Saturday, 19 December 2015

London Loop 7/8: Banstead - Ewell - Kingston upon Thames

Site of Henry VIII's palace at Nonsuch, between Cheam and Ewell. Look on my works, ye mighty.

THE LONDON LOOP NOW TAKES US BACK TOWARDS THE THAMES in the same fashion as it led us away, by following a tributary. The trail parallels the river Hogsmill along its entire length, from its source at Ewell to its confluence at Kingston upon Thames, the latter easily the most interesting historic town along the whole route. Unfortunately getting to Ewell from the downlands in the first place is rather more problematic, with swathes of suburbia in the way. But even this is brightened by the discovery of the scant remains of one of Henry VIII’s grands projets among the grass and trees of a Surrey park.

Once again I’ve opted to treat two successive sections of the Loop together, but you could do otherwise. The official break point is at Ewell, but as section 7 is one of the shortest, and with more of its fair share of suburban streets, you may want to push on alongside the Hogsmill at least as far as Tolworth. And as always there are numerous other places to break your journey.

St Paul's Howell Hill: evangelical modernism

South Cheam and East Ewell

The walk starts with a last farewell to the chalk downlands, although a relatively unspectacular one as the rest of Banstead Downs is occupied by golf courses. It’s a pleasant enough stroll through secondary woodland and over a rough turf strip alongside a fairway. And given what follows even this will seem a welcome patch of green.

Between the downs and the source of the Hogsmill, a patch of interwar suburbia spreads like a rash. The only choice for the Loop is to make the best of streets which, though generally quiet and pleasantly leafy, are far from architecturally distinguished, with monotonous lines of Tudorbethan semidetached houses sporting half-timbered flourishes designed to fool the interwar respectable middle classes into thinking they had claimed their own patch of Olde England.

The right of way north from Banstead is Sandy Lane, an old road to Cheam, with a name that evokes the former appearance of its surroundings. The southern section through the golf course runs across protected commons and has been preserved as a footpath, but leaving the course the Loop returns for a while into the London Borough of Sutton where its line has become a built-up southern tendril of Cheam. The houses on the rather more exclusive Cuddington Lane, a private road that nudges the trail westwards, date from after World War II: the road itself was laid out during the war by Canadian forces stationed here. Warren Lane, opposite, recalls a previous use of the land to the east as a hare warren in the 17th century.

Further west along Northey Avenue, the trail leaves London again and enters its third and final Surrey district, Epsom and Ewell – though once again with no visible rationale, as the entire street is solidly lined with housing. This area, now usually thought of as East Ewell, was once part of Cuddington parish, the core of which was swept away in Tudor times, as we shall see.

The monotony is slightly relieved at the junction with Cheam Road by St Paul’s Howell Hill church. This street corner site was acquired by the Church of England during the original development in 1929 but a church wasn’t finally built until 1963 following a local campaign. It was demolished and rebuilt on a grander scale in 1987 and again largely demolished and rebuilt in 2001 by its expanding evangelical congregation. Interestingly the building preserves a modernist style more typical of the 1960s: church architects have traditionally looked to older styles for inspiration, but usually a little further back than a few decades. Cheam Road, connecting Ewell and Cheam, is also curious, with a raised main carriageway and a parallel drive on each side, both of which are known as Nonsuch Walk.

Warren Farm and Nonsuch

The ghost roads in Nonsuch Park: barley visible at the edges of the frame.
The Loop runs under the Croydon and Epsom Railway, now part of Southern’s Sutton and Mole Valley lines. The original 1844 plan for this extension of the London and Croydon Railway (LCR) was for an ‘atmospheric railway’ with vehicles bolted to a piston inserted in a tube below the tracks which would be sucked along by pumping out the air. But a prototype tried by the LCR between Forest Hill and Croydon encountered numerous practical problems and when the Epsom branch finally opened in 1847, now as part of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR), it was operated by conventional locomotives.

Beyond the railway is the very welcome green of Warren Farm, an informal open space now being restored as chalky grassland, and beyond that, the even larger expanse of Nonsuch Park. Between these, the Loop crosses two parallel concrete tracks in an advanced state of neglect and decay, the so-called ‘ghost roads’ – a reminder that this treasured place only narrowly escaped ending up like the environment we’ve just walked through. The tracks are the abandoned beginnings of a proposed arterial road, built in the 1930s in preparation for development of the whole area – plans that were disrupted when a consortium of the London County Council, Surrey County Council and the predecessors of Sutton and Epsom & Ewell bought the land to the north as a park under Green Belt powers in 1937, and further interrupted by World War II.

Warren Farm wasn’t within that protected area: it returned to being managed as a hay farm after the war, a use it had sustained since 1680, but continued to be subject to development pressure, with numerous proposals over the succeeding decades. Farming ceased in 1988 when the site was bought by developers, but a public enquiry gave the go-ahead only to limited areas of housing to the west, and in 1994 the rest of the land was given to the Woodland Trust, which continues to look after it.

The history of the whole site prior to this is even more fascinating. In 1538, King Henry VIII swapped monastic estates he’d seized in Suffolk for the manor of Cuddington, with the intention of turning both this and adjoining lands bought in separate purchases into a new hunting park to celebrate his 30th year on the throne. Originally this park was much larger than it is today. The biggest section, the 369 ha Great Park, stretched from the London Road, today’s A24, northwest to the Hogsmill at Worcester Park Road on the edge of Malden. Little Park occupied a slightly more modest 272 ha from the other side of London Road southeast to Cheam Road, including the open space that remains today.

In accordance with the practice of the time, the northeast portion of Little Park was set aside as an inner or ‘home’ park. Here, Henry had the entire village of Cuddington, including church and manor house, razed, and in its place built a palace based around two courtyards. Measuring only around 100 m by 50 m, it wasn’t exceptionally huge, but it was exceptionally fine, taking nine years to build, with Italian experts brought over to create elaborate stucco reliefs in carved slate highlighted with gold leaf. There was apparently none such as this building in the whole of Europe, hence the name, Nonsuch Palace. A separate banqueting house was built about 270 m to the southwest, on a small hill with fine views, used not only for dining but for spectating on the sport in the park, with deer being driven past it.

Henry Tudor (1491-1547), who reigned as Henry VIII of England from 1509, is a complex figure. He’s one of the best-known English monarchs, and most people will be able to tell you he got through six wives. Popular culture has a soft spot for ruthless villains with a sense of style, and Henry fits the bill well.

The usual image is of a larger-than-life character, a tyrant with a tendency to chop off the heads of those who stood in his way, even if he happened to be married to them, but at the same time a portly and hearty bon vivant with an insatiable appetite for good food, fine clothes, hunting and music. And no doubt this image has at least some basis in truth, but it also obscures the contribution Henry made to laying the foundations for the economic and military development of England into the world power it was to become.

Henry’s break with Rome is often seen as simply the result of the Pope’s refusal to sanction his divorce from second wife Anne Boleyn. But it was also about asserting England’s independence as a nation state. It certainly wasn’t about the ideological and theological disputes with the Roman Catholic church that fired some of the Protestant leaders of mainland Europe, as Henry published papers in defence of numerous Catholic doctrines.

The dissolution of the monasteries and appropriation of their property that followed certainly enriched the king’s personal finances, but in freeing large areas of land from monastic control, Henry also laid some of the basis for the later agrarian revolution. In many other parts of Europe, the conservative influence of monastic orders on economic life wasn’t finally broken until the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic era.

And, in an absolute monarchy where the person of the monarch is closely identified with the nation state, even apparent vanity projects have a broader purpose in demonstrating strength and power. The political and diplomatic subtext of Nonsuch was the ongoing jostling between England and arch-rival France: the French king, François I, was also a prodigious palace-builder, particularly noted for his luxurious reconstruction and expansion of the Château de Fontainebleau, which Nonsuch set out to rival.

In the event, the palace turned out to be one of Henry’s least enduring legacies. When he died in 1547 the building wasn’t quite complete. Ownership of the site was subsequently divided and passed through several hands. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I bought back Little Park and the palace in 1592 and in 1673 Charles II gifted it to his mistress Barbara Villiers, a notorious gambler who once lost £20,000 – equivalent to over £3 million today – in a single night.

Despite taking the title Baroness Nonsuch, she largely treated the site as a means of financing her habit, demolishing the palace to sell off for building materials, and dividing much of Little Park into tenanted farms which included not only Warren Farm but also Cherry Orchard Farm on the land between the palace and the banqueting hall.

Between 1802-06 Huntingdon MP Samuel Farmer, built a new large house in the east of the park on the site of the former keeper’s lodge. Known as the Mansion House, this still stands today, though is off our route. It was Farmer’s descendants who sold what was left of the site to the local authorities in 1937.

Today, Nonsuch Park is ultimately owned by Surrey County Council, and jointly managed by Epsom & Ewell and the London Borough of Sutton: although it’s completely within the territory of the former, the eastern boundary adjoins Cheam Village, in Sutton. The western section, around the banqueting house, is separately owned by Epsom & Ewell. It’s a popular site, particularly with dog walkers: when I last visited, on a misty mid-morning in late autumn, the Avenue, laid out in the 1810s when the last remains of the palace were levelled, bustled with the canine equivalent of a Saturday shopping crowd.

The remains of Henry VIII's banqueting house at Nonsuch, overwhelmed by outgrowths of a Victorian arboretum.

The Loop joins the Avenue for a while, but then branches away just past the more recent Castlemaine Lodge, named after one of Villiers’ many titles. At this point it’s worth diverting just a little to stay on the Avenue as it swings north, running right across the palace site. The footprint of the building, as established by excavations in the 1950s, straddles this path lengthwise, so you’re walking through what would once have been the two courtyards, and three concrete obelisks mark the eastern edge. But look around you: otherwise this is a slightly wild grassy open space, and every trace of the palace that once had no equal has been effaced as surely as its creator effaced the mediaeval village that preceded it. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

Further along the Loop, the site of the banqueting house on its little hill, now a scheduled ancient monument, is more obvious, but only because in the 1840s the retaining wall of the platform on which it stood was rebuilt partly from the original Tudor bricks as part of a project to create an arboretum. Some of the trees from this still stand nearby, while secondary woodland has overwhelmed the banqueting house itself, which now looks like a square of red brick sprouting a miniature forest. François, meanwhile, gets the last laugh as Fontainebleau still stands 55 km outside Paris, now the only surviving continuously inhabited royal palace in France.


The first historic settlement directly on the Loop for some time, Ewell lies at the northern end of a tongue of chalk where it meets the gravelly Thanet and Woolwich beds, giving rise to the springs that feed the river Hogsmill – the name is partly cognate with ‘well’ in the sense of ‘spring’. This fertile area was extensively farmed in Celtic times, and during the Roman occupation it grew in importance when Stane Street, the main road from London to Chichester, passed through, bending a little from its straight alignment to stick to the well-drained chalk. That road, now part of the A24, still marks the northern boundary of Nonsuch Park, but in Ewell itself the alignment has been lost beneath a street pattern that grew from a mediaeval crossroads.

Ewell appears in the Domesday survey and was held from the 1190s to the Dissolution by Merton Abbey. By this stage it had developed into a market town, though the market seems to have dwindled away in the early 19th century, and these days most locals think of the place as a large village. It also enjoyed some modest significance as an industrial centre, as we shall see.

An Englishman's home... Ewell Castle.
The first railway to reach Ewell was the LB&SCR’s Croydon and Epsom in 1847, which the Loop has already crossed on the edge of Warren Farm. This had a station now known as Ewell East, some distance southeast of the centre. A decade later, a competitor, the London and South Western Railway (LSWR), opened the Wimbledon and Dorking Railway, actually a branch from the LSWR’s main line at Raynes Park to Epsom with the intention of eventually reaching the North Downs and South Coast. This included what’s now Ewell West station, rather closer to the centre, and like the existing station one stop before Epsom. In the event the two companies were forced to share lines south of Epsom, but even today, Ewell East is served by train operator Southern, connecting with London Victoria, while Ewell West has South West Trains to London Waterloo.

The railway secured Ewell’s destiny as a commuter suburb, although much of the suburban infill didn’t appear until the 1920s and 1930s, following electrification of the lines. Today Ewell is another of those places on the Loop which, though outside London, is largely indistinguishable from it, and only remains officially in Surrey thanks to a quirk of politics that preserved its ancient parish boundary.

Leaving Nonsuch the Loop crosses Stane Street’s modern successor the A24. The wiggling mediaeval line through Ewell itself was diverted in 1932 along this eastern bypass, one of numerous interwar improvements to trunk routes out of London. On the other side you follow a historic link between park and village which is scattered with interesting buildings, now forming part of a conservation area.

Tower with no church: Ewell old church
First, on the left, is Ewell Castle, a mansion dating from 1814 in a rather forbidding castellated style. Since 1917 this has been used as an independent school, of which hellraising actor Oliver Reed was an old boy. Opposite a detached church tower, half-obscured by trees, stands in a spooky churchyard. The tower is all that remains of the original St Mary’s Church, which, though largely 13th century work, had foundations dating back at least to the 10th century and was once controlled by Chertsey Abbey. The tower itself was built of flint rubble and Reigate stone in the early 15th century.

In the 1840s the vicar, Sir George Lewen Glyn, also a major local landowner, campaigned for a new church on the basis that the old one had dangerous structural problems and was too small to accommodate the increase in population expected with the opening of the railway. Despite much local opposition, Sir George got his way, and the new St Mary’s, just to the north, was consecrated in 1848. But his opponents blocked the demolition of the old tower, which is now a scheduled ancient monument.

The crossroads at the end of Church Street is the mediaeval nucleus and was once the site of the Thursday market. A market house, demolished around 1800, stood on the right hand (northeast) corner here. Still standing just opposite is a modest building from the 1780s known as the Watch House, which was built for a dual purpose: to house the town’s fire engine, and to incarcerate miscreants, who had originally been locked up in the market house.

The Loop follows a short section of the High Street and enters Bourne Hall Park through a massive white gateway topped with a sculpture of a Talbot hound. This ‘Dog Gate’ is the most substantial reminder of Garbrand Hall, which occupied the site of the park from around 1770, although the gate was added by new owners in the 1790s. Next to it is a modest war memorial – originally a war ‘shrine’ installed while World War I was still raging in 1917, though the railings that surround it commemorate an earlier war. They were erected in 1816 following the defeat of Napoleonic France.

The site has a tenuous connection to the early history of the British film industry – between 1917-18 it was leased by AC Films, a rather unsuccessful and short-lived production company founded by André Charlot who later collaborated on West End revues with Noël Coward. It was renamed Bourne Hall in 1929 when it became the girls’ department of Ewell Castle School, a use which continued for a few years after its owner, a descendant of George Glyn, sold the freehold to the council in 1945. The school never made money and closed unexpectedly in 1953: some of its students turned up for the new term to find the gates shut. The council opened the grounds as a public park and planned to convert the mansion into a library, but the building turned out to be badly dilapidated and was demolished in 1962.

Its replacement is one of the most striking contemporary buildings on the Loop, with an impact only enhanced by its setting amid the picturesque lawns, gardens and water features of a site that preserves elements of both Georgian country estate and 1950s municipal park.

It’s a low-slung circular building in concrete, glass and copper, with tall windows, external mosaics and a central dome and roof light surrounded by protruding ribs, designed by former Birmingham city architect Alwyn Gwilyn Sheppard Fidler as his first commission in private practice, and opened in 1970. This Bourne Hall is still in use for its original purpose: a combined library, museum, community centre and performance space, with an underground theatre/lecture hall. It’s impossible to resist the comparison employed by every other description I’ve read of the building, even in its official Grade II listing which was finally granted in 2015: it looks like a flying saucer has landed in the middle of the park.

The municipal library has landed. Bourne Hall, Ewell.

The Hogsmill

The Hogsmill through Hogsmill open space: yes, this did once power several mills.

A fingerpost in the northeast corner of Bourne Hall Park marks the end of London Loop section 7, with a short link to Ewell West station. From here section 8 continues along the valley of the river Hogsmill for almost its entire 10 km length from its source in the park to its confluence at Kingston upon Thames. As with many other London rivers, the need to manage the risk of flooding has influenced land use, leaving strips of riverside land undeveloped and often put to secondary use as public open space, so much of the path is along the river itself, but in places a lack of public access forces the trail further up the sides of the valley.

There’s been a promoted walk along the river for some time – it was first proposed in the 1980s by a local friends group and was partially signed by Epsom & Ewell and Kingston councils as the Hogsmill Trail. Some of this signing is still around but has been superseded both by the Loop and, more recently, by the Epsom & Ewell Round the Borough Walk and cycling route which follows the valley between Bourne Hall and Tolworth.

The springs are now subsumed into the lowest of the ponds which they feed in Bourne Hall Park, initially on the right of the trail. It’s not known exactly when these ponds were created, but most likely it was in the 1790s when the gate was erected and the grounds re-landscaped. North of the hall, a lakeside path through trees emerges at Upper Mill, and continues alongside the stream to pass Lower Mill. As attested by the river’s name, it once boasted numerous mills, taking advantage of what was formerly a more vigorous stream. The first part of the name, incidentally, probably has nothing to do with pigs but derives from a personal name dating back to the 12th century.

Upper and Lower Mills may well be on the sites of the two mills mentioned in the Domesday survey, and during their long history they were put to various uses, milling among other things paper, flour and timber. Upper Mill is a big, bulky 18th century weatherboarded building with gables and an overhang for a sack hoist. It last operated in 1953 and was owned for a time in the 1970s by the aforementioned Oliver Reed. It now houses the national offices of helpline charity the Samaritans. Lower Mill burnt down in 1938 but the mill house survives, and the site is also now in office use.

The Hogsmill in the imagination of John Everett Millais: Ophelia sings her last song.

The river also has artistic connections. Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (1829-96) often stayed here with family friends. In 1846 he first met his future wife Effie Gray at a dance at Ewell Castle: they eventually married in 1855, following the annulment of her unconsummated marriage to critic John Ruskin, a champion of Millais and his colleagues. The love triangle between these three has been explored extensively in both fiction and non-fiction.

Millais’ famous painting Ophelia, depicting the character from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet singing as she drowns, uses the Hogsmill as a backdrop. Millais’ collaborator and fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was born in Ewell: his The Hireling Shepherd (1851) is set among the meadows by Ewell Court Farm, while The Light of the World (1853) depicts Jesus knocking on the door of a disused hut once attached to the gunpowder mills that once lined the river.

Ewell’s riverside

Walking on water: negotiating the Wimbledon and Dorking Railway on the Hogsmill walk.

The Loop negotiates the potential barrier of the Wimbledon and Dorking Railway on one of its most remarkable stretches of infrastructure. The path runs through the same narrow Victorian brick arch as the river itself – not beside it, but above it, on a raised wooden walkway right over the water.

On the other side of the railway the Loop enters the Hogsmill Open Space, a collection of riverside meadows and former industrial sites bought by the council in stages between 1932 and 1937 and now a Local Nature Reserve, noted for kingfishers, butterflies and a rare ladybird. Technically the river is known as the Hogsmill Stream until its confluence a little further on with the Green Lanes Stream which rises 3.5 km away at Stamford Green Pond on Epsom Common. The walk through the rest of Epsom and Ewell is now along recently-improved broad and well-defined paths, mostly shared with cyclists, although few were in evidence when I last walked this way.

The stretch of riverside through the Open Space was once one of the most dangerous in the London area: it housed a gunpowder mill complex, established in 1754. This employed 156 people at its height, when it was supplying some of the gunpowder used in the 1861-65 American Civil War. Not long afterwards, an 1875 act of parliament introduced new restrictions on gunpowder production which rendered the mill uneconomic, and it closed that year.

The mill complex began just where the path crosses the bridge to follow the southwest (left) bank of the Hogsmill, soon after the (modern) stepping stones, and ended just before the more open stretch to Ruxley Lane. It included substantial portions of the Poole Road Recreation Ground, the more open area with sports pitches and running track you’ll see on your left.

Very little trace remains: even many of the artificial channels and mill races that the river was manipulated through to best serve the site have been filled in. One of the millstones has been recovered and preserved on a plinth in the recreation ground, just off the route, but the hut immortalised in oils by Holman Hunt has vanished. The ground, dating from 1935, is an officially designated King George’s Field – it’s also known locally as the King George V Recreation Ground. For more about these see the London Countryway walk through Tilbury.

Opposite the recreation ground, a further tributary, the Ewell Court Stream, joins the river. This rises 2.7 km away on the northern edge of Nonsuch Park and flows partly underground past Stoneleigh station. Just off our route, before joining the Hogsmill, the Packhorse Bridge crosses this stream, another reminder of the gunpowder mills as it was once used by mules transporting ingredients in and gunpowder out of the site.

Just before Ruxley Lane, the Hogsmill is joined by the Horton Stream, which rises 5.3 km away near the old West Park Hospital. The lane, the first road to cross the Hogsmill since leaving Ewell, ran through relatively rural surroundings until the 1950s when the present estates were built along it. The crossing is now barely noticeable for drivers, but before World War II this was a ford known as Ruxley Splash – there was a wooden footbridge for pedestrians but vehicles had to pass through the water and often became mired.

The narrow riverside green space continues north of Ruxley Splash. Approaching Tolworth Bridge, two substantial foot- and cycle-bridges to the left mark the confluence of the Hogsmill’s major tributary the Bonesgate Stream, which rises 5 km away at Malden Rushett south of Chessington. By rights it should be regarded as the main channel as its length combined with the rest of the Hogsmill gives the longest continuous flow. The Bonesgate also boasts a good riverside footpath, which now carries not only the Round the Borough Walk but also the 24 km Thames Down Link.

This latter was the creation of the Lower Mole Countryside Management Project, a sister of the Downlands partnership established in 1983, though the Link opened soon after the early sections of the Loop in the late 1990s. It’s so called as it connects the river Thames and the North Downs: south of here it runs via Horton Country Park to the North Downs Way, and the London Countryway, at the well-known beauty sport of Box Hill on the outskirts of Dorking. Northwards it shares its alignment with the London Loop to Kingston.

On the other side of the Bonesgate, the open fields of Tolworth Court Farm, demarcated by ancient hedgerows, have been preserved as another nature reserve and public open space. Despite their more open aspect compared with the housing to the east of the river, they’re actually in London, in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames: the Bonesgate, and then the combined streams, form the boundary here.

Tolworth Court Bridge is some way south of the centre of Tolworth, originally a hamlet in the parish of Long Ditton that expanded massively in the 1930s following the construction of the A3 Kingston bypass in 1927. Its location is obvious thanks to the 81 m Tolworth Tower, the tallest building in outer London and clearly visible from the Loop, built on the site of a former cinema to a design by Richard Seifert’s partnership in 1964. The now-demolished Toby Jug pub nearby was a renowned music venue which among other things hosted the first date of David Bowie’s legendary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars tour in 1972.

Worcester Park and Old Malden

The London Loop follows the Hogsmill under the Chessington branch railway near Malden Manor.

Our trail now crosses the bridge into Kingston, its last London borough south of the Thames, and turns to follow a much narrower track on the west side of the Hogsmill, squeezed between the river and the Surbiton Raceway go-kart track and sports grounds. The land on the other side of the river here was once part of Nonsuch Great Park, which should give you an idea of the scale of the place: this reach of the Hogsmill marked the park’s northwestern boundary.

For years since the opening of both the Loop and the Thames Down Link, riverside access has temporarily ended by a small bridge on the drive to Riverhill Sports Centre, but the official Transport for London route directions now talk about “two options” including a riverside route, and the latest Ordnance Survey Explorer maps also show the promoted route continuing along the river. But when I looked, wooden hoardings blocked any further downstream progress, and the TfL description of the riverside option is cursory to say the least, so it apparently remains an aspiration for now.

Instead you’ll find yourself diverting back across the Hogsmill and into Surrey and Epsom and Ewell for one last time. This is once again the old parish of Cuddington, though prosperous residential streets have long covered the rough, hilly ground where Henry VIII hunted, and these days the area is more commonly known as Worcester Park. The Earl of Worcester was appointed keeper of Nonsuch Park in 1606: his lodge, which burnt down in 1948, was known as Worcester Park House and the name was borrowed when the area was developed for housing from the 1860s. The old parish name is preserved at the Church of St Mary’s Cuddington, which you can see atop the hill ahead just before the Loop curves off along prosperous Royal Avenue: this was opened in 1895 as a belated successor to the church demolished by Henry, and is dedicated to the same saint.

Where Royal Avenue continues ahead as a footpath at its junction with Highdown and Barrow Hill, the Loop burrows definitively back into Kingston, and before long it passes another interesting church, St John the Baptist, Old Malden. Although now subsumed into Worcester Park, this was once the parish church of the separate parish of Malden, with foundations dating back to Saxon times and an entry in the Domesday survey. The current building dates largely from 1611, with extensions added in 1875 and 2004. Opposite is the old manor house and manor farm. Malden only became known as Old Malden after the suburb of New Malden was developed around the railway to the north in the second half of the 19th century.

It’s still a pleasantly rural-seeming walk along the old church drive and then downhill on a footpath that rejoins the riverside. The riverside strip here, like its fellow in Ewell, is known as the Hogsmill Open Space, acquired as open land by Kingston’s predecessor councils in the 1930s. These meadows below the church were the actual location of the background scene in Millais’ Ophelia, and although they don’t quite have the vividness the painter lent them, they’re still a pleasant place to dwell. A little further downstream the river and the path pass under a broad concrete viaduct carrying the Chessington Branch, the last line ever built by the Southern Railway, opened in 1938 to serve new housing developments in the area. The shady pillars of the viaduct contrast sharply with the landscape Millais celebrated, but are atmospheric in their own way.

Soon afterwards the Loop emerges on the A3 Kingston bypass (Malden Way), the successor to the original London-Portsmouth road, a major link between the capital and England’s principal naval port. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, traffic on the original route was causing serious congestion through Kingston itself, and a bypass was first proposed by government as early as 1912. This substantial 13.7 km highway, which begins at Robin Hood’s Gate on the southern edge of Richmond Park (and on the Capital Ring walking route), was opened in 1927: the ceremony included a dinner for 800 guests in marquees on the carriageway of the Malden Flyover.

Surbiton and Berrylands

The green strip continues still further on the other side of the bypass, on the Surbiton side of the river. Surbiton even sounds suburban, and it was indeed largely an invention of the railway, as explained later. But the name is an old one, meaning ‘southern granary’, complementing Norbiton on the other side of the Hogsmill, and originally designated a small hamlet with a few farms.

Shortly the lowest tributary, Tolworth Brook, joins from the left – this is also the longest, rising 6 km away at Claygate. By now the surroundings have become an urban green overlooked by housing estates and again the riverside is blocked, so the Loop climbs up the valley through the Berrylands estate, which borrows the name of farm on which it was largely built. The origin of the name isn’t as pretty as it sounds: it has nothing to do with berries but is from the Old English beorh meaning ‘hill’, cognate with German ‘Berg’. Which is appropriate as the largely 1930s development isn’t quite as pretty as it sounds either.

Over a low hill the route descends into the valley again and under the viaduct of the South Western Main Line railway from London Waterloo to Southampton, passing by Berrylands station, one of the few actually directly on the Loop. The original railway, since widened, opened in 1838, but the station wasn’t added here until almost a century later, in 1933, its cost almost entirely financed by housing developers. Although on the main line it’s served only by local services on the outer slow lines, and remains one of the few stations in London to retain wooden platforms.

Reeds sprout from sewage in Kingston's
smelliest street,
The marshy area that spreads out on both sides of the river on the other side of the railway is largely occupied by a huge Thames Water sewage works, an amalgamation of three separate plants constructed in 1900, 1912 and 1953. Parts of this are now out of use and managed as nature reserves, although not currently open to the public. Elsewhere on the site are cemeteries, allotments, a waste disposal centre, pockets of derelict land and, on the northern edge, the Kingsmeadow football stadium, currently the home of cult League Two team AFC Wimbledon, which they share with local non-league team the Kingstonians.

The Loop follows the only public through-route across the site, Lower Marsh Lane, which begins as a footpath and cycleway between the high fences of two sections of the works and eventually morphs into a residential street, named in 2011 as the smelliest street in Kingston. The area is earmarked for redevelopment: there’s a Hogsmill Valley Master Plan which proposes a student village, new public spaces, an expanded stadium and a riverside path, so the route here is likely to change in future.

Emerging on busy Villiers Road the surroundings become much more town-like. The trail passes Athelstan Recreation Ground on the edge of the Hogsmill Valley site, created from fields in the 1920s to provide green space for the housing developments and named after one of the Saxon kings crowned at Kingston. It then crosses the Hogsmill by the remains of 18th century Leatherhead Mill, and seems to leave the river behind again, only to cut back to it along a path for the final haul through the town centre.

Kingston upon Thames

Kingston Bridge, for centuries your last chance to walk across the Thames until London Bridge.

Of the very few major historic towns on the route of the London Loop, Kingston upon Thames is by far the most prominent, with an importance that long predates both suburban expansion and its incorporation into London. The affix, originally to distinguish the town from Kingston upon Hull in East Yorkshire, is also appropriate because its riverside location was key to its development. Originally there was a ford here, replaced at least as early as the beginning of the 12th century by a bridge which, until 1729 when Putney Bridge was opened, was the lowest fixed crossing of the Thames above London Bridge. It therefore stood on one of the key transit routes from Middlesex to Surrey, as well as on the Portsmouth Road, which became the main coaching route from London to the naval dockyard at Portsmouth.

Kingston’s name means ‘the king’s manor’, from Old English Cyninges tun, and it was already a royal estate of some importance in 838, when it first appears in the historical record as the venue of a meeting between Ceolnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Egbert, king of Wessex, accompanied by his son Æthelwulf. This meeting secured the church’s support for the latter’s succession in exchange for grants of land, providing one of the planks of Ceolnoth’s grandson Alfred’s later unification of England under Wessex. Several subsequent Saxon kings were crowned here, including Æthelstan (925), Eadred (946), Æthelred (979) and likely others: the popular figure is six, though some of these are uncorroborated.

Kingston’s significance may be why William of Normandy claimed it as his own demesne following the conquest in 1066. King John granted the town its first charter in 1200, and partly negotiated the Treaty of Lambeth here in 1217, finally confirming the loss of the Norman lands in France. Kingston was made a borough in 1481, and grew still further after 1515 with the development of what became the royal palace at Hampton Court a little downstream on the opposite bank, providing housing and services to courtiers and palace workers.

When Kingston finally expanded into a London borough in 1965 the council requested a further royal charter allowing it to continue to refer to itself as a ‘royal borough’. By then it had evolved from a Surrey market town and important coaching station through a Victorian riverside resort to its current status as a major outer London centre, with a large retail area, a theatre and extensive nightlife.

There are numerous literary and cultural connections. John Cleland (1709-89), author of early erotic novel Fanny Hill, and Forsyte Saga creator John Galsworthy (1867-1933) were both born here, as was Eadward Muybridge (1830-1904), one of the pioneers of cinematography, who devised a system of photographing a rapid succession of still images to settle a bet about whether or not all four hooves of a running horse ever left the ground simultaneously.

Kingston played a major role in the history of aviation: the Sopwith Aviation Company, of Camel fame, was founded here in 1912, and taken over by Hawker Engineering in 1920. Through mergers, the company became Hawker Siddeley, then British Aerospace which closed its last factory in the town in 1992.

There’s another local government anomaly: Kingston is the county town of Surrey, despite not actually being in the county. The county council has been overwhelmed by London twice: originally Surrey was administrated from Newington, now better known as Elephant and Castle. The county town was moved after the London County Council was established in 1889, and a grand new county hall south of Kingston town centre opened in 1893. London then spread still further in 1965, but this time the council opted to stay put. Understandably, relocation has often been discussed and looked like it was about to happen early in the new millennium with a planned move to Woking, but this scheme was aborted in 2006.

Kingston has also been a university town since Kingston Polytechnic, founded as Kingston Technical Institute in 1899, gained university status in 1992. Since then the campuses have expanded: the Loop runs through one of them, the Knights Park campus. You’ll pass the door of the Stanley Picker Gallery, which though linked to the university is open to the public. It has no permanent collection, but instead commissions new work, installations and special exhibitions.

Kingston Coronation Stone: the backsides of Saxon kings
may once have been placed on this.
Further along is another educational institution, Kingston College, a higher, further and adult education college that shares a heritage with the university, as both split from the same predecessor in 1962. Its main campus on Kingston Hall Road includes the tallest building in the town centre. Soon afterwards you pass by Kingston’s council offices, walking under a covered bridge across the Hogsmill which links new buildings with the older Guildhall, an imposing circular structure with neo-classical flourishes opened in 1935.

The path emerges on the High Street by two of the town’s heritage treasures. Just a few metres away, behind railings in the front courtyard of the Guildhall, is the Coronation Stone, a slab of masonry saved from St Mary’s Chapel when it collapsed in 1730. There’s a local tradition that the Saxon kings were crowned while sitting on this stone. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries it was put to a less dignified use as a mounting block by riders climbing onto their horses in the market place. Then in 1850 a historically-minded mayor had it moved to its present location and unveiled with much ceremony, though the claims about it are tenuous as no historian prior to the 18th century mentions the thing. The names of kings inscribed on the stone inspired plain old Edward Muggeridge to change his name to Eadward Muybridge, thinking this was the Saxon equivalent.

Be sure to clatter across the Clattern Bridge
A more important piece of heritage is literally under your feet as you cross the Hogsmill one final time along the High Street. This is the Clattern or Clattering Bridge, parts of which date to 1293, making it one of the oldest road bridges still in use, although it has been widened several times. The oldest part is on the downstream side, so look back as you descend for the final length of the Hogsmill to its confluence with the Thames at Charter Quay.

This quayside, redeveloped in 2003 and now owned jointly by its occupiers, provides good quality pedestrian space and fine views of the river and Kingston Bridge, but is otherwise one of those places overburdened by cookie cutter restaurant chains. Briefly, the Loop joins the Thames Path National Trail on its long journey from the source of the river via central London to where we started our walk at Erith.

The appearance of the Thames here has changed dramatically from when we last saw it at Crayford Marshes: it’s now a prim and picturesque inland river, although still relatively broad, deep and unpredictable. Jerome K Jerome started the journey of his Three Men in a Boat here and you can still imagine jolly chaps in blazers rowing towards Hampton Court. The construction date of the first Kingston Bridge is uncertain: there are records from 1219 when the bridge was already endowed with land to generate finances for its upkeep. For centuries it was a simple wooden structure on multiple piles which required constant repair, until in 1828 it was replaced by a stone bridge, which still stands, though widened in 1911 and 2000.

The Loop continues across the bridge, but most walkers will likely break here for Kingston station. The oldest streets are to your right (south) as you walk away from the river, laid out on a pattern that parallels the Thames. Parts of All Saints church, which overlooks the old market place, date from 1120, though it’s on the site of an earlier Saxon church, the outline of which is marked outside the south door.

But the station link instead takes you through less interesting, if easily walkable, modern shopping streets. Nipper, the dog that was the model for the famous His Master’s Voice logo, was buried in a small park on Fife Road that has since been covered by buildings. One recent addition to the streetscape worth diverting for if you’ve never seen it is David Mach’s playful 1988 sculpture Out of Order, just off the route in Old London Road, made from a dozen disused phone boxes collapsed against each other like dominoes.

Kingston station, drizzly day.
Kingston station is a red brick art deco building from 1935. with services that aren’t quite what you’d expect for a place of this size and importance: all are slow trains either to and from Shepperton or on the ‘Kingston loop’ from Waterloo via Richmond and Twickenham. There’s a reason for this which is also linked to the growth of Surbiton. When a London to Southampton railway was first proposed in the 1830s, the obvious alignment was via Kingston, paralleling the road route. But the local council objected, fearing the new service would undermine the lucrative coaching trade.

So when the first part of what’s now the South Western Main Line opened in 1883 from Nine Elms (Vauxhall) to Woking, it ran via Surbiton, which was transformed from a tiny hamlet to a major new suburb originally known as New Kingston and then, amusingly, Kingston upon Railway. Kingston itself was finally reached by a branch line from Twickenham in 1863.

Kingston Bridge marks the completion of a good third of the London Loop. This stretch is sometimes known as the ‘blue section’ from the colours used on early publicity, and it was the first to be completed and promoted. At the beginning of the next walk we’ll finally cross the Thames, and discover what the outlying areas of west and northwest London have to offer the walker.