, causes that difference in the first place, and allows pedestrians to cross the river. It was built in the 1890s because the demolition of the old London Bridge with its stacks of houses removed what had effectively been a dam, causing the tides to fluctuate much more intensely. Added to the effects of the Teddington weir upstream, this left the river past Richmond a muddy trickle at low tide. Richmond Lock addresses that by maintaining a navigable water level above it when the tide goes out.
|Richmond Lock. I have memories of this striking structure from a few short years in earliest childhood spent near here. But we will not discuss this.|
Richmond Lock signals a changing phase in the river’s course. We are now high enough above its mouth that the human inhabitants felt confident enough to dare make large, planned interventions into its rhythm, at least until they found the technology to build the Thames Barrier in its throat many years later. The tide still reaches up the river beyond here, but it is mitigated now, and soon concedes the rest of it.
|Beyond the bridge, Richmond materialises round the corner.|
It was here that Henry VII of the Tudors built his Richmond Palace and in so doing birthed what would later grow into a relatively prosperous London suburb at the end of the District Line. Though the palace has vanished without a trace it was a serious piece of work, and its founder, remembered as a more shrewd and sober character than his son, sank considerable resources into developing it. In a way it is surprising there is next to nothing left to mark its existence, given that the creator of English modernity’s foundational dynasty both built and died in it, as did that dynasty’s consummator, his granddaughter Elizabeth, whose passing here in 1603, after much enjoyment of this palace and hunting in Old Deer Park, brought that dynasty to an end (Henry VIII for his part disliked the palace and largely ignored it). On top of that, it was not long after building the palace that Henry VII watched his own daughter get married to the king of Scotland here, an event which meant that a century later it was the Scottish monarchs, the Stuarts, who would travel down to inherit Elizabeth’s crown.
|The site of Richmond Palace was roughly here. That’s not a lot to go on, but Time Team did an excavation here in 1997 if you’d like to know more.|
|The palace met its end in the civil wars, when after killing the king, Parliament confiscated and sold it off as it did many royal holdings. It was demolished for building materials soon after. But the supporting town endured, and became fashionable as the Hanoverian nobility’s mansions and lodges sprouted round Richmond’s hill and park over the following century. Richmond remains a pocket of relative wealth with many surviving houses and civic buildings from that period.|
The stretch beyond the palace site is now Richmond’s main waterfront. By here it is clear we have crossed to a different world from London. Gone are the pirates, gibbets, fortress docks, industrial effluents and towers of doom whose shouts and shadows shroud the metropolitan Thames. Instead, the monied castes who ran all that, rather than living in it themselves, found in Richmond the perfect template for an alternative vision just for them: the Thames romance of an Arcadian world, a green and pleasant land right out the gates of their mansions with idyllic woods and meadows and drooping willow trees. The river was there not for work – that was something people who did not exist did far away – but for staring at dreamily or pleasure-boating on in skiffs and wherries, especially once the canal link to Brentford meant the working barges no longer had to inflict themselves on the picture.
|Even in December the promenade is rarely empty. The grassy slopes on the left, beneath the grand Georgian facades and ornate lamp-posts with hanging flower baskets, are a popular place for the natives’ performative monogamy.|
|Water Lane continues to link Richmond’s high street straight to the riverside draw dock.|
|Richmond Bridge was completed in 1777 as Richmond grew fashionable. Remarkably it has stood till the present day, though it was widened in the 1930s.|
|This is also a popular stretch for herons.|
Though the Tudor palace arguably set this ball on the move to begin with, it is the gravity of Richmond Hill that has kept it rolling. The strong hill itself anchors this imaginary Arcadia with its fantastic views over the river bend, capturing the hearts of generations of artists and driving its custodians to protect it by law. This is one patch of land the gentrification squad won’t be getting its hands on: to this day, no view-spoiling development is permitted along the river from here to Kingston.
|JMW Turner’s 1809 impression of the same view.|
|On the other side of the hill unfolds Richmond Park, by far the largest of London’s royal parks. It too was common land till Charles I enclosed it as a private deer-hunting ground in the 1630s, shortly before the civil war. This provoked fury in the local people who relied on it for resources, setting off over a hundred years of ugly confrontations with the royals’ rangers and keepers who called them poachers for trying to take back their rights. In 1758 a local brewer successfully sued the royal family and at last won legal recognition for ordinary people to walk through the park, hence its status today as technically owned by the royals but in effect a public right of way. It is still known for its packs of deer, especially since the Fenton Affair of 2011.|
With the scenery from here to Kingston protected by the Open Spaces Act, the river has all but left the city behind. Amidst green fields, blue skies and the autumn reds and yellows, the tide slows towards the last few checkpoints into a different country.
|Before the rise of Richmond this was a sprawling agricultural area known simply as Ham, after the hamm that means land in a river bend.|
Richmond’s waves of affluent prestige washed across the river, where they met with those sweeping up in the opposite direction from Hampton Court. The two influences merged over Twickenham, another old Anglo-Saxon river hamlet like Isleworth named after someone called Twicca. It, too, duly became fashionable, especially as London’s escapees followed the new railways and bridges out to it, although a less popular arrival was a set of gunpowder mills which kept blowing up and killing people. Nowadays Twickenham is best known for Twickenham Stadium, the largest rugby union stadium in the world and home ground to England’s national team.
|An obviously haunted dwelling on Eel Pie Island, complete with dock for a quick speedboat escape after the underground lab blows up and its hordes of undead gribblies break loose.|
|The east bank remains wooded and green with a wide, well-maintained towpath.|
While Twickenham occupies the west bank, the east remains committedly swathed in the Ham Lands nature reserve. There is now no doubt that the river has reached the edge of its zone of occupation by the English capital, and its transition thereon is marked by three noticeable thresholds.
The first is that for the first time on this expedition, riverside passers-by are attempting greetings. After more than fifty kilometres of being ignored by everyone who wasn’t trying to sell something, a slow change of phase is occurring here. For a while there are lingering exchanges of eye contact. Further ahead, they grunt. Then at last, a spontaneous ‘heya’ from someone marks the first vocalised salutation of the journey. That is the point at which you know you are not in London anymore.
|In the English winter the sun has begun to set by 3pm.|
|If the London Plane with its resilience to toxic air is the tree that best represents the urban Thames, we have now left its territory and are well into the domain of the willow.|
The second threshold is an unassuming boundary stone. There are plenty of old markers hiding in the bushes around these parts, the relics of old road or river travel information or jurisdictional boundary posts, but this one is still relevant. It marks the end of the sovereignty of the Port of London Authority, which since 1909 has exercised its authority over all human activity on the river from here to the North Sea.
|An Environment Agency sign. Someone has evidently found it lacking and updated it to be more relevant to Brexiting times.|
|The approach to Teddington.|
Then comes the third threshold, the most important of all because of its drastic physical effect on the river. Teddington Lock, in fact a sizeable complex with three locks and a weir, halts the tides.
It was not always this way. Before this weir appeared – for it is the weir that dams the river, while the locks let ships of different sizes pass between its altered levels – the tides reached all the way up and round two more corners to Staines. Small-scale weirs for fishing have come and gone at this location for some centuries, but the true precursor to the current one, along with the first lock, was built in 1811. It ran into trouble from the start, both with local fishers and boat operators, whose attacks on the structure impelled them to arm the lock keepers, and with the river itself which rotted the locks to pieces and broke the weir under ice. The latter conflict continued for the best part of a century, with new locks added and the weir repeatedly rebuilt after one devastating collapse after another. Only in 1904, with the construction of the largest lock for barges, did the system settle into the basic shape it retains today.
|Make no mistake, this is a serious installation.|
|The tidal limit. Most of the time.|
For now, it seems the river has assented to these schemes. Though the tide occasionally sees fit to remind the humans who the real power is here and pushes past Teddington under heavy rains, most of the time the river no longer flows up beyond here. From now on our journey will be into the flow, meeting the water as it glides gently down from the English interior. Wary of it, the humans have put many more locks and weirs upstream to try to keep it calm, but it is only here, when it realises it is soon to enter London, that it holds its temper no longer and churns and roils in rage at the bad governance it must witness ahead, after experience of which it turns round and storms back for the hills twice a day as though deciding that no, it should have stayed home.
|The Thames’s new, placid disposition from Teddington on. Hopefully those who have parked their boats on the opposite bank – right next to the weir – have taken care to bind the ropes extremely tight.|
|This stone marks the boundary between the Borough of Richmond (right) and the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames (left).|
|As the east bank draws into the outskirts of Kingston, the west continues through the posh riverside dwellings of Teddington.|
Criminally Teddington itself has nothing to do with teddy bears, nor does it come from ‘Tide’s End Town’ in a suggestion attributed to Rudyard Kipling. Rather it is another in the string of ancient riverside hamlets that became permanent settlements in Anglo-Saxon times, named in this case for the farmstead (tūn) of someone called Tuda. As with Twicca and Gīslhere, it will be apparent how foreign these Anglo-Saxon names sound to the English language today, which should help frustrate the nationalists’ attempts to draw their imagined connection of ethno-cultural purity between the Anglo-Saxons and the present-day English. Like its neighbouring towns Teddington bubbled up with aristocratic mansions fuelled by the surrounding royal suns, in particular Hampton Court on its far side, before swelling into a middle-class suburb with the coming of the railways.
|One of many chubby squirrels encountered on this section. This one appears to be busily gathering materials for its winter nest.|
|Sunset over Twickenham.|
|The last light of the day falls on evidence that Kingston too is for people with money.|
And so we draw upon the final bastion of the English ruling classes for today: Kingston upon Thames, where the river arrives at Greater London at that city's present widest extent in its history, and where those fleeing it by water awake the next morning in the English provinces. In all important senses they would be there already: Kingston remains the county capital of Surrey even though it is no longer in it on the map, and indeed has resisted multiple attempts to get the seat of regional government transferred to towns that still are.
From its name – King’s Town – it will be obvious that this, too, was one of the English monarchy’s pieces of work. But Kingston is no mere playground. In this case its royal association goes right back to the crucible of the English nation, indeed to a day when England as they recognise it today had yet to exist. Outside their timeline, and outside their core territory: let us save its story for tomorrow.
|Canbury Gardens in northern Kingston, formerly foraging and grazing land till they started digging out gravel here to build the roads. Deciding that looked ugly next to the river, they turned it into this little park in the 1890s. Kingston Power Station stood behind it till it was demolished in the 1990s and converted to flats – here it is being blown up on YouTube.|
Formally that completes the metropolitan stage of the Thames. But this corner was never truly of London to begin with, and its course today seems to strive for more in common with its rural upper provinces than its urban punch-through. When those of leisured power got in their boats to ride away from the polluted air and angry democratic demands from their workers and subjects, here is where they were first far enough away to erect alternative worlds for themselves behind the high walls of palaces, on the neverending fields of Arcadian dreams, and in the protective rituals and jargon of watersports from the work-repellent hulls of pleasure boats to the crimson-faced bellows of elite competitive rowing.
The river had no responsibility for creating these social distinctions. Its water was everybody’s to drink, fish and ride. But the English class inheritance runs through everything the people of this land do, and though this heritage has left them beautiful views, invigorating nature walks, and splendid buildings to poke around in, the costs of transport and entry tickets in an age of disempowering government policies and cultural attitudes still place them out of reach of much of the population. The Arcadian dream still belongs to an exclusive English leisure class with permanent housing, secure livelihoods, and a stake in their country's adult white masculinist power strucutres. No: not until all its people have been secured the means to come and enjoy this dream can they begin to ponder how far their country is developed or democratic.