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
Kingston upon Thames
Kingston – the ‘king’s estate’. A common place name in England and beyond (not least the capital of Jamaica), but this, the first of the Royal Boroughs, is the first of them all. Its fog belongs to a much earlier dawn: the dawn of the idea of England.
|Kingston Bridge, by far the oldest Thames crossing upstream of London Bridge in these parts and till 1750 the only one.|
Like all nations, England did not blink into existence in a single moment. It emerged out of layer upon layer of chaotic coincidences and colliding choices, a Brownian motion of people, goods, ideas and stories with patterns of will, certainly, but no grand plan or inevitable destiny. Since then its shape and character have transformed again and again and continue to do so.
That is important because it is too easy to take its present territorial claims as its permanent natural extent. They are not. No country has a natural shape and no land inherently belongs to it. England is like them all in that regard: joining Norway and Denmark for a bit; seizing Wales; losing France; settling teeth into Ireland; goading Scotland into a ‘Union’; then grabbing, abusing and losing large swathes of the Americas, Asia and Africa. The prospect of the breakup of its United Kingdom – now made markedly more likely by politicians who, despite their organisation’s formal name of Conservative and Unionist Party, have shown themselves English nationalists who do not understand Scotland and Ireland – would be but one more link in this chain.
At the other end of that chain, England as a concept did not exist. From around the fifth to ninth centuries, following the withdrawal of the Roman Empire, the land now called England was a patchwork of shifting kingdoms established by immigrants from Angeln, Jutland and Old Saxony, regions now in Denmark and Germany. From the ninth century on a Scandinavian element joined the picture as Viking raiders from across the North Sea devastated most of these kingdoms and established their own domains. They might have overwhelmed the Anglo-Saxons entirely had not the king of their last independent kingdom, Wessex, led his people to an astonishing victory and agreed a peace treaty effectively dividing the island between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. He then proceeded to consolidate Wessex with the recovered parts of the other kingdoms through far-reaching legal, educational and military reforms.
The English now consider this unified Anglo-Saxon realm the crucible of their nation. Its king, this gentle, scholarly, in many ways not particularly English man called Alfred, is one of only two in their history they call ‘the Great’.
Kingston upon Thames stood upon the boundary between Wessex and one of the other major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Mercia. Perhaps because of the symbolic power this gave it for unification purposes, Alfred’s dynasty set about crowning its kings here. They included Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder (900), who together with his capable wife, Æthelflæd of Mercia, took most of Mercia and East Anglia from the Vikings; then Edward’s son Æthelstan (925), who pushed into Northumbria and was the first to be called ‘King of the English’ (rex Anglorum). The invention of a country called England, of a people called the English, had begun.
|Clattern Bridge fords the Hogsmill River as it reaches the Thames through Kingston. The stone arches are the oldest part and date back to at least 1293.|
Soon the coronations moved away as Kingston’s symbolism lost significance, especially after the Normans, to whom it meant nothing, took over in 1066. But by then England had little of the ethnic meaning that its name, ‘land of the Angles’, might suggest. Both the Scandinavians, who ruled it for a time (especially under the other ‘Great’ king, Cnut), and the Normans, essentially Frenchified Vikings, made deep and lasting impacts on English politics, class structures, language and landscape. Nor was this the ‘island country’ of later imagination, which came only after the failure of centuries of struggle to maintain an English realm spread as much across western France as the island of Britain. The concept of race, invented later (yet whose stirrings can be sensed from this time in prejudice towards Irish people), was as yet meaningless in an English story whose trajectory, if not destiny, took place in a cosmopolitan gravitational field.
Kingston has never forgotten its place at the start of this. With such a distinguished birth, not to mention control over a crossroads of ancient routes as well as a key ford on the river, its settlement was here to stay and flourished as a market town with fishing, brewing and trading interests and a privileged royal charter. It later received a further considerable boost when Hampton Court appeared across the river, handing its merchants a new mass of rich and prestigious people to house and feed. Industrialisation brought railways, suburbs, electricity and a new level of commerce, in particular the manufacture of fighter aircraft. Even today its market squares and high street have functioning shops – not exactly something English high streets can take for granted these days.
|Central Kingston, early in the morning. It gets a lot more crowded during the day.|
|Much of Kingston has been taken over by huge department stores with the usual soul-sapping atmosphere of twenty-first-century consumerism. The largest of these is the Bentall Centre, opened in 1992.|
Kingston remains an archway between England’s centre and provinces, benefiting from its position with a column in both worlds. Technically an outpost of Greater London since 1965, in the centuries till then it was considered part of Surrey and like neighbouring Richmond still identifies as such in its postal addresses. In fact it goes one step further: Kingston continues to function as the administrative capital of Surrey despite being officially no longer in it, much to the consternation of Surrey’s other centres like Guildford and Woking which have made repeated though as yet unsuccessful attempts to take this status off it. It is the only case in England of which this is true.
Surbiton and Thames Ditton
Beyond Kingston’s riverside parade of shops and restaurants, the path gives way to private houses and boating facilities. So let us cross the river for the first time on this journey and proceed up the northern bank, which in stark contrast to Kingston is sweeping parkland.
|Notice the rings on their legs. The inheritance of legal history currently places the Thames’s swans under shared ‘ownership’ of the monarch and two of the City of London livery companies, the Vintners and the Dyers. Every July they perform the ancient ceremony of swan upping, effectively a swan census and health check. While originally this was to manage their numbers so rich landowners could eat them, today it is more for education, conservation, and generating TV images of said friendly landowners letting children cuddle fluffy cygnets.|
Most of this parkland is walled off from the riverbank, to which it concedes only an outer palisade of trees and grass. That is because this entire peninsula, from here all the way up to Teddington, was enclosed and landscaped for the pleasure of one of English history’s biggest and fattest Privilege Forts of all – even though we still have three kilometres to go just to catch sight of it.
|Looking back across at Kingston, the fog is just light enough to make out the gap where the Hogsmill river, historically milled but now a vibrant ecological habitat, arrives on its journey from Ewell. John Millais’s famous 1851-2 painting of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet took its setting from the Hogsmill, whose scene of riverbank ecology, studied and expressed in the painting in remarkable detail, is considered almost as English as the voracious flies, trespassing litigation and terrible weather that together besieged Millais as he fought to complete the work.|
|The turn of a year it may be but nothing stops the rowers, with obligatory dictator-in-a-motor-boat, heading out for their early morning self-punishment. The far bank bustles with restaurant-goers and pleasure-boaters during the day, while John Lewis’s visage looms on in the background.|
|Against the regional trend, Kingston voted for the Liberal Democrats in the election. Here its residents are escaping the national result by fleeing through portals to other dimensions, whose flashes of light erupt through the apartment windows.|
Everything now tumbles toward Hampton Court, nest of that ubiquitous historical singularity called Henry VIII who we last saw getting munched on by dogs at Syon Abbey. Rather than entertain him, let’s save Hampton Court for when we get there and meanwhile give due consideration to the smaller communities across the river.
Most immediately there is Surbiton, whose name, south farm, identifies a) its agricultural heritage and b) its position in the orbit of Kingston (contrast Norbiton nearby). But in the 1830s the railways came and, unable to lay the London-to-Southampton line through historic and congested Kingston itself, they ran it past the south side instead. Around it grew a settlement which for a time, in a plainness uncharacteristic of English toponymy, carried the name of Kingston-upon-Railway. When Kingston got its own station thirty years later, they repurposed the name of the old Surbiton farmstead for this new suburb the trains had cultivated in its place.
Born of the railways with a short hop to London in one direction and Southampton in the other, Surbiton has shared in Kingston’s affluence. It also has a neighbourhood called Seething Wells which despite the chilling heat of its name suggests that Surbiton’s health might have been contributed to by the presence of medicinal springs. The sanitation reforms of the 1850s brought waterworks out here whose clean water was used by Dr. John Snow in his famous experiments to demonstrate the water-borne bacterial transmission of cholera. They would not be the only such installation along what would turn out a popular stretch of river for the water supply companies once the lower river was put off limits to them by the Metropolis Water Act of 1852.
|The fog lingers over the outskirts of Surbiton.|
|St. Raphael’s Church, built in the 1840s – a Roman Catholic serving of Italian Renaissance with seagull on top.|
Then resumes the aits or eyots, the river islands that laced the previous bend. The most common use of these seems to have been to harvest osier (willow) sticks for crafting baskets and furniture, and Raven’s Ait by Surbiton was no exception. In the twentieth century it was taken over by a succession of rowing and sailing concerns, many of which still operate along the riverbanks here, but then it fell victim to the 1980s Thatcherite revolution and is now a private asset hired out for luxury events like conferences and weddings. This was challenged in 2009 when in a reprise of a contest that recurs throughout English history, a group of activists, labelled squatters by their enemies, occupied the unused island on the argument that it was common land and attempted to turn it into an eco-friendly community centre. Alas, England’s undead modernity belongs to its super-rich class of property owners, not to its citizens, and Kingston Council sent the police to evict them.
|Raven’s Ait, still waiting for its country to work out what democracy means.|
|Boating clubs and marinas adjoin the ruined filter beds of the Seething Wells waterworks, now an ecological conservation zone.|
|On the north side, the outer belt of the vast Hampton Court site shambles on.|
Soon the fence becomes a wall because Henry VIII wants you to go away. We can lure him into a false sense of security by appearing to focus on the pretty village-suburb across the river, then suddenly spin around and resign to giving his damn palace the attention it obviously craves.
|This brick mushroom has sprouted by the river path to confuse passers-by. Apparently it is a ventilation shaft for a gas main that runs beneath the river. That does not necessarily mean it can’t function as a UFO too.|
|The closer to Hampton Court, the greater the severity of the enclosing barrier.|
|Cosy riverside bungalows line up along the bank of Thames Ditton, each with its own boat and little garden-cum-landing-stage.|
Thames Ditton clusters on the opposite bank and spills out onto another river island. The village is old, appearing in a charter in 983, but sat there farming in relative isolation owing to marshy surroundings on a volatile arc of the river. It is worth remembering that before weirs like Teddington appeared the tides were free to rampage up and down here at will, making the river here at times a raging torrent, at others an unworkable trickle. There are suggestions that Summer Road, the village’s main thoroughfare (see map), got that name because it was only passable in that season, being submerged or lost to permanently wet mud the rest of the year.
Then one morning its residents woke up and saw Hampton Court had materialised across the river. Suddenly Thames Ditton found itself perched on a monster’s shoulder, which needless to say was a dramatic change in its situation. The monarch's minions dug around in the river channel, possibly alleviating the floods but really to secure a more stable water flow so their masters could enjoy a grand approach to the palace. Much to the frustration of the locals Henry VIII also enclosed much of the village’s land for his deer-killing amusement, although they managed to prise it back after his death. A more abiding change was the large quantity of staff attached to the palace who now found in Thames Ditton a convenient place to live and spend their money.
|Thames Ditton Island, with bridge visible at left. It grew popular for picnics, camping and the occasional holiday bungalow, but only sprouted permanent settlement around the 1940s.|
Increasingly populated and connected, the village nonetheless remained adrift in a swathe of farm fields and bandit-ridden coaching routes. But when the railways came in the 1840s, that agrarian character underlay the growth of a picturesque reputation for the perfect weekend getaway to its holiday villas, market gardens and pubs merely a brisk ride from London. It picked up a smattering of local industry – engines, cars, a renowned bronze foundry. Even as the spread of suburbs at last made it contiguous with Surbiton and Kingston, Thames Ditton retains an air of riverside relaxation.
It also has some personal significance.
In the previous section we came across the English rowing culture, which perhaps with a hint of bias, I contrasted with ‘more peaceable boat-racing cultures’ I was involved in earlier in life. To be specific, that involvement was in punting, and the majority of it took place on this very site courtesy of the Dittons Skiff and Punting Club (above), with which my school, which need not be named here, had an arrangement. As such, on two afternoons each week (but not in winter, when the river is too temperamental), we would unload our punts and ferries from that slipway and cross to here, where the straight and shallow riverbank offered excellent conditions to practice the art of propelling a punt by pushing on the riverbed with an aluminium pole.
Punting is typically imagined as something leisurely, posh and idiosyncratically English, perhaps largely thanks to the way it is performed for tourists by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. But here we punted for sport, which entailed all the serious technique and formalised competitive framework of the rowers but – and this is why I chose it – none of the militaristic psychosis. We were mentored not by a totalitarian with a megaphone but by a gnomic and marvellously eccentric old fellow who lived on the river and, in hindsight, might easily have been a spiritual expression of it.
|Behind us there was always this gate in the Hampton Court wall. England was such an uncharted alien world to me then that this door might have led off into some unfathomable other dimension for all I knew.|
|The view through that gate now, fifteen years after I last set foot here. Surely it was not reasonable for the English chieftains to enclose all this for their private amusement.|
The basic punting technique follows a repeating four-part sequence: you throw the pole down, reach up it with your other hand, cover that hand with the first, then pull to move the boat forward. Throw, reach, cover and pull. This motion also allows you to steer, ‘pinching’ the pole into the side of the boat to turn into it or leaning out over the water to turn away. In Oxford and Cambridge they stand at either end of the punt and each insists that only their own way is correct, but any proper punt racer knows that you actually stand in the middle (except in a ‘doubles’ race with two people to a boat, where one stands at the bow, the other at the stern; the first has more power, the second more control). And in accordance with The Rules of Punt Racing as issued by the sport’s governing body, the Thames Punting Club, each race is opened by a Starter who makes an announcement in the following formula:
This is a (Championship/Status/Handicap) race over (x) legs of a buoyed course, turning (x) sets of ryepecks from outside to in – you must therefore keep to your Station throughout the race or you are liable to be disqualified. When I see that you are both straight and ready, I shall ask you once if you are ready, and if I receive no reply, I shall say “GO”.
The Starter then asks the participants to get themselves ready please, but the layperson might already have got stranded in the first sentence on account of its containing one of the obscurest words in the English language. The ryepeck, which is not found in dictionaries, is a large pole anchored into the riverbed at either end of the punting course, one for each competitor, who must ‘turn’ it during any race longer than one leg of the course. Turning a ryepeck is an art form in itself, requiring the racer to pass on one side, spin around within the boat, throw the pole down to stop, and simultaneously steer so as to push the boat off past the ryepeck’s other side. This is probably the sport’s most complex technical challenge, with the time lost to screwing it up often the difference between winning and losing a race.
As with rowing, punt races are held in events called regattas; the word is appropriately from Venetian. Regattas are structured tournaments with formal rules, race schedules (encompassing multiple formats), stern-bearded officiation and award ceremonies, but tend to double as big fun social occasions by the river with a peculiar and charming cultural flavour of their own. The most established regattas recur every year on the same sites, and most of those, as it so happens, lie along the next few kilometres of river, where the names of towns and villages – Sunbury, Chertsey, Egham and so on – double as bywords for those events and read in sequence like their calendar.
And that is where we shall leave these recollections, because Henry VIII’s annoyance now comes into sight and we need to get it out of the way.
Once upon a time, a kilometre or two ahead near the corner of old Middlesex, they built a settlement by this river bend. Hamm (river bend) tūn (village/farmstead): Hampton. So far so simple, till at some point after the Norman conquest it sprouted a base for the Knights of St. John (a.k.a. Knights Hospitaller), who we last met at the Temple in London.
|The first clear glimpse of the palace from the riverside. More importantly, what terrible crime did that bush commit to deserve to be cut like that?|
Then King Henry VIII manifested his way into this world and with him, in his early reign, came his formidable chief minion Cardinal Thomas Wolsey: Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor, all-round rising star and unstoppable happener on behalf of the king. In English storytelling Wolsey was no mere henchman but one of the most ambitiously formidable politicians in their nation’s history. His meteoric rise to power, which at its peak virtually rivalled Henry’s own, set up the equally high drama of his fall as well as the murderous paranoia that would go on to consume Henry’s future.
It was Wolsey who bought the manor at Hampton off the knights in 1515. By then it appears to have grown into a pretty decent complex by manorial standards, with its own hall, garden, church and so forth. For a man to whom architecture was but a resource to express his own prestige, this was nowhere near good enough. So over the following years he dumped colossal money on it, adding rooms, wings, courtyards, kitchens, gatehouses, gardens, and in particular the lavish state apartments where he could entertain Henry as his guest and make him feel like a true Renaissance god, all of course while whispering in the king’s ear just how much he needed his faithful servant Wolsey.
|They still can’t find their democracy. Have you seen it? It's about this ]---[ big.|
|Though the structures themselves were much changed in later centuries, it was Thomas Wolsey and Henry VIII who were responsible for the sheer scale of the thing.|
Needless to say, politically Wolsey became too tall. His dominance in the government and church made him many powerful enemies. None was a match for him individually, but together all they needed was an opportune chance to take him down and they got it in the prime drama of Henry’s reign. Because England was and is a sexist country that had little precedent for women’s succession to the throne, Henry became obsessed with producing a male heir to shore up his Tudor dynasty’s weak legitimacy. He resolved to cancel his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (formidable intellect, former ambassador, and acting monarch during a war with Scotland) in order to marry his crush, Anne Boleyn, which led to his famous confrontation with the Pope and steamroller ride through the English constitutional framework. When Wolsey failed to get this arranged for him, his opponents, in particular the Anne Boleyn faction, put it in the king’s ear that Wolsey was on the Pope’s side instead of his. Wolsey was instantly stripped of his property and placed under arrest on accusation of treason. But Nemesis allowed him one final mercy: unlike other minions Henry went on to abandon, Wolsey had the great fortune to fall ill and die on the journey back to London and thus escaped his painful reckoning with the king’s wrath.
Seeing his fall from favour coming, Wolsey had unloaded Hampton Court onto Henry in 1528. By then the king had got used to enjoying the palace and wasted no time in turning it into his primary residence. That meant expanding it beyond comprehension. Its Great Hall, tennis court, ridiculously enlarged hunting park and nifty water supply infrastructure date from this burst of aggrandisement, as does its astronomical clock which, significantly, reported Thames tidal information. So much of the subsequent drama for which Henry is known – whether in politics, recreation, or his extremely personal brand of toxic monogamy – took place at Hampton Court, and such is its grip on the national mythology that despite all the palace’s later uses and transformations, including its imprisonment of Charles I in the civil war and loss of much of its Tudor structure under the 1690s Versailles-style renovations of William and Mary, it is with Henry VIII of the Tudor dynasty, more than anyone else, that Hampton Court remains associated in English imagination.
|Even a fraction of it glimpsed through a window has more towers, chimneys and crenellations than most people will get through in a lifetime.|
|Nowadays of course they squeeze all the commercial value they can out of such sites. This Christmas ice-skating rink has been erected outside the Great Gatehouse and is clearly proving popular.|
Why does Hampton Court retain such a gigantic profile? What does it really signify in the English universe of stories? Has it simply become the grandest structural expression of that one particular king, who stands similarly larger than life in that universe for how his forceful personality and shamelessly gendered behaviour happened to mishmash together to produce a revolution in what it meant to be English? But then, why him, and not those who came here later whose roles in that revolution were just as important?
Even now it is Citizen Henry Tudor who features in Hampton Court’s latest advertising campaign, menacing London Underground passengers as he towers far too tall over his Renaissance playground. Is it that his story helps these people imagine some golden age of a strong, independent England under a proud authoritarian strongman who believed he could do whatever he wanted – despite his constant struggles with domestic and foreign political tides, the fragility which underlay his dynasty, and the self-consciously European style in which he and Wolsey chose to build this his greatest lair?
There is history in the sense of what happened, and history in the sense of the deeper patterns and archetypes which those who come later read into those facts and re-arrange to build worlds of their own. After years of having my historical explorations of this country barrelled into by this king I am fed up of him and will not give him any more space here, but there can be no doubt that his sizeable place in the English historical consciousness owes to far more than his physical effect on their country. There are symbolisms in his story, meanings embodied right here in the bricks and turrets of Hampton Court, which say so much more about how these people imagine themselves.
For most of time there was no Hampton Court. The water precedes it, and has its own presence here whose effect is to be measured on a broader timescale than the humans’.
The River Mole arrives here after a long descent off England’s southern weald. It seems too tempting to believe it is named after the animal it sounds like for its burrowing through the chalk of the North Downs. More of its course rather takes place over impermeable clay, implying a wild temper under heavy rains that does much to account for the instability of the river here.
|The understated arrival of the Mole, opposite Hampton Court’s Great Gatehouse.|
The Mole gives name and shape to the Mole Valley which dominates central Surrey but not to the village-turned-suburb of Molesey, from which it might even be a back-formation. Molesey is rather ‘Mul’s Island’ – Mulesei – as it appears in a charter endowing its lands to Chertsey Abbey soon after the latter’s establishment in the seventh century. Chertsey is the goal of today’s progress, and here we begin to feel the tug of its gravitational pull.
Molesey’s story in many ways parallels Thames Ditton’s, though on a slightly larger scale; large enough that by around 1200 it was already divided into East and West Molesey, a distinction it still makes today. It was parcelled out to Norman knights after their invasion dispossessed the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants. The appearance of Hampton Court brought good business to its artisans, labourers and ferrymen, only to then visit on them the loss of much of their land to Henry VIII’s hunting pleasure, utterly ruining the people who relied on it till its recovery after his death. Then came the trains and the suburb movement, and that, as they say, is that.
Only not quite. Molesey also extends quite a way west and south of its settled area, over the old lands grabbed for that bloody hunting park. Both there and on the river itself, the strategic importance of Hampton Court along with the holiday cruising and boat-racing romance it helped beget, the constant flood threat, and the prohibition on corporate water extraction on the tidal reaches below, combined to motivate the inhabitants to exert control over the river flow in these parts and make the Thames ahead a fervour of industrial-era hydro-engineering. The first major instance of this is Molesey Lock and Weir, which they finally got the technology to attempt in the early nineteenth century.
|Molesey Weir, constructed in 1812 to supplement the first set of four weirs and locks that included Teddington. Beyond the weir is Ash Island, densely wooded and privately owned.|
|A cormorant graces Molesey Weir with its professional consideration.|
|Ash Island is one of a pair, of which this, Tagg’s Island, formerly Walnut Tree Island, is the other. This one was coveted by the royals, then by rich developers who threw off its local osier-growers for greedy property speculation purposes. Eventually it fell into the hands of Thomas Tagg, a boat-builder and royal waterman, who ended up running a luxury resort on it while selling his boats to customers of the highest international profile. As is plain to see, the island now boasts some of the most expensive and exclusive houseboats on the Thames.|
|Through the gap between Ash and Tagg’s Islands, a chunky piece of Switzerland that was brought from that country and put here in 1899.|
The encroachment of waterworks does not inhibit some displays on the theme of Englishness by Molesey or its adjacent green space, Hurst Park.
|The local war memorial in East Molesey. If the English are serious about feeling bad about these wars then they should reconsider their election of hate-stoking nationalists.|
|A more unusual depiction of a rowing crew. This would be an unfortunate position to end up in during a race, so perhaps this is a wider symbol of English tendencies in sport.|
|The Hurst also featured a prominent racecourse until it was sold off in the 1960s to build housing. Now its site is mostly open green space.|
It is here that Hampton, the settlement that had Hampton Court inflicted on its identity, comes into view on the north bank. Largely overshadowed by the worlds on either side – palaces and pleasure boats east, reservoirs and pumping stations west – it is a sleepy place that has supported them both while feeding commuters to London and other nearby centres.
|St. Mary’s Church, Hampton, in its nest of boatyards, pubs and housing. The present building dates to 1831, though there was probably a place of worship on its site for several hundred years.|
|Back on the south side, here are some political opinions being expressed in Hurst Park.|
As the park opens out onto quieter riverside another large island appears, and its structures, along with those on the far bank, take a decidedly proletarian turn. It is not long before the Molesey side similarly closes in. Soon it has diminished to a narrow track, hemmed in between the river and a grumpier, brusquer wall than Hampton Court’s.
|Upstream of Molesey, with the far bank beginning to take on a more workmanlike quality.|
|An installation in Hurst Park displays a series of historical scenes. This one depicts the incursion of Viking longboats up the Thames in the ninth century, most likely with the treasures of Chertsey Abbey in their sights.|
|As this one indicates, Molesey was and is prime regatta territory. The Shakespeare temple stands out clearly at the back.|
|The island, Platt’s Eyot, was originally another osier ground. Clearly this is not luxury resort territory anymore, though it is plugged in to that heritage: Thomas Tagg over on Tagg Island reached out to put a boatyard and electrical works on it to power his pleasure-boating enterprise. In the twentieth century the Thorneycroft shipworks in Chiswick had their secondary boatyard here for building military-grade torpedo boats. The Eyot keeps a lower profile these days.|
|England’s answer to the Parthenon. Don’t put it beyond them to try and sellotape the Elgin Marbles to this.|
|And then, Molesey is this.|
The reason for the low-key scenery around here is that both sides of the river house a great batch of waterworks: the Molesey Reservoirs followed by the Walton Water Treatment Works on this side, and the Hampton Water Treatment Works on the other. These have been well-concealed by the landscaping and it is almost impossible to get good views, perhaps because they are afraid of Vladimir Putin dripping poison in them, but on the map their dominance is obvious.
All this is here because of Victorian London’s sewage and hygiene disasters, making this area, the first stretch beyond that period’s toxic metropolitan Thames, the closest where the water companies could get a supply that was passably safe to imbibe. The Seething Wells filter beds were one of the first examples, but when those struggled with mud they opened the Hampton works instead, whose reservoirs, which still operate, came with cheerful names like Sunnyside and more worrying ones like Stain Hill. Rival water companies opened the Molesey Reservoirs over this wall, although these closed down in the 1990s. Beyond them, clearest on the map, appeared a set of much larger reservoirs associated with the Walton works: the Knight and Bessborough pair and the Island Barn Reservoir in the 1900s, and the sizeable Queen Elizabeth II reservoir in the 1960s. The picture is not complete without also mentioning the comparatively colossal Queen Mary Reservoir, installed a little way inland to the northwest in the 1920s.
As such this layout was the product of fierce competition between the Victorian water companies, much as characterised the rise of the docks, canals, railways and other industrial-era infrastructure sectors. And like those, a similar sequence followed: they nationalised the lot into the Metropolitan Water Board in 1903, which later became the Thames Water Authority, but then came the Thatcher free-market revolution which saw it privatised again into the ubiquitous and frequently dodgy Thames Water. All the waterworks here that are still operational are run by them.
|This wall still bears the Metropolitan Water Board’s name.|
|More resources for storytellers of the island nation under siege: tank traps placed here in World War II in case a Nazi invasion chose to land on this exact spot.|
|They apologise for any inconvenience.|
And yet, in a valley unequivocally claimed by the leisure classes, this intrusion by such mundane concerns as watering the urban corporate serfs was unlikely to last for long. One need not stroll much further to witness riverside comfort resume business as usual.
|The outskirts of Sunbury. On appearances a long way from the Tory pogrom against poor people.|
Sunbury and Walton
Sunbury is a suspicious name. In England natural instinct takes issue with anything that has ‘sun’ in it and in this case is correct to do so: Sunbury was named not after the sun but as the fortification (burh, as in borough) of someone called Sunna. This makes it another in this long chain of riverside settlement whose permanence likely begins with Anglo-Saxon immigrants, although as usual the evidence of archaeology indicates people coming and going since long before.
In Sunbury the river supported trade and small-scale industries like rope-making in its otherwise chiefly agricultural corner of Middlesex. Now largely suburbanised, it too retains a distinct flavour of riverside leisure like the other settlements along here. It is a key location in the ‘swan-upping’ mentioned near the start, as well another popular annual regatta.
|The waterfront of Sunbury Park, which appears to slope straight into the water. On the few days when the sun does actually exist in this country this must become quite an exciting riverbank.|
|The lock was built in the 1810s to improve navigability for working craft, but these days mainly serves pleasure-boaters.|
|Sunbury Weir. As at Teddington there has recently been a row about whether to install ecologically-destructive hydropower machinery in it.|
Then the river shifts from the Sunbury sphere of influence to that of the next settlement along. Walton-on-Thames is one of the larger inhabitations in this area as well as one that most rewards putting a magnifying glass to its name. Like the others here it is Anglo-Saxon Old English, with ton signifying a town. But Wal evokes wealas, a momentous word for ‘foreigners’ or ‘strangers’ that became the immigrants’ name for the people now called Britons, that is, the Celtic peoples already living here (not to be confused with British, a separate concept that only came much later with the invention of the United Kingdom). Wealas is most tangible today in the name of Wales and the Welsh, literally ‘the foreigners’, whose country, as John Higgs observed in his excellent Watling Street, is ‘not just the place to the west of England (but) also what is underneath England’. (Needless to say their name for themselves in their own language is the completely different Cymru, whose original meaning is close to ‘land of compatriots/fellow countrymen’. See also the related Cumbria.)
The provocative suggestion is that the Anglo-Saxon settlers were observing Walton-on-Thames as a ‘settlement of the Britons’, whose established life preceded their arrival. While not simple to verify, what is certainly true is that the town has offered a rich archaeological yield that includes flint blades from Neolithic times and an Iron Age fort up on the hill where the main town is now. As an ancient fording point between the difficult Mole and Wey valleys Walton is also spoken of a candidate for the place Julius Caesar crossed the Thames in 54 BCE on his second invasion, finding it fortified with wooden stakes by the local Celtic people, the Trinovantes. Legends like these are commonly romanticised, especially when they give local areas claim to participation in big historical phenomena; in Walton’s case the serious attention of such reputed historians as William Camden, along with the discovery of actual wooden stakes here, have argued with challenges based on the arrangement in which those stakes were found – suggesting a bridge rather than defensive work – and the changing position of the river over time. But as with the legends of Henry VIII and Hampton Court, the shapes these stories take in the minds of successive generations can tell us more about these people than the facts they derive from.
The core of Walton is up on the hill, away from this historically marshier riverside which has its own peculiar set of names. The principal one seems to be Cowey Sale, whose provenance can be traced through orbiting asteroids in space and time like Cow Way, Cowey Stakes (a reference to the Caesar legend), and an old wooden bridge over a nearby stream called the Seale. It seems likely cattle that grazed on the nearby farmland would have been herded around here to drink water or be loaded onto barges. Another possible influence is from the sallows or willow trees that grow hereabouts.
Industrialisation turned Walton into a bit of an anomaly in these parts. Rather than getting descended on by London’s wealthy escapees, Walton put on its overalls and built a wharf to cater to the surge in working cargo traffic. Until the canal link was put through to Brentford it was the middle Thames that had to cope with the boatloads of raw materials, agricultural produce and crafted goods from the northern and Midland workshops, and the wharf at Cowey Sale emerged as one of their last key waypoints on the way to London.
|Walton Wharf as it looks now. A great deal of coal was unloaded here to feed the nearby gasworks.|
|More inhabitants take some rest by the riverbank, reflecting darkly on the difficult times to come.|
|Walton can be escaped via this footbridge over a marina entrance. Fishing, as seen here, seems a common pastime for the local hunter-gatherers on this part of the Thames.|
Walton’s west side opens out onto meadows where the town shows off its bridge. It is not the first, not the second, but the sixth on this site in a two-hundred-and-fifty-year cascade of collapses and criticisms.
|Walton Bridge v6.0, opened in 2013. The less said the better.|
|A rather more creative pile of matchsticks that was Walton’s first bridge, built in 1750 but an unfortunate victim of decay and demolition thirty-three years later.|
|Here’s the current bridge from the other side with the sun on it, as though that represents an improvement.|
Now the riverbank gains a hint of a rough edge again as we approach some more complex behaviour on the water’s part. Most of that concerns its branching into a network of channels at the confluence with a major tributary, the Wey.
|A further instance of provisioning the local river life, though in this case the seagulls have got involved and, practicing what they have learnt from the political culture, are harassing the other birds and taking their bread off them.|
Between the Wey and Walton the river swings north in a wild set of U-shaped meanders, which of course it is completely entitled to do and should be further appreciated by the humans for keeping them perfectly navigable. This was not however to the satisfaction of the Thames Conservancy, who figured that precious minutes could be shaved off of navigation, and upstream flooding made gentler somewhat, if they dug a quick shortcut to bypass that entire set of bends.
The result is the Desborough Cut, an artificial straight line chopped audaciously from Walton to the Wey confluence in the 1930s. It has created one of the only places on the Thames where the main channel splits into two. In so doing it turned the land in between into the artificial Desborough Island, which hosts another water works but is otherwise trees and playing fields.
|The eastern corner of Desborough Island, where the Cut rejoins the main Thames. A bridge at either end of the Cut connects to the island.|
|At left, the bridge also serves as a forum for political commentary.|
|Desborough Island’s water works can be glimpsed through the trees. The name is from the first Baron Desborough, who chaired the Thames Conservancy at the time. Desborough was his title in the nobility; his actual name was William Grenfell (not to be confused with Francis Grenfell, namesake of Grenfell Tower).|
|The rest of Desborough Cut looks like this. What Desborough actually brings to mind is Desbreko, the large, angry skeletal fishes from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. They wouldn’t look too out of place in here. Let's call it Desbreko Island from now on.|
|Just beyond Desbreko Island is D’oyly Carte Island. Yes. The fault is theatre manager and hotelier Richard D’oyly Carte’s, whose name suggests Norman French origins. Founder of the extremely exclusive Savoy Hotel, he bought the island and tried to set up an annexe for the Savoy on it but was refused a licence to sell alcohol by the local magistrates so settled for a mere grand guesthouse instead. It appears currently to be on sale if you happen to have £3.2 million to hand|
The Shepperton and Weybridge Ferry
The arrival of the River Wey, whose name origin is unknown, marks a meaningful meeting of ways. At its confluence the three-way junction flowers into a web of curvy, crisscrossing channels with inhabited islands in the middle, some of them either created or complicated by human engineering. The Wey cuts through the North Downs from the bottom of England much as the Mole does, but on its way it passes Guildford and was thus targeted for transformation into a special role that boosted that town into the major Surrey wealth-fortress it is now.
In the seventeenth century a local magnate, Richard Weston, wondered what it might do for Guildford’s merchants if the unnavigable Wey could be made accessible to ships, thereby connecting them to the Thames. Though his work was interrupted by having to flee the civil war in the 1640s, he happened to spend his exile in the Netherlands which gave him some quite instructive exposure to what you can accomplish through skilled waterway engineering. Completed after his return the next decade, the Wey Navigation became one of the first and heaviest river canalisations in England. It anticipated the canal boom that would serve as the bloodstream of the coming industrial revolution a hundred years later, and gave Guildford, as well as Surrey more broadly, a massive head start.
|The confluence with the Wey, the lowest of whose channels comes in at left. Beyond it is one of several islands colonised by Weybridge. The outskirts of Shepperton are at right.|
Two towns control the land on either side of the Thames-Wey meeting. To the north is Shepperton – ‘shepherd’s hamlet’ – whose urban area is set a little away from the river. Long a quintessential Middlesex breadbasket, it has grown into a leafy and fashionable village-suburb with a dash of small industrial, film and literary flavouring. On the south side, upon the Wey’s approach and spilling onto the islands in the confluence itself, is self-explanatory Weybridge, at whose name I must confess a deep-seated reflex of irritation ever since the time, many years ago, when I read an old Chinese history book by an author who, struggling to render in English the difference between the states of Wei (衞) and Wei (魏) in the Warring States Period, followed the maddening standard of writing one as ‘Wei’ and the other as ‘Wey’ – and then, in a further unforgivable act of Englishness, added as a pronunciation note ‘as in Weybridge’. I should swiftly add that this recollection is not in any way intended to defame the residents of this town, who I am sure, in spite of their conspicuous whiteness, are guilty of nothing in this matter.
Enriched by their position on these canalised trade networks, Shepperton and Weybridge burgeoned into quintessential postcard-towns for this valley of privilege, cosy nests laid thick with wealth on branches encircled in money-vines. If they fly the flag for the idyllic village daydreams of English conservatism (in which we should distinguish the traditional, questionable but honest kind from the cult that has captured its party), then that flag is perhaps hoisted highest in Weybridge’s appearance in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1897) when during the Martian invasion of England, it is here that the humans manage to shell down a Martian tripod into the Thames – a rare moment of victory and defiance before its vengeful comrades rake both towns with destruction.
Despite the election result we are not here to follow the Martians’ example today. There is another phenomenon here which once was commonplace on the Thames, but whose eclipse by the roads and railways has left it, so they say, the river’s one surviving instance. The trail on the south bank continues on the north, and there is no bridge. The river is too cold, too fast and too English to swim. The only way to cross is by ferry.
|The Weybridge berth of the Shepperton and Weybridge Ferry.|
The ferry, and in particular the ferry operator, is of course not some mere piece of scenery but an archetype whose potency is ancient and immense. A ferry provides passage between two worlds the traveller cannot cross on their own. Those worlds might be geographic like Weybridge and Shepperton, or they might be metaphysical, such as, say, the worlds of life and death. If a ferry is required for that crossing, the one who controls it thus gains enormous power and can charge an ominous toll – say, your soul – in exchange for the only means to overcome the dividing obstacle. The alternative is to be stuck in some unfulfilled limbo between one world and the other, be it to wander in undeath or stay stranded by the Wey and unable to complete a certain journey up a river.
The very suggestion that such a liminal space exists, let alone that it’s where you’ll go if you don’t pay up, is a compelling way to introduce trouble in the binary cosmologies of this world. It is also the secret of the ferryman’s power and mystique: as they ply that space, they too are a liminal figure. They know the world of either riverbank they moor on, but they are not truly of one or the other.
The best-known example in the European narrative universe is Charon, who ferries departed souls across the river of the dead in Greek mythology – a versatile figure who can be represented as anything from a demonic monster to a gentle old cosmic civil servant, but always with the gravitas of his role behind him. In Ireland a related office is occupied by the sea-god Manannán mac Lir, who is associated with, and possibly gives his name to, that strange land in the mists at the centre of the British maelstrom called the Isle of Man. A broader exploration reveals countless further variants that inform the symbolisms and practices of the ferryman in different lands and cultures, such as Urshanabi, whose expertise is called on in humanity's first known great written story of all, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh; the irascible Harbaron in World of Warcraft, whose position on the ferry of the damned seems to play to a more impenetrable set of cosmic rules that the politics of undeath around him; and those who captain ferries in the thalassocracies that utterly rely on them, like Indonesia and the Philippines, who as a result get to be all the more reckless.
This may pass well over the heads of more literal-minded English materialists these days (something lamented by those among them who do sense its importance – consider for example Philip Pullman’s concept of The Secret Commonwealth). But perhaps someone here does have the right idea, because in spite of the impatient demands of their technocratic modernity, you summon this ferry by ringing a bell.
|And here it comes – helpfully labelled in case people have gone too long without remembering what a ferry looks like.|
A ferry has been recorded operating here since at least the fourteenth century, sometimes submerging into history only to resurface soon after with a new vessel and service terms appropriate to the culture of its age. Naturally that means that these days it is run by a company: Nauticalia emerged in the 1970s selling antiques off a converted barge but now runs a chain of stores on land selling marine equipment and décor, including one on the Shepperton side of the ferry whose hallowed operations they were selected by fate to revive.
The boat itself runs all year round, though stops when the river conditions grow too rough. It has two motors now instead of being propelled by a swirl of departed spirits, and mercifully the toll is not in flesh, blood or pieces of your soul but £2.50 for adults and £1.50 for children for a one-way crossing – a little more with a bike or, indeed, if you would think the unthinkable and dare cross back to the world you embarked from. And perhaps most important of all, the ferryman comes very much with a beard, though it is a scaled-back, wetsuited-professional sort of beard rather than the great bristly nightmare of a Charon or a Harbaron.
|Nauticalia’s shop and café – which, incidentally, does excellent chicken and pesto panini – beside the ferry’s Shepperton berth.|
|An old photograph, surreptitiously captured in Nauticalia’s lavatory, portrays a previous incarnation of the ferry from around 1900.|
|Another image on display suggests the lively character of the local regattas in that period.|
With safe passage secured to the Shepperton side, a final trawl through a quieter stretch of river is all that remains to today’s destination of Chertsey.
|Riverside luxury resumes regular service but now the properties are fewer and farther between, interspersed with gaps and undeveloped bush.|
|Another citizen of the river stands pensive in the evening light.|
|The fenced enclosure is typical of dwellings around here. Note also the buoyancy ring and the flag.|
One of this section’s most noticeable features has been the great number of national flags on display, far more than back in the capital. This is not typical in this country, which since the flag’s embarrassment by the far-right racist movements of the 1970s and 80s has been known for a lower-key approach to flag displays than many countries – not that its nationalism is any less intense than theirs, rather that the simultaneous pretence to politeness is of greater cultural importance. On top of that, when they do display their flags, it is more common to see the red-on-white St. George’s Cross of England, typically associated with in-your-face white supremacists or football fans getting drunk and smashing other countries’ windows. Here however the overwhelming preference is for the Union Jack, whose official symbolism is of the British United Kingdom, not just England.
Given that a particular affinity for the other parts of that Union feels no more likely along this riverfront than in the heat of the aforementioned mob – least of all an appreciation of why they are alienating those parts toward leaving that Union – it can only be surmised that the flag preference is because the nationalism here has a class dimension too: an assertion of similar underlying sentiments to the window-smashers, only expressed in a higher, more respectable register.
|A sign identifies the greenery here as Ryepeck Meadow. Unlike 99.9% of English speakers you know what a ryepeck is now.|
And at last, our destination comes into sight across a glorious field of cowpats.
Chertsey’s eastern green buffer extends over both sides of the river. Though true wilderness is hard to come by in England, a slight dip into its possibility space can be discerned here. On the south side are the wide-open wildflower meadows of the Chertsey Meads, while here on the north side this Dumsey Meadow is about a quarter the size but a special and protected ecological site in its own right.
Far from a mere field, local displays claim that it harbours extraordinary biodiversity on account of being the last ‘unimproved’ grassland by the Thames left in Surrey. The meaning of improvement here is not intuitive: in fact it is an oblique usage that comes from a specific historical context. ‘Improvement’ was the chief English euphemism for turning land into a profit-generating resource for those in power, especially in line with the Enclosure movement. In practice this meant the seizure of common land, small farms and ecologically diverse wilderness into the private ownership of powerful landlords, frequently through violent force and with the backing of the apparatus of law. They would then turn their captured land to the mass cultivation of whatever they calculated to be most profitable, in particular the grazing of sheep.
The ‘improvement’ then is measured only by the weight of their wallets – and not by the experience of vulnerable rural people nor the ecological health of the Enclosed habitats, both of which were devastated as a result (the first by being turfed off their land and persecuted by the legal system, the second by toxic fertilisers, reduction to monocultures and ruthless agricultural machinery). Today the abuse of the word development in a similar manner is probably the closest equivalent.
Enclosure was a vast and complex process but also quite possibly the most consequential change in the structure of English society short of industrialisation, and it is under-stated in both English storytelling and political discourse in their present bout of amnesia about land issues. The industrial revolution was itself only made possible by Enclosure’s creation of masses of dislocated and desperate peasants who then became the urban working class. On top of that, some of the early waves of landlords made powerful by Enclosure’s profits were the very people who packed the English Parliament and turned it into a political expression of that power that, in the century after Henry VIII’s rampages, challenged the monarchy and violently overturned the constitutional order to put themselves on top. More immediately, the landscape of cows, sheep, cows, sheep and endless rectangular fields that passes for the standard image of the English countryside, both literally outside train windows and fantastically in a world’s worth of minds, is not some original English idyll but the outcome of specific historical processes that were carried out, as seems typical of these people, with far more greed and oppression than it could have been. Its threads continue to weave today and one need not look far to find them.
Dumsey Meadow likely survives because there has always been a countervailing consciousness that Enclosure and its values should be resisted. At times that consciousness has erupted: numerous rural revolts and riots, the Levellers (whose name is instructive) and other progressive movements in the wake of the civil wars, and the successful attempts to preserve public green spaces that to this day carry the name of such-and-such Common, can be counted as grassroots expressions of this active, critical political engagement in the face of powerful interests and punitive dominant belief systems. In this context it seems a safe bet that this meadow’s survival has been down to concerted efforts and political struggles by local people.
|The end of Dumsey Meadow, where the river bends again – from here a long climb to the northwest follows. Chertsey is to the west, across the bridge.|
|Chertsey Bridge. This seven-arched veteran is a rare survivor, with only limited alterations since its construction in 1783-5. Chertsey Abbey made this an important site; there has been a bridge here since at least around 1410.|
Chertsey itself shall receive due consideration in the next stage, which could be put down to thematic suitability but is actually because its local history museum was closed for the New Year. In any case, this first foray into the Privilege Forts of the river’s central valley has thrown up more than enough to ruminate on for one day.
It has been quite the assorted landscape. Imposing repositories of keystone stories in the national collection, like Kingston where the English kingdom began to awaken, Hampton Court with its hulking Tudor mythos, and their garland of sub-urban, sub-rural baskets of vested wealth, interspersed with what appear more innocuous strands – punt-racing and pleasure-boating, ferries and waterworks – all threaded through by the unifying string of the river. For its sense of relaxing around on the highest slopes of the class pyramid, it is a quite different effect to the Thames of London’s immediate outskirts in the previous section. There it seemed the projection of that higher ‘Arcadian’ vision was as important as what was done within it, whereas here it is more like they just do what they want and roll in it – blocking, diverting and digging around in the river; seizing the land that keeps people alive for profit or shooting animals for the fun of it; a subtle but definite shift in culture, in values, in worlds.
How far are these ones responsible for the misdeeds that characterised the project of English modernity, built upon industry and empire only to crumble to the moral and constitutional breaking point that imperils them now? What seeds of that peril could be dug from the soil of stories we crossed today? Where on this river is the line between joyful, innocent pleasures, and the more tainted pleasure which, convinced of exclusive birth, jealous of its world of comforts and convinced the world is fine so long as enemies beyond the water are kept at bay, dabs a tick by the name of a Raab on a ballot paper and casts that very future to its doom?
A valley broad in some senses yet too narrow in others; a landscape of picturesque sunlit beauty yet maddening in the darkness that wafts from its cosy corners. Such important elements in the English story, in its very mythology, were written and illustrated on the river here. Is this also where it comes back to drown?
This journey through the middle has only begun. We can only hope to see it to its end before England’s own makes it too dangerous to venture further.