Thames Landscape Strategy

Chaiman’s Tour: Day three – Teddington to Thames Ditton via Hampton Court

No more purple prose about the weather, now rather dull and humid. Teddington is very down to earth compared to the exotic, foreign air of Richmond in the bright light and searing heat a few days ago. The 281bus took me from the station to meet the others at Floating Cloud café, still missing Meg, my poor old dog. She is still limping, but eating well and cold nose.
It is a proud moment to be meeting where so many little boats gathered in 1940 for Dunkirk. The footbridge is familiar from the movie. I wonder what they felt, setting off across the Channel to the rescue. Apprehensive might be an understatement. 
Odd rain drops, thick humidity, distant rumbles of thunder, ominous start as we cross the bridge. The bike/buggy access is a fine piece of TLS work, and the much appreciated. If my term as chairman produces just one thing as practical, and attractive as this I will not have wasted my time.
A touching meeting with some local volunteers gathering wild flowers for the funeral of someone who has worked so hard on keeping Ham Lands attractive. It is sad to hear of her passing, but good to be able to add a tribute from TLS to the many tributes that will be paid. 
There are some temporary moorings opposite to upstream end of the lock. They are not much used because a little further upstream there is a collection of residential boats, many unlicensed. This stretch is not designated for residential mooring and is a cause of some controversy. It is strange that some, not all, people should add to their illegal occupation of moorings offensively unkempt appearance of boats, and untidy colonisation of bits of river bank. Good neighbourly behaviour would aid their case. We see many which, were they houses, would be subject to planning enforcement.
The legal matters around the illegal moorings are the subject of a discussion at the Hawker Centre with a local ward councillor, David Cunningham. We hear that Richmond have a new by law in course of adoption, and that he is concerned about the effects on the Kingston stretch when it is enforced. It is distressing to hear reports of more conventional residents being harassed by some from the illegal moorings.
An upside of the discussion is that we are under cover for a significant downpour, and emerge as it finishes. We inspect a hedge planted by TLS that has suffered from lack of watering, and talk about acquiring a portable pump.
The approach to Canbury Gardens is along as narrow and crowded stretch of path as any encountered so far, but it seems to work. We have to step aside for cars and bikes, but no one actually runs us down. Maybe living in Kingston teaches one tolerance.

Canbury Gardens has long been at the top of the agenda at TLS. Jason has devised schemes, and even had funding bids accepted, but we have yet to make a start. It is a park with a lot to offer, and much of it is excellent, but the edge of the Thames is eroding and shabby. The plans we will carry out when we get funding will give a new and much more natural bank, which will offer more to the many thriving boating groups along this reach. 
Much has been done along the link to Kingston Town Centre, a splendid new Sea Cadet building warms the heart. It does need to be an inviting and vibrant pedestrian route. It is not at the moment, but work is still in progress. Maybe the site of the boathouse where Jerome K Jerome hired his skiff for the trip that produced “Three Men in a Boat,” will eventually be marked. If the planned piazza beside John Lewis is successful that will help tremendously.
It is astonishing that John Lewis refuse to engage with the river, to the extent of blanking out their windows that overlook it and doors that open onto the riverside walk. It reminds one of Bill Shankly, who is supposed to have said that if Everton were playing at the end of his garden, he would draw the curtains.
Kingston Bridge is worth a longer study than we have got time for, stylish, though much extended and altered, and still retaining Georgian grace and elegance, and the view down river to Star & Garter atop Richmond Hill, the “fons et origo” of the arcadia project.
We head down the famous Barge Walk, our first venture north of the river.  The maintenance is of a very different standard, although the confusing overlap and interplay of agencies makes it hard to know quite who to praise. As we progress along this rural ride we are at times in the purview of Royal Parks, Historical Royal Palaces, Crown Estates, the Royal Household, with TLS, I like to think, as the glue that binds them. If not they work well together. The management of the vegetation shades almost imperceptibly as we travel. From the Urban formality of the Kingston end, we morph into the wild country of the mid-point, knowing that soon the style will be the majestic cadences of the palace surroundings. At mid-point we look at the truly great work done, by TLS, in the paddocks, to restore the flood plain. Reed beds are well re-established, and sluices and ditches functioning as they were in the times of the Knights Templar.  There is a lesson there for Dan Brown. We can see across to Seething Wells, perhaps the most difficult decision for Kingston, where to do nothing is not an option, but more of that when we re-cross.
The day is heating up well. There is much recourse to water bottles, and a longing for a rest at the palace. At the hottest time of day we find ourselves opposite Thames Ditton Island. It is so hard to believe, looking at the peaceful collection of beautifully appointed cottages, how close it all came to washing away in 2010, when the island was evacuated. Only the two upstream dwellings, which took the brunt of the inundation, were lost.
A glimpse of Hampton Court Bridge, and a gate on our left into the garden, show that we are close to halfway point. The King’s terrace, where William III could head for his croquet pavilion, viewing the Thames over the heads of his subjects, still commands a wonderful view and delightful prospect.
Yet nearer to the palace the park and playing fields of Thames Ditton are a shining example of what TLS can do to reprofile a bank, and do away with hideous shutter piling. Who could imagine that now looking at it. Cigarette Island, beyond the confluence of the Mole, has a similar, natural, profile, never having been shutter piled. What a great frame for a little river is made by island and park, striking symmetry, in the English landscape tradition. What a surprise to find they are not connected by bridge. It is even more of a surprise to find that residents long for a route to Hampton Court station. Their much longer road route is broken by a level crossing. 
Suddenly getting to the palace makes one conscious of the lack of a word in English as an antonym to warmth. That all embracing physical relief of the relief from heat and light of an ancient building. “Coolth” comes close, but it is not a real word. My friend and fellow Councillor, Sam Hearne, (whose day job is with HRP) is welcoming us to his office in what were once Grace and Favour apartments.  The purpose of the visit is to talk about TLS partnership work with HRP, but the comparative ease and comfort bring me close to nodding off. We float some ideas for TLS 20th birthday celebrations, and head off across the bridge for the Elmbridge District Council village of Thames Ditton, much viewed from the Bargewalk. We pass the site of the “Jolly Boatman”, about which so much has been said and written, we do not need to go into it again. It does not look as though TLS will have much involvement with this important site. 
I had not realised what an interesting, historic place Thames Ditton was. It is worth another visit, when I am not so much concerned with the river. It was sad to see a wonderful stately home, apparently built for the Duke of Albany, boarded up and deteriorating, having ceased to be a care home. I do wonder at people who win the lottery. Don’t they realise what they can do with a few million on a property like that?
Our last visit of the day is the intriguingly named Seething Wells. As I said earlier, it is a very difficult decision for Kingston to make. On the one hand it is Metropolitan Open Land, and that should make it inviolate. On the other hand the habitat value will deteriorate if it is not managed. It was, previously, filter beds for Thames Water, and it has all the hazards and problems of post-industrial sites. To get to a solution which can pay for all the management the site needs for habitat value, and safety for public access, without having overdevelopment, will take finely nuanced planning.
In late afternoon, after a day full of interest and incident and charm, but horribly deficient in food I am dropped within sight of Kingston station, by the very kind Jill Green of the Residents Planning Alliance, (who, for the first time, made the issues of Seething Wells clear to me) for my journey home via Twickenham.  No one who has not attempted to get into that station could ever believe the difficulty. It must be in competition with the better known, though less frustrating, maze at Hampton Court. It would be interesting to have a time trial. Changing, eventually, at Twickenham I find a flapjack and some juice in the coffee-shop, so do not faint from hunger. The thought of attending a Council committee meeting gets me through. They are such inspirational occasions, and tomorrow is the last day of the trek.