This is the day of the discontinuity. We start at Twickenham. On the north bank, there is very little public access between Kingston Bridge and Twickenham, and the walk would just be along ordinary roads, lined with fine and valuable property, but ordinary nevertheless. That does not mean we will omit that stretch from this tour, it just means we need to fix up arrangements with some of those very kind people who have offered their boats. Water borne blog may appear without warning later on. There are some other parts which have been omitted as well, but we will get back to them, too.
So, in the midday heat at Twickenham, rain is forecast, but it does not look faintly like it. I look at some early work by TLS, railings, paving and planting. It is starting to look a bit battered, but still stylish. Good design, like good tailoring, retains appeal even after hard wear. Poor design starts to look dated after the first shower of rain. The famous Eel Pie Island is opposite us. How I regret not going there in the good old days. Back then we would never have thought of it as a suitable place for TLS to install a sand martin bank. That would not have seemed to go with Rock ‘n’ Roll and the other two things. Times change and sand martin bank is well used, a great TLS achievement.
York House gardens stretch down to the river, and bridge the lane called Riverside. It is exercise in democracy, the doughty 17th century burghers of Twickenham having foiled an attempt by the landowner to extinguish their right of way. Just as well since York House is now the home of Richmond Council, whose protection of democratic freedoms is justly renowned. The view downstream from the river edge of the gardens is another of the many that leave one gasping for superlatives. I have seen a few views on this trek, all with individual features, and I am still amazed. The great cedars and the balustrades along the walk give it an Italian feel, like the great gardens of Lake Como. Before we move on towards Orleans House, I am inveigled to “Step just this way to see some naked ladies.” It seems out of character, late night Beirut maybe, but not early afternoon Twickenham. But there they are, disporting themselves on a vast fountain in a grove of trees, in all their Belle Époque daintiness, a dozen nymphs in white Italian stone. They were, it seems, snapped up by the then owner of York House from a passing bargeman, who had learnt that his customer was bankrupt and would not be able to pay him. They may not be great art but they are great surprise, and well sited, and very much of a piece with the riverside walk. Their restoration, I learn, is another TLS success story. It would be wonderful to have the fountain working, something I can look into.
We pass the house once inhabited by Mr Twining, (it looks as though it must always be tea-time in there) and come to a favourite pub, the White Swan. It is tucked away in this completely rural setting with the river in front of it. It is hard to pass by on a day when a pint would go down so well, but if I stop now I will not get much further. Heartened by this demonstration of my strength of will, I press on to the Orleans House Gallery. It is hard to believe this is a survival of a grand house demolished for the gravel underneath. In the gardens I meet Joy Lee one of TLS most hard-working and effective volunteers, to whom we owe the gardens surrounding the gallery. So much is done by volunteers, we do not give them the recognition they deserve.
We press on to the reach in front of Marble Hill House, once a battleground for TLS, trying to open up the view. So many people confuse removal of self-seeded sycamores with clear felling a rain-forest. It is not generally known how fast a riverside tree grows, and just how rampant some invasive species can be, strangling others that we actually want. The cry went up, “These trees have been here for hundreds of years!” Well, the embankment was built in 1937, no trees pre-date it except the monster Black Walnut in the grounds of Marble Hill House. As is often the case, when the work is done there is widespread praise for the results. There was little said about the greatest innovation by TLS, the cutting edge bat-friendly lighting along the path. It is carefully engineered to light only the path, not the vegetation at the water’s edge where bats hunt for insects. There is a system of sensors which cause only a section of the path to be illuminated for pedestrians. It all works well and is much admired, although there are, as yet, few imitators. TLS got a good grant towards the capital cost, not many can afford the full price. So in this important respect TLS is cutting edge, and taking forward urban conservation.
Through the arch of Richmond Bridge, swinging lonely on her mooring is Jubilant. Since Gloriana was launched, poor Jubilant, the first modern reproduction of a ceremonial barge, and seen everywhere, has been little regarded. We must encourage her use, so that she is kept in good shape. It would be grand to keep her in a boat house over winter.
The TLS work around the half-lock needs revisiting. Maybe there is a case for revisiting the maintenance plan with LBRuT. Around this area we really do need to be firm about tree control. The old meridian markers are of little interest if one cannot see how they line up with old observatory. We are standing here at low tide, so there is very little water downstream of the half-lock. It is hard to believe that sea going ships came up here to calibrate their chronometers. What tiny craft did long sea voyages back then.
Going along Duck’s Walk I wonder why it is not called Duck’s Waddle. It would make more sense. Some ducks run, but none walk.
It is a great surprise to find a plaque commemorating Commander Lightoller, of Titanic fame. He certainly was in the centre of events, a life full of incident. We pass some interesting large new houses built in a 19th century villa style, and looking very much the part. It is a triumph of planning. All too often riverside sites have a mass of tiny dwellings crammed onto them, all jostling for the river views which increase the price, and bristling with tiny balconies to meet amenity space requirements. It is not a recipe for the grace and elegance which a riverside setting needs. Lord Kilmorey does not seem to have cared about grace and elegance in a riverside setting. In 1868, he refaced Gordon House, a building originally by Robert Adam, so that it now looks like a Victorian workhouse. Apparently he left the interior intact, and a fine mausoleum, but we press on, and do not stop to see them.
Crossing the Crane we are in my own borough for the first time on this walk, and we pass by a place with great associations for me, Nazareth House where my mother lived in her retirement, and received brilliant care from the nuns and their staff, until its closure in 1998 as a result of care home regulation changes. Sadly the nuns’ plans for the site have been upset by the credit crisis. They have not been able to find a partner to take their plans forward. The planning permission included public riverside access through the site, which will be a beautiful addition. In the meantime we follow the edge of the grounds, and under the shade of planes planted by TLS, softening the edge of what would otherwise be a somewhat bleak Council estate.
My companions being on the point of collapse from heat, thirst and hunger, I allow a short break at the Town Wharf pub. I am always reluctant to stop, because of the difficulty of starting again. I think back to my time in the army when the blisters would really hurt after a short halt, best to keep going and keep them numb.
We do manage to overcome the pain and start walking again, immediately crossing another tributary, the Duke of Northumberland’s river. Old Isleworth is charming in the sun. We pass Richard Reynolds House, and I am able to tell the story of his martyrdom in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and his later canonisation. Not many London Boroughs have their own saint, yet another distinction of Hounslow’s.
We meet, at the gates of Syon, Christopher Martin, Head Gardener, and Stephany Heaven, assistant gardener, who are going to show us some river-related parts of the estate which are not open to the public. It is quite exciting to be going off-piste, especially as we are looking at the areas where there is natural bank, grazed by cattle as it has been for centuries. After we cross the haha we soon find water underfoot, and progress is slippery and slow, with deep gullies and fallen wood tangled with the vegetation. It is a constant battle to keep the scrub growth at bay. The whole area would become a forest if left unmanaged. The grassland habitat is far too valuable to allow that to happen, and the cherished views across to Kew must be kept open. We discuss TLS volunteers helping with willow control. It is hard and dirty work, sloshing around in the tangled morass, just what volunteers like. It seems that we have a date for September. Syon have been solid supporters of TLS from the very start, we have done much together, and look forward to much more. It is very pleasant among the trees, down near the water, cooler than it has been all day. We are on the lookout for otters which are seen around here, but the noise of five of us blundering splashily about might give an otter a bit of clue to stay hidden.
Stephany takes us into the house to look, from higher up, at the views we have been discussing down by the river. As we go up the stairs we look at paintings and prints of the way the estate looked over the recent centuries. This is the way to see a great house, to be on a mission about one particular aspect. There is always too much to take in if one is trying to see everything. With it being a small world I meet an old friend who is a volunteer guide in the house. He insists we must see some craftsmen in the process of making moulds from some of the antique statues to cast some replicas for an exhibition. It is somewhat tangential to our main purpose, but how often does one get the chance to see sculptural mould-making. Not often, I would say. Like any distraction it is fascinating. Seeing the chaps hard at work, with the obvious confidence of someone who has done much work of this kind where skill and flair play such a part, makes me envy them their talent.
Heading for the corner of the grounds where TLS will be working with the borough of Hounslow (to develop new access to link with a Kew crossing) we see strange trees and plants, but best of all our way lies through a grove of mulberries. This is the season for mulberries, and I love a ripe mulberry, right off the tree. Soon we are all excitedly searching and scoffing. I note with alarm the juice has spotted my shirt. It can be hard to wash out, but it will be a badge of pride. Who would not be glad to show of stains of mulberries from a great nobleman’s estate, gathered on a beautiful summer’s day?
Stepping onto Brentford High Street is like waking from a dream. Seldom in life does one have such an abrupt transition, we are back in hot humid noisy real life. All the senses are affected at once. The access we plan is going to take some serious detailed work, and the worst difficulty of any of our projects, discussions with many landowners, and getting all to agree.
Within minutes we are by the boat repair yard, a contrast in almost every way to the delicate natural surroundings we have just left. What they have in common is that they are endangered, and likely to be squeezed out by “progress” if not protected. Jake Oliver, the proprietor, explains some of the difficulties, and we assure him that it is TLS view that he is a vital part of the varied river landscape we want to enhance. Many buildings near his dock are ready for development, (i.e. falling down.) New users would be best to be running businesses as ruggedly industrial as his, so that they are not upset by the noise smells and deliveries of huge chunks of metal. Otherwise they will need buildings with excellent barriers to those things. Boat repairing, in the grand scheme of industrial processes, is not an especially noisy operation, but we, in this part of London, have lost tolerance for such processes. It is a link with the community’s maritime past, and involves Brentford in the life of the river.
Around the corner, looking at Point Wharf, another current TLS project, we meet another of my council colleagues, Councillor Robert Oulds, the author. He has a fine apartment above Point Wharf with, lucky man, extensive views over Kew Gardens. He shows us one of the finest Black Poplar trees along the Thames, and we walk around to Brentford Creek where the public spirited freeholders of his block have turned an abandoned site into a butterfly sanctuary, and done an excellent job. It is the attitude that makes it possible to run TLS. There are people on our side.
From Waterman’s we look across to Lot’s Ait, the excellent new bridge and the buildings that look as though business is improving. There is a lot to be dealt with in Brentford, but there are positive signs. Even Waterman’s Park is back on the agenda at LBH. So many more boats, many more much needed homes, could be here if we had a proper marina.
The end is in sight now. Our planned finish is the Express pub, by Kew Bridge, so we have a bit of spring in the step, with lure of strong drink. It has been a long day. It was a long four days, but I have learned a lot, and talked to many people, and got involved in the reality of things that were paper issues before. It has been a lot of fun, and I am rather proud of keeping going in rather tough conditions. As I order the drinks I point out to Jason and Becky the high points of our trip are illustrated on the walls of the pub in original oil paintings by local artist J.K Lewis, they were commissioned by the pub’s owner, Robert Aldington. So any readers who fancy the sights but not the trip can do much of it in the comfort of the Express, and enjoy a fine pint.
After a couple of drinks, and a long sit down, I find movement a bit of a struggle, so I take the train the one stop to my home, and am greeted by a dog in complete denial of her lameness from day 1.
Thank you for reading if you have got this far and watch out for the later additions.