I love walking the River Thames, especially in west London where the city starts to fade away and things become a bit greener. At Putney the concrete paving of the Thames Path National Trail turns into a muddy track, and the grinding urban landscape gives way to become almost rustic. There are more trees than buildings, dog walkers in Wellington boots outnumber people tapping away on their mobile devices. In a crowded city the river offers a sense of space, the vast sky becomes visible.
You never quite leave the city behind, wandering off the river path will bring you abruptly back into an urban environment, but between Kew and Richmond there is a wealth of green space linked by the river. Kew is known as the home of the Royal Botanical Gardens, the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to all things plant, but Kew itself is a lovely place.
Walking up river on a cold, sunny winter’s day is wonderful; sunny days have been in short supply and because it was mid-week the Thames Path was largely empty. The cyclists and joggers who take to the path in their hundreds at weekends, were safely tucked away in office buildings, leaving it in the care of a few dog walkers and my good self. Passing under Chiswick Bridge along the tree-lined path the occasional rowing boat passes, and the only reminder that you’re in a city of eight million is the buzzing airplanes overhead.
Ducking under a railway bridge, trains thundering overhead, you soon spot Oliver’s Island. This small wooded island in the middle of the Thames is rumoured to have been a secret base from which Oliver Cromwell led operations during the English Civil War. There’s no truth to the story, but the name has stuck. Once past the island you find yourself at Kew Bridge, with the option of going into Kew or crossing the river to Strand-on-the-Green along the north bank.
Nestling in a bend of the river, Kew retains a distinctly village-like feel – albeit a very well heeled village. In part the village feel exists because Kew retains that most traditional of village landmarks, a ‘green’. Kew Green’s grassy public space is a large area surrounded by elegant Georgian houses. It is home to a cricket pitch and in the centre of the space is the splendid looking Church of St. Anne.
St. Anne’s was built in 1714 on land given to the Church by Queen Anne. Its a grand-looking building sitting amidst Kew Green, if you could climb the tower you’d be able to see the Royal Botanical Gardens just beyond the Green. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of people buried here who are associated with the Botanical Gardens, including Sir William Hooker, Director of the Gardens, and his son, botanist and explorer, Sir Joseph Hooker.
Kew is almost as strongly associated with artists as it is botanists; its no surprise that the cemetery’s most famous resident is the wonderful landscape artist, Thomas Gainsborough, who lived nearby. It is also the burial place of German neoclassical artist and fellow member of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany. Zoffany lived at Strand-on-the-Green and enjoyed the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte, giving him access to the highest society.
Zoffany was, alarmingly, unique amongst contemporary artists. William Dalrymple, the historian and writer, has described him as “the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal.” I’m sure that’s not how he’d prefer to be remembered, but sadly its true. Zoffany was returning to Europe from India when he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. The desperate, and desperately hungry, survivors held a lottery in which the loser was turned into dinner.
The river is tidal at Kew – and for a few more miles up river. The tide was high the day I was there, it doesn’t affect walkers too much but is a recurring issue for people living on the banks. The houses which dramatically line the river at Strand-on-the-Green are regularly inundated with water. Walking past them on a footpath still wet from when the river most recently came over the bank, their vulnerability to flooding is clear. Many doorways are set high in the wall for just such an occasion.
While messing around by the river I discovered the Musical Museum, home to a collection of mechanical musical instruments, including a giant Wurlitzer. The museum was closed, but there’s no way I can resist the appeal of a giant Wurlitzer…