Tuesday 16 October 2018

London Countryway 2: Sole Street - Borough Green

Signature Kent architecture: oast houses originally for drying hops at Aldon Farm near Addington.

Just out of Gravesend and not that far from London itself, the London Countryway plunges into deeply rural surroundings: a rolling West Kent landscape of chalk hills and picturesque hamlets, dotted with overgrown orchards and oast houses as a reminder this was once the Garden of England. The first two-thirds of today’s walk are through a lesser-known corner of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), including a delightful wooded ridgetop path and a crossing of the main escarpment through ancient woodland, with a prehistoric long barrow nestling at the bottom of the slope. From Addington on, the trail is outside the AONB but there are pleasant locations such as lush Platt Woods to compensate for two golf courses.

There are good rail connections at start and finish, but not much opportunity to split the section further: bus stops at a couple of points have an infrequent service, and the best bus options, at least on weekdays, are at Platt, which is quite close to the end. One other option is to divert at the foot of the escarpment along the North Downs Way National Trail to Vigo Village where there’s an hourly bus to Gravesend or Borough Green (except on Sundays) but I haven’t explained this in detail as I plan on covering it in a future post on the national trail. The Countryway intertwines with a well-established signed trail, the Wealdway, as far as Platt, giving various options for circular walks. This post is an expanded and updated version of my earlier post on this section, originally numbered 18, in March 2008.

Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

From one ridge to the next: view east from Brimstone Hill, Luddesdown.

Geology is a curious thing, a set of processes outside human or animal influence, with timescales so slow they approach immutability. Its reference frame is not society or history or culture but the universe, its matter the stuff of solar systems: though an atmosphere makes things more interesting, lifeless planets do geology too. The power to influence geology through will, like the Prophet moving his mountains, still seems remote and god-like even in science fiction, where terraforming is often presented as the ultimate technological milestone of the most advanced civilisations.

And while that may be changing, if global warming theory is to be believed, it’s still a bit cold and scary to feel insignificant out here where the universe just gets on with things as it always has. The palaeozoic rocks of the ‘London platform’, at the deepest levels beneath London, are more than 400 million years old, a length of time so vast it seems meaningless.

The next layer up, and the one that will interest us most today, is admittedly a product of life, though there was certainly no conscious agency involved. During the Cretaceous period, 142-65 million years ago and before the formation of the Alps, a tropical sea washed over these rocks, and the calcium carbonate shed by microorganisms inhabiting that sea collected as a bed of what has now become chalk, a particularly pure form of limestone. This was later smothered by clays and gravels, but subsequent millennia of erosion have exposed the underlying chalk as ridges along the edges of the shelf to create the structure known as the London Basin.

London itself sits within a triangle of chalk, with the edges marked by the North Downs in the south and the Chilterns in the northwest, while much of the eastern edge is submerged by the Thames estuary. The Thames runs roughly east-west through the basin, but its own drainage basin stretches much further west, and long predates the river. This once ran on a more northerly course, until forced into its present alignment by glaciation, as we’ll discover when we reach the Vale of St Albans on section 17.

The chalk hills, with their shallow dip slopes reaching inward towards the city and their steep, wall-like scarp slopes facing sternly outwards, form one of the more concrete boundaries of London. They are part of a larger system of chalk deposits that covers much of southern and eastern England and stretches to Champagne in France, with skeins of chalk hills sweeping from Dorset to the Yorkshire Wolds. The same chalky, well-drained soils that produce some of the world’s best hops also sustain some of its most prized vines.

Chalk ridges were firmly established features of the scenery when humanity first walked across the land bridge from what's now mainland Europe, and they played an important role as early channels of communication, scored along their length by ancient trackways that probably began as animal tracks and have sometimes ended up as part of the modern road network. The springy tracks and airy open views most people associate with downland are a result of human management, particularly for grazing -- left to their own devices, like most of England they quickly revert to woodland, which is how the first downs walkers must have found them. Some sections, including those we’ll discover today, are wooded still.

Most of England’s undeveloped chalk downs now enjoy special protection. Here they form part of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which you’ll enter through the gate opposite Sole Street station. The upper-case initials indicate this isn’t just any old area of outstanding natural beauty but one which has been officially certified as such through a statutory process.

It seems a curious thing that an aesthetic, subjective judgement can be institutionalised, with officials and lobby groups debating the presence and extent of beauty, and you might expect such judgements to err in favour of traditional conceptions rather than, say, the beauty some of us might see in a derelict industrial site or a tranche of particularly interesting early 20th century social housing. Indeed, in the past there was considerable subjectivity involved in defining AONB boundaries, though as I explain when London Loop 4 dips into another designation – an Area of Great Landscape Value – in recent years the criteria have been made more specific.

AONBs also struggle with the perception that they’re a kind of second division of National Parks. Both designations result from the same post-war legislation, both are vehicles for managing areas of land in mixed and private ownership (unlike national parks and their equivalents in many other countries, where most of the land is in public ownership), and AONBs will tell you their landscapes are just as valuable as those of the national parks. But they were nonetheless set up in recognition that the resources required for a national park, which has its own statutory authority, would not stretch to covering all deserving landscape areas.

AONBs are managed instead by partnerships of local authorities and offer less protection than national parks. The ones around London are all based on chalk ridges and the Countryway crosses all three: the Kent Downs, Surrey Hills and the Chilterns AONB. Further south, the South Downs, once an AONB, has since become the closest national park to the capital.

Interestingly, the primary purposes of an AONB don’t include recreation but are ‘to conserve and enhance natural beauty’ – though demands for recreation should be met where they’re consistent with this. For AONBs like these, so close to the UK’s biggest city, there’s certainly a demand, as well as massive pressure for developments which would detract from the areas’ unique attractions. For visitors surveyed in 2013, the scenery and views and the footpath network figured highly in the features of the Kent Downs they most valued. When asked to isolate components of natural beauty, respondents large plumped for chalk downland, woodland and ancient lanes and paths.

Designated in 1968, the Kent Downs AONB covers 880 km2 in an uneven and ragged band of varying depth, stretching from the boundary with Surrey eastwards to the coast. Examined more closely, the shape resembles more a circumflex accent than a straight line, following the orientation of the main ridge. In the west, there’s a thick donut around Sevenoaks, then the line deflects northeast to meet the Medway before heading southeast on the other side of the river, at first a thin strip below the sprawl of the Medway Towns then thickening out to embrace the famous White Cliffs between Hythe and Deal. The boundary includes not only the chalk ridge and associated valleys but related ridges and escarpments, including the Greensand Ridge running roughly parallel to the south, which provides the AONB with its highest point of 250 m at Toys Hill.

All the AONB is in the traditional county of Kent but smaller parts are now outside the modern administrative county, in Medway unitary authority and the London Borough of Bromley. District councils, the Environment Agency and land management organisations like the NFU and the CLA participate in the partnership. The AONB works closely with its neighbour, the Surrey Hills AONB, covering the rest of the North Downs west of the boundary, and has further links to the east, with the Parc Naturel Régional des Caps et Marais d'Opale, safeguarding the coastal chalk cliffs on the other side of the English Channel.

The AONB has been subdivided into landscape character areas, and the first one the trail encounters is known as the West Kent Downs: Luddesdown. Kent County Council assessors have noted the importance of woodland to the landscape, particularly atop the ridges, and there are good examples on today’s walk. These woods, once part of the much larger area of Rochester Forest, help frame large fields which undulate across dry valleys, and are particularly important to the structure of the landscape because many of the hedgerows which once portioned out the fields have been lost.

Henley Street and Luddesdown

Classic country pub: the Cock at Henley Street near Luddesdown.

The London Countryway peels away from the Wealdway (which I talked about in more detail in the previous section) immediately on leaving the station, the first of several such partings today as the two routes intertwine round each other like hesitant suitors for much of the way. Your route is a nice straight path across a field roughly parallel to the railway, which soon reaches a junction with the previous section, approaching from a footbridge (that’s if you’ve chosen to follow my revised section 1: you’re already on the original route via Wrotham Road).

In the ancient divisions of Kent dating back to Saxon times, this was all part of the Lathe of Aylesford. Sole Street was a hamlet of Cobham in the hundred of Shamel and is still part of the modern civil parish: you’re roughly following its southern boundary through the field. Turning south on Gold Street, you enter both the ancient and the modern parish of Luddesdown, which is long, thin and very rural, consisting mainly of woodlands, fields and scattered villages. Historically this was a different hundred, the delightfully named Toltingtrough.

The name Luddesdown, pronounced ‘Ludsden’, is Anglo-Saxon in origin, meaning ‘Hlud’s hill.’ The parish is mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086 when it was part of the vast swathes of land around London gifted by William of Normandy to his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (see under Crofton on London Loop 3). It was through Odo that Luddesdown was linked to the estates of Rochester cathedral and Swanscombe manor, links which persisted even after the bishop fell out of favour and had most of his land confiscated in 1083.

There were numerous lords of the manor over the succeeding centuries, including ‘marcher lord’ Reginald Grey, Baron of Ruthin, who had to sell it to pay off his ransom when held hostage by Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr in 1402. His successor William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, died from injuries sustained from being hit by a cannonball during the Siege of Orléans, where Jeanne d’Arc was among his opponents.

The manorial centre was to the south in Luddesdown village, where the old manor house, Luddesdown Court, still stands: partly dating from around 1100, this is one of the claimants to the title of the oldest inhabited house in England, but it’s off our route, though on the Wealdway. The latter route will also take you close to another Luddesdown curiosity, the lost village of Dode, decimated by the Black Death in the 14th century and abandoned, though its church still stands and is now used as a wedding venue. But the Countryway chooses a route via one of Luddesdown’s hamlets, Henley Street, passing a very tempting pub, the Cock Inn, a solid building dating from 1713. The pub has an excellent reputation for its beer but sadly it’s a bit early in the route for a refreshment stop – you could always schedule a visit at the end of the previous section.

The trail turns off the road just after the pub, but a little further along is the Grade II-listed Reynolds Farmhouse, an 18th century red brick building with a vaguely Dutch-looking half-hipped roof and an imposing front door. Back on the trail, the fields start to roll as you approach the corner of the first major patch of woodland, known as Henley Wood. The Countryway crosses the Wealdway again here and following the latter left will take you to Luddesdown and Dode, but our trail keeps on along the woodland edge. The field to the left was also once wooded and was known as Woodfield Shaw. Emerging into a field, you’ll see the buildings of Bramblehall Farm over on the left before reaching Oakenden Road and the boundary of the parish of Meopham.

The Brimstone ridge

Spring flowers on a chalky bank along the Brimstone ridge.

Once again, the Countryway passes through a historic parish while avoiding its main village, which is along Oakenden Road to the right. Meopham (pronounced ‘Meppem’) has a lengthy documented history. It was a Roman-British farmstead back in the 1st century BCE, and the first written reference to it dates from 798, with numerous records of land transfers from the 10th century. It’s mentioned in the Domesday survey, by which time it had been attached to Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, to help provide a living for the monks. One archbishop, Simon de Meopham, was born in the parish in 1272.

It retained its connection with Canterbury even after the dissolution, remaining church property until the lands were gradually sold off in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The parish council finally bought out the title of lord of the manor in 1949. Perhaps the best-known Meopham native is John Tradescant the younger (1608-62), botanist and royal gardener, responsible for introducing numerous exotic species to English gardens.

The path follows the Meopham boundary through the first field then turns decisively into the parish in the second field, climbing the slope of Mill Bank and crossing a track known as Brimstone Lane, part of an old road between the main village and the subsidiary manor of Dene. The path beyond is one my favourites on the whole trail, a lengthy and relatively direct stride through a strip of woodland atop Brimstone Hill, a subsidiary north-south ridge that runs to the west of the main North Downs spine. It can be muddy and uneven and in places it’s a little precipitous, clinging to a contour a few metres down from the crest.

In places it passes the back gardens of houses along the lane to the west but it’s mostly uninterrupted woodland, with glimpses of open country through the trees particularly when they’re not in leaf, and wild primroses in the dense undergrowth in early spring. Brimstone Wood, the first big wood on the right, is ancient woodland, then there’s Long Gorse Shaw and John’s Croft Shaw. To the south the hill is known as Chambers Hill, then the path emerges on Chandlers Road in the hamlet of Priestwood (perhaps a reference to the former connection between the manor and the church).

The footpath continues on the other side of the lane through a mix of woodland and more open country. Still tracking the contour, it rounds another patch of woodland, Deanmead Wood, then bends left to Dene Garth, where it joins Dean Lane, another road from Dean Manor, to the green at Harvel.


No place for evil spirits: converted oast house in Harvel.
The unusual village name is of uncertain origin: it may derive from a ‘holy field’ or a ‘hart [male deer] field’ mentioned on Anglo-Saxon charters. For centuries Harvel was a tiny southern hamlet of Meopham, a few farm buildings, cottages and a pub around a green and a pond, and though it grew a little in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, it’s still small and isolated, with a population of only 250.

Judging by the Meopham chronology on the history pages of the parish council’s website, life in Harvel has been quiet for centuries, with nothing listed for the hamlet before the 1830s and then mainly petty crimes and incidents like traction engines accidentally reversing into the pond. Its greatest claim to fame seems to be that in 1950 it was the site of a BBC microwave relay station for the first live television pictures broadcast to the UK from mainland Europe, covering a street festival in Calais.

The Countryway emerges by a curious cottage with a cylindrical wing. While some houses were deliberately designed in circular shapes for superstitious reasons, to prevent evil spirits from hiding in corners, this one was converted from an oast house, a characteristic Kentish structure designed for drying hops: there are some more complete examples further along the trail. Your route from here is across the green, now a pleasant public space equipped with a millennial village sign depicting agricultural silhouettes of tractors, sheep, shepherds and ducks. But there are a few features of interest close by in the opposite direction, including the surviving pub.

Just past the round building, set back from the road and overlooking the pond, is Old Pond House, a Grade II-listed 15th century timber-framed and thatched farmhouse on a mediaeval hall house design. Right along Harvel Street is Crickfield Farmhouse, another hall house of similar age, no longer thatched but with classic exposed timber and plaster facings. Further along on the same side is the wooden village hall, built in 1912 as a nonconformist chapel.

Forge Cottage, opposite, is a Grade II-listed 16th century building: this was once an alehouse as well as a smithy. Its refreshment function was superseded by the Amazon and Tiger, which was originally the building opposite the current pub, now a private home. Today’s pub was purpose-built in 1914 at a time when the population was expanding. It was designed to look like a range of cottages rather than a public house in deference to the wishes of the chapel congregation. A very occasional bus stops outside here.

Back on the trail, there’s a reminder that the agricultural functions of the area aren’t quite what they used to be. White Horse Farm is now a large equestrian centre, and the Countryway threads past horse paddocks over some very chunky wooden stiles. Crossing into the last small field before Leywood Road, the trail returns to Luddesdown parish. The original Countryway route cut a corner across the field on the other side of the road, but this path now seems to have been lost to ploughing and cropping, and it’s not too much of an imposition to follow the lane to the next bend, where the Wealdway rejoins from the north. A broad field-edge path now heads south, passing another patch of ancient woodland, Round Wood, on the right, to reach White Horse Road by Poundgate Farm.

Halling to Trottiscliffe Escarpment

Ancient boundaries, coppices and plenty of mud in Whitehorse Wood.

On the other side of White Horse Road, the trail enters Whitehorse Wood, part of a large and rich patch of woodland, much of it ancient, covering the shallow dip slope of the main North Downs ridge as it passes between Wrotham and Cuxton. The white horse Invicta is of course the emblem of Kent, but the wood and the road take their names from a long-vanished White Horse pub which once stood just to the right of the path into the wood: the site now contains modern houses.

The woodland here is still managed commercially by the ancient practice of coppicing: cutting the trees right back to stumpy coppice ‘stools’ just above the ground on a decades-long cycle to encourage the growth of a profusion of thin trunks for use as poles. Coppiced trees live to great ages and often grow into spooky shapes, like massive gnarled hands, the sort that come to life in twisted fairy-tales. The various patches of woodland each side of the path have different names, and soon you’re passing Lodge Wood right, Evers Broom left and Goldings Wood right.

The 1981 trail guide records that parts of this wood are being cleared, making it difficult to find the way; the stick-cluster trees seen today have grown back in the decades since. Wayfinding is easier now thanks to a profusion of Wealdway waymarks and a well-defined path, but more of a problem is the mud, a thick and sticky wet clay that sucks on your soles. Deep in the wood, a crossroads of tracks has become a virtual pond, though it’s possible to avoid it by picking through the trees.

Immediately south of the muddy crossroads, a low woodbank crosses the path, marking an ancient boundary between Lullingstone in Toltingtrough hundred and Addington in Larkfield hundred. The path originally followed a north-south kink in the east-west boundary line before plunging into Addington, but the modern civil parishes have been rearranged so you immediately enter Trottiscliffe. The trail also enters its second district council area here, leaving Gravesham Borough for Tonbridge and Malling Borough, created in 1974 by merging Tonbridge Urban District, Malling Rural District and parts of Tonbridge Rural District. A few paces further, a sudden flash of open country through the trees reveals you’re on the crest of the Downs, in fact the highest point of the trail so far at 200 m. 

The path instantly starts to descend steeply, cutting a diagonal line across the sharp slope. The woodland here, Ley Shaw, is part of a 600 ha area known by the cumbersome label of the Halling to Trottiscliffe Escarpment Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), designated in 1951. You’ll notice the character of the woodland has changed: rather than the oaks and hornbeams that grow on the clay above, the trees here are birches and yews which prefer the more meagre environment of the steep and exposed chalk hillside. Between them you might spot rare orchids and the delightfully named Stinking Iris.

Trottiscliffe, which may originally have meant ‘the tract of cliff’, is another name spelt in a way that seems designed to expose strangers to ridicule: it’s pronounced ‘Trozlee’ and sometimes more logically spelt ‘Trosley’, including in the name of the country park a little further along the ridge to the west. It first appears in records in 788, and at the time of the Domesday survey was part of the property of the Bishop of Rochester. The bishop had a palace here, and the parish church is interesting, though off our route to the southwest.

Trottiscliffe itself has since been eclipsed by the much bigger village of Vigo, just to the west of the trail and accessible via the North Downs Way. This originated to serve a late 19th century estate, Trosley Towers, which now forms the basis of the country park, then during World War II it became home to the biggest army officer training camp in the UK. After the war, the camp was used to rehouse people who’d lost their homes in the Blitz and was turned into a permanent settlement in the 1950s. The unusual name is from a once-isolated pub, which in turn was named after Vigo Bay off the coast of southern Spain, site of a naval battle in 1702 during the War of Spanish Succession. Beware of another pronunciation trap: the locals rhyme the first syllable with ‘eye’.

Looking south from the Pilgrims Way near Little Commodity at the foot of the Halling to Trottiscliffe Escarpment.

The path emerges on a trackway following the line of the ridge, traditionally known as the Pilgrim’s Way, which here, as in several other places, also provides the official street name. Despite its Chaucerian flavour, the name is likely a Victorian invention, though the track itself is much older, one of the chalk ridgeways in use from prehistoric times.

This section also carries a more modern invention, the North Downs Way National Trail (also here part of European long-distance path E2) -- we’ll have more to say about both routes when we follow lengthy sections of them later, but at this point we share only a few metres of their alignment before both Wealdway and Countryway turn decisively south. Sitting just above the Pilgrim’s Way opposite this junction is a Grade II-listed house by the unusual name of Little Commodity, something of a patchwork of weatherboarding and plaster over a timber frame. The core of this is 16th century though the facing was rebuilt in the 18th century.

Coldrum Long Barrow

Favourite rendezvous of modern mystics: Coldrum Long Barrow near Trottiscliffe.

The path descends more gently along the edge of a field, shortly passing Coldrum Long Barrow, a prehistoric burial chamber: you can see more of it on a very short diversion off the path. It was constructed in the early Neolithic period around 4000 BCE, at a time when humans in Europe were adopting a more settled lifestyle based on agriculture, rather than surviving as nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The earliest stone monuments in Britain are from this period, including this one. It’s the best-preserved of a cluster of similar structures known as the Medway Megaliths, communal tombs oriented on an east-west axis, consisting of a stone chamber buried under an earth mound and surrounded by sarsen stones. Coldrum, which sits on an artificial lynchet ridge of a type associated with prehistoric agriculture, originally consisted of around 50 stones and was wedge-shaped, about 20 m long and varying from 12 to 15 m in width.

The millennia have taken their toll in erosion, landslips and deliberate pillaging, as most of the stones aren’t in their original positions and the burial chamber is exposed. Archaeological excavations in 1910 and between 1922-26 retrieved human remains as well as pottery and tools, which were all removed and taken to Maidstone museum. Various examinations since have concluded they represent at least 17 individuals, both adults and children, interred around 3900 BCE.  Indications that the corpses had been systematically dismembered led 1920s archaeologists to speculate they were sacrificial victims, but there’s no strong evidence for this. It’s more likely they were excamated, with their flesh and organs ritualistically removed. The barrow was very likely not just a tomb but a site for ongoing ancestor worship, with bodies added, removed and rearranged over time.

The long barrow was given to the National Trust in 1926 as a memorial to Kent historian Benjamin Harrison, still commemorated with a plaque which erroneously describes it as a stone circle. It remains in the Trust’s management and is free to visit, now a favourite rendezvous for modern-day mystics and pagans who have turned some of the surrounding trees into ‘wish trees’ bedecked with votive ribbons. Morris Men dance here at dawn on Mayday, and in the late 1990s the site hosted a ritual aimed at preventing the building of the High Speed 1 rail line. As Countryway walkers who crossed this line south of Gravesend will realise, the attempt was unsuccessful. But even if, like me, you’ve little patience with such stuff, you may still find the stones have a striking atmosphere even on bright and sunny day, especially in their dramatic setting below the Downs.

The path past the barrow once followed the parish boundaries of Addington to the east (left) and Trottiscliffe to the west but is now entirely in the latter. It continues through another patch of ancient woodland, Ryarsh Wood, named after another village and parish to the east thought to have a Saxon history. The trail finally enters today’s Addington parish at a road junction where the Wealdway peels off again to the west, while you continue straight ahead: the trees to the right conceal one of several still-operational chalk quarries in the area. Then you leave the AONB by crossing the bridge over the M20, the main route from London to the Channel Tunnel and mainland Europe and part of European route E15 from Thurso to Algericas, unsigned in Britain. This section was built in the early 1970s, some time before the tunnel.


Addington Green and the Angel pub. All together now: "Rambler!"

The first time I visited Addington was also the first time I walked the London Countryway. Pausing on the pretty village green to check my map, I was surprised to hear a passing driver bellowing at me over a thudding baseline from his 4x4 -- “Rambler!” -- in that singsong football chant tone that people once used to shout “Skinhead!” at anyone with slightly short hair. I don’t imagine it was intended as a compliment, but as I worked for the Ramblers at the time, the incident provided much amusement when recounted to colleagues and became something of a running joke.

A few minutes later, on the same green, I witnessed a toddler taking a few stumbling steps to the evident pride and delight of his father and recalled how I once read that walking is a controlled form of falling. So natural is walking to us as a species that, alongside first words, first steps upright on your own two feet are treated as a significant milestone on the journey towards being fully human. How odd, then, that something everyone does should yield its own special class of people identifiable enough to get shouted at from passing cars.

Addington claims over 5,000 years of continuous habitation based on the presence of further Neolithic sites: there are two other long barrows here, both from the same period and of the same design as Coldrum, but less well-preserved. The name, though, derived from a personal name and meaning ‘Eadda’s property’, dates from Anglo-Saxon times and there’s no documentation of what happened in between. At the time of Domesday, Addington was yet another page in Bishop Odo’s bulging property portfolio, but the most enduring lords of the manor were the Watton family, who held it from the early 15th century until the 1750s.

Pleasant pub the Angel Inn, overlooking the green, was originally a timber-framed farmhouse dating from the 16th century, though the outer facings were rebuilt in the 18th century. The red brick stable block across the yard behind the pub is early 19th century and is also Grade II-listed. The trail follows Park Road away from the green then down the church drive, though by staying on the lane a little further you’ll cross the site of Addington Long Barrow, with a few sarsen stones visible in the adjacent private field. The village’s second prehistoric site, Chestnuts Long Barrow, is just to the north of this, and can only be viewed by prior arrangement with the landowner.

Various buildings and other facilities attached to the manor house once occupied the land to either side of the church drive. The house itself, known as Addington Place, was immediately behind the church, but was demolished in 1949 following a serious fire. In 1932, a spiritualist organisation called the Seeker’s Trust bought the manorial complex and still occupies it today, using the old stable block to the right as well as various newer buildings. Aerial photographs reveal a star-like symbol on one of the lawns. The Trust describes itself as a non-denominational Christian “Centre for Prayer and Spiritual Healing” and according to the website, its work is “guided by a ‘Dr Lascelles’, a medical practitioner already in the spirit world.” Between the Trust and the long barrows, the locality certainly has its attractions for the less scientifically-minded.

The nave of the rather blocky and squat Grade I-listed St Margaret’s Church likely dates from the 11th century, though windows and doors were replaced at various times from the 13th century onwards, the tower was added towards the end of the 15th century and there was some Victorian rebuilding too. The church includes a 15th century private chapel added by the Watton family, including a lavish 17th century monument. There are two other listed structures in the churchyard: an early 18th century chest tomb with a now-illegible inscription, and a 6 m stone obelisk commemorating William Locker, a late 18th century Governor of Greenwich Hospital.

Half-buried but definitely non-prehistoric garages at Addington.
The path from the church passes some curious half-buried buildings: not more prehistoric tombs but modern garages. You then walk alongside what’s thought to be one of the oldest cricket grounds in the world: it’s not known quite when Addington Cricket Club was founded but in the mid-18th century it was noted as one of the best teams in England despite drawing its players from such a tiny village.

On the other side of the ground is the first, but by no means the last, golf course we’ll encounter on the trail, West Malling Golf Club, opened in 1974 on former parkland attached to Addington Place. The footpath runs rather dangerously straight across a driving range in direct line of fire of golf balls. Yet another pronunciation trap here: for Malling say ‘mawling’. Beyond the course you cross the A20 London Road, originally built as part of the turnpike between Foots Cray and Maidstone by the Wrotham and Maidstone Turnpike Trust in 1773. It’s no longer a trunk road here, as through traffic is directed to the M20, but remains a busy local road.

A traditional orchard, long abandoned and overgrown but still with trees that produce copious apples in season, lies beside the road here, and the Countryway originally followed a public footpath through it. But last time I tried to walk this, it was near-impassable, thick with nettles and brambles in the orchard and obstructed by fences in the meadow beyond. So it’s better to continue a little further on the pavement beside the A20 then duck down quiet Aldon Lane to the railway bridge where the original route rejoins. The orchard was once in Ryarsh parish, with the boundary partly following the lane: today the parish boundary between Addington and Offham simply follows the railway, the Maidstone East line which we’ll meet again at the end of this section.

Offham and Wrotham Heath

Matrix-style orchards at Wrotham Heath.
The village of Offham – ‘Offa’s homestead’ – is some way to the east of the Countryway, which passes through the wider parish. There are property records here from the 9th century and a Domesday record that notes this was yet another of Odo’s properties. Divided into several sub-let manors, it was owned by Christ Church Canterbury until reclaimed by Henry VIII who divided it between various cronies. One of the smaller manors, Pepingstraw, was likely the birthplace of Jack Straw, a leader of the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt. On the village green is a mediaeval quintain, a device used for jousting practice, the last surviving example of its kind.

There’s a pleasant cluster of listed buildings at Aldon Farm, just over the railway, the most obvious feature of which is a trio of oast house cowls sprouting above a fence. A granary is also part of this mid-19th century construction which has since been converted into private houses. The farmhouse is much older, with parts dating from the late 16th century. The big house opposite is an 18th century former rectory.

Leaving the lane on a footpath you would once have been entering a ‘detached part’ of Addington. Across Teston Road, which likely follows the course of a Roman road from Wrotham towards the Weald, large traditional orchards stood as recently as the last edition of the Countryway guide in 1981. But they’ve since gone decidedly hi-tech, with grey plastic cloches partly occupied by strange arch wire frameworks to which twiggy saplings are wired, threaded by plastic tubes like something from The Matrix. Bending around these you’re back in the historic territory of Offham.

Today’s second golf course is Wrotham Heath Golf Club, created in 1906 on an area of former heathland to the southeast of Wrotham described by historian Edward Hasted in 1798 as consisting of “a barren sandy soil, both red and black, but on which great quantities of peat is dug”. You pass the clubhouse, in a former now cowl-less oast, then, turning onto the main part of the course and reaching the end of a line of trees where the path becomes a track, you cross another ancient boundary, entering what was once the parish and hundred of Wrotham (pronounced ‘Rootem’). This was a very large parish and as some of the villages have grown and developed, it’s been subdivided, so you’re now in the modern civil parish of Platt.


Rhododendrons in Platt Woods.
Beyond the golf course, the trail crosses Platt Wood, an atmospheric, park-like place where broadleaf trees mix with rhododendrons and pine. This mixed complexion is the result of deliberate planting in ancient Wealden woodland which formed part of the Great Comp Estate a little to the south, creating a space that was used partly for private leisure, partly for commercial forestry. 

Some of the trees were felled for timber during World War I, then the wood was threatened with development after World War II but saved as a public amenity following a local campaign. The 17.5 ha site is now owned by Tonbridge and Malling borough council and managed by a parish council-led committee with help from the Forestry Commission. Among the oaks, chestnuts, Scots pines and Douglas firs are a few tall giant sequoias or Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) planted in Victorian times.

The Wealdway rejoins along the lane before the wood but peels off again for the last time just inside the trees, heading definitively south, while the Countryway slowly starts to bend west. Just over halfway through the wood to the right is an area known as Potters Hole, a former clay working, then the path descends steeply to reach the village and its rather imposing church at the bottom of St Mary’s Slope.

St Mary's Church, Platt.
The church was a response to the village’s 19th century development. Originally this was a tiny hamlet attached to Wrotham, with no church of its own, but as the population increased with the establishment of a flour mill and other industries along the Maidstone Road to the north, demand for more local facilities increased. Local landowner William Lambard donated the site in 1841, and the church, designed by Whichcord and Walker architects of Maidstone, was consecrated in 1843, originally as a chapel of Wrotham. The date is commemorated in a weathervane atop the tower, in fact an addition from 1900. Just inside the churchyard on the other side of the wall from the car park is a mounting block, a reminder of the days when some parishioners arrived on horseback.

Platt, subsequently sometimes known as St Marys Platt after the dedication of the church, became a civil parish in its own right in the late 1860s. A little north of the church and just off the trail is Captains Walk, a terrace of Tudor-style almshouses dating from 1850 and managed by the Betenson Trust, a charity established in 1788 with a bequest from a well-off local resident.

But your way is south along Long Mill Lane, past more chocolate-box cottages. Rose Cottage on the left and the former farmhouse known as Dales with its exposed timber frame on the right both date partly from the 16th century. The Countryway uses a bridleway beside the latter, but a little further along the lane, past a thatched barn, is a particularly well-preserved oast house, Platt Oast, with three 19th century cowls attached to 17th century building with more exposed timber framing.

Borough Green

Farm signs on Crouch Lane near Borough Green.

The bridleway leads straightforwardly beside fields to Crouch Lane where another bridleway parallel to the road hides behind a line of trees opposite. This section of the trail ends here, with the next section heading south, but to end the walk there’s an easy link north on the bridleway, across the end of the drive to Black Horse Farm and along the lane towards the station at Borough Green. Long Wood on the left is partly ancient woodland, and around the bend just past the drive to Beech House you cross from Platt into Borough Green civil parish.

Borough Green is a large village, really a small town, which Keith Chesterton terms ‘workmanlike’. Wrotham, further to the north just under the Downs, was historically the more important settlement, centre of an ancient parish and hundred, attached back in the 10th century to Canterbury cathedral and remaining among its holdings until Tudor times, with an archbishop’s palace next to its church. But the changing pattern of transport by road and then railway saw Borough Green grow to eclipse its northern neighbour, becoming a separate parish.

There was indeed a small green here, and ‘borough’ usually indicates a Saxon fortification or, later, a unit of local government, but in this case, it might be derived from ‘barrow’, as there’s a tumulus in the village which has yielded Celtic and Roman remains. Before the 19th century it was a tiny and insignificant hamlet amid orchards, hop gardens, fields and sand, clay and ragstone quarries, at the point where a road from Gravesend to Hastings crossed an east-west route from Guildford to Maidstone paralleling the Downs. The latter is now the A25, a road perhaps best known for sharing its number with London’s orbital motorway, which superseded part of it. By the 17th century a cluster of coaching inns had appeared, but it wasn’t until the 1820s, after both roads had been turnpiked, that a distinct high street developed.

The settlement became more substantial after the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR) opened a station just north of the village centre in 1874. By the end of the century several large farms nearby had been redeveloped and the area was populous enough to justify becoming part of Wrotham Urban District Council in 1894. The most dramatic expansion, however, followed World War II when reconstruction prompted the appearance of both large social housing estates and private developments, increasing the population from 400 in 1946 to 1,300 in 1982. This pattern of post-railway age developments is also typical of many outer London suburbs and Borough Green looks just like one, with a distinctly urban feel. That may be about to intensify as current strategic plans envisage a 3,000-home Borough Green Garden Village on tracts of former Metropolitan Green Belt.

Hunt’s Farmhouse, on the A25 opposite the Crouch Lane junction, is a mid-18th century Grade II-listed building, while the Black Horse pub dates from early coaching days. It opened in 1592 as the Black Bull, though has been rebuilt several times since: the current pub dates largely from the 1920s though the centre block preserves part of an earlier iteration. The trail swings off the main road along Station Road, passing a couple of rustic-looking Grade II-listed cottages: late 17th century Forge Cottage, a timber-framed ragstone building, and no 89 next-door, the remains of a 16th century hall house. At the next junction the high street is a few steps away to the left, while the station is to the right.

Borough Green's civilised station booking hall.
It’s an indication of how the relative perception of Borough Green has shifted that when it opened the station was known only as Wrotham, even though it was a considerable distance from that village. It was shortly renamed Wrotham & Boro Green, but the names didn’t swap to the current Borough Green & Wrotham until 1962.

It’s on the Maidstone East line, originally a branch line from the LC&DR’s Sevenoaks line at Otford to Maidstone, but later extended to rejoin the company’s main line at Ashford. The cottagey red brick station building is original, and today looks rather incongruous amid car parks and a modern late-opening supermarket. There’s a welcoming touch, though, in the homely ticket office with its pot plants and second-hand books, and after a day’s walking through some of the more remote parts of west Kent, the conveniences of urban life may seem surprisingly welcome.

Monday 13 August 2018

Capital Ring 6/7: Wimbledon Park - Richmond - Boston Manor

Ian Dury Memorial Bench.

You’ll enjoy some of the best green walking in London on this stretch of the Capital Ring, as it crosses two of the city’s biggest and best-known open spaces, Wimbledon and Putney Commons and adjacent Richmond Park, a National Nature Reserve and Royal Park. Remarkably, it includes over 10 km of almost entirely off-road walking, all within Transport for London’s fare zone 4, through the Commons, the Park and along the Thames Path. Crossing the Thames at Richmond Lock, the trail continues through pretty Isleworth village and stately Syon Park with its mansion to Brentford and then along part of the Grand Union Canal. The section also boasts the densest collection of major heritage features on the entire trail and as a result this post is abnormally long even by the standards of this blog.

I’ve combined two official sections again to create a longer walk, but as the first one includes some of the more rugged walking on the Ring, you may feel you deserve a rest at the official break point of Richmond upon Thames. Once you reach the Thames, though, the going is much flatter and easier. There are various bus stops along the way and another station close to the trail at Brentford, not far from the end, but also some longer stretches away from transport options through the commons and the royal park.

Wimbledon Park

Wimbledon Park Lake, brought to you by the ever-busy Capability Brown.

Wimbledon boasts one of the most internationally recognised names of any London suburb, for two reasons: tennis and wombles, both of which I’ll have more to say about later. But for most of its existence it was a relatively unimportant place. The name is probably Saxon in origin, meaning ‘Wynman’s hill’. There are prehistoric remains in the area, and an ancient trackway likely passed through to the ford at Kingston upon Thames. Wimbledon doesn’t merit its own entry in the Domesday survey of 1086, because back then its land, along with that of neighbouring Putney, was included in the much bigger manor of Mortlake, in the old Surrey hundred of Brixton. This at one point was claimed by the ambitious Bishop Odo, mentioned many times in London Underfoot, but quickly passed into the hands of the archbishops of Canterbury.

Wimbledon appears to have become a separate manor by 1328 but remained in the control of the archbishops until 1536 when then-incumbent Thomas Cranmer exchanged it with Henry VIII.  The king gave it to another of his cronies, chief minister Thomas Cromwell, who was born in Putney – historically a part of the parish until relatively modern times. There were numerous subsequent owners, including royalty, then in 1717 it was bought by one of the directors of the speculative South Sea Company, Theodore Jannsen, who was forced to sell it just six years later after that company collapsed in the infamous ‘South Sea Bubble’ incident.

The estate was snapped up by Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, one of the richest and most influential women of her age. This is how Wimbledon came into the hands of the aristocratic Spencer family, whom we’ve already encountered in Wandsworth in section 5. They formally remained lords of the manor of Wimbledon until 1996 when the title was sold to an un-named Brazilian for £171,000 – an extraordinary sum given that all property and rights in the area had long since been sold or relinquished and the status was purely honorary.

As often in London, the mediaeval geography has been skewed by the railway. The original village centre was atop a hill to the south of our trail, around the Green and on the edge of the common. The manorial centre was close to St Mary’s Church nearby: the original manor house was probably the building now known as the Old Rectory, dating from the early 16th century and still standing behind the church.

It was often occupied separately from the estate: Elizabeth I gave the house but not the manor to her close adviser Christopher Hatton, who lived at what’s now Hatton Garden off Holborn, in 1576. He immediately sold it on to the politician and military leader Thomas Cecil, who later built an entirely new manor house on a grand scale nearby. This house was subsequently rebuilt completely three times before being demolished in 1949: the site is now a school playing field. The London and South Western Railway, opened in 1838, ran through the rather easier terrain at the bottom of the hill to the southwest, eventually prompting the development of Wimbledon Broadway, the busy commercial centre around today’s Wimbledon station, some distance off our route.

Wimbledon Park was once the estate’s private parkland. Cecil added a deer park and 8 ha of formal gardens to his new house, and diarist and gardener John Evelyn had a hand in remodelling these in the late 17th century. Churchill’s great-grandson John Spencer, the first Earl Spencer, expanded the park and grounds to 480 ha, and in 1765 commissioned the celebrated landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-83) to redesign them.

The Spencers sold the property in 1846 to an insurance magnate, John Augustus Beaumont, who soon began parcelling off portions of the park for housing development. At first, large upmarket houses were built but many of these have since been demolished and replaced with smaller houses and flats. The remaining park was briefly a potential candidate for a new site for the Crystal Palace, though as we saw in section 3, this eventually went to Norwood. The opening of Wimbledon Park station on the Wimbledon and Fulham Railway, as described in section 5, accelerated the emergence of today’s Wimbledon Park residential area.

Wimbledon Borough Council, one of the predecessors to today’s London Borough of Merton, bought a portion of still-undeveloped parkland in 1915 as a green lung for the increasingly densely-populated area. While part was turned into today’s public park, the substantial western portion was leased to the Wimbledon Park Golf Club. This section remains in use as a private golf course, though Merton sold it on in the 1990s to the All England Tennis Club, of which much more later. In recent years the tennis club has been attempting to buy the golfers out of their lease, which runs to 2041, so it can further expand its already extensive facilities in the area.

In recognition of their history and remaining heritage features, both park and golf course are included on the Register of Parks and Gardens: a heritage trail in and around the site points out some of these features with informative plaques. There’s a keen local Heritage Group too, protecting both the historic features and the present-day amenities of this popular local park, also the site of one of London’s biggest fireworks displays every November.

The Capital Ring enters from Home Park Road at Heritage Trail point 1, where a grand stone balcony provides a viewpoint over the eastern section of the park. Most of the built facilities are clustered at this end: you can see the old paddling pool, as well as a new pool, playgrounds and tennis courts. The steps descend past a recently-restored early 20th century pavilion, now used by the local police. The proximity to the All England Club is already evident: alongside the Ring waymarks are others illustrated with crossed tennis racquets indicating the walking route from Wimbledon Park station to the club. It’s best to avoid walking this section during the Championships fortnight, usually in early July, not only because of the increased footfall but because much of the park is converted into temporary car parks.

A little further and just off the trail to the right is the Café Pavilion, likely built in the 1920s at the same time as the tennis courts and still functioning as a café. Astonishingly a recent masterplan for improvements to the park proposed to demolish this, but it appears to have been saved for now. You soon reach the side of the lake, the most prominent of the features created by Lancelot Brown in the 1760s.

The path here runs atop the dam built by Brown to trap the water from two streams, now running almost entirely underground. These rise on Wimbledon Common, merge in the park and drain into the river Wandle at Earlsfield: the lower part of this watercourse once formed the boundary between Wandsworth and Wimbledon. The lake is now used for sailing, and you pass the 1960s watersports centre before turning away from the waterside to circumnavigate another 20th century addition, the Wimbledon Park Athletics Stadium. About halfway along, you cross the boundary following the old streams and re-enter Wandsworth, though the park is entirely managed by Merton so there’s no evidence on the ground.

The surroundings here are mainly open grassy sports fields, but ahead and right there’s a view of a small woodland, Horse Close Wood, which predates the mid-18th century work and is now an important nature site. The Ring leaves the park through the main entrance onto Wimbledon Park Road: look out here for Heritage Trail point 8, marking one of the best viewpoints back over both the public park and the golf course. From here you can see the contours of Brown’s landscaping, and rising above it on the far side, the spire of St Mary’s church marking the old manorial centre.

The tennis capital

 New Zealand's Tony Wilding in the process of beating Beals Wright of the US at the 1910 Wimbledon men's final.
Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Unless and until the golf course is handed over, the All England Club is off the trail, but if you want to see the place where the world’s most famous tennis tournament is played, it’s only a little further along Church Road (and back into Merton) from where the Ring turns off along Bathgate Road. The most obvious visible buildings in this extensive complex are the two oval stadia of No 1 Court, opened in 2013, and Centre Court, built in 1922 though enlarged several times and with a fully retractable roof added in 2009. While the overwhelming focus of activity here is the two weeks of the Championships, it’s used as a members’ club throughout the year, with occasional competitive fixtures such as Davis Cup matches. For those with a specialist interest, there’s a Lawn Tennis Museum open daily, a souvenir shop, and a guided behind-the-scenes tour.

Interestingly, Wimbledon’s roots as the world capital of tennis are in a completely different sport. The club was founded in 1868 as the All England Croquet Club, by six members of the team behind The Field magazine who leased a meadow off Worple Road, southwest of Wimbledon station, as their first ground. Croquet today is regarded as a rather obscure and eccentric game, but in the 1860s it was a fashionable craze, thus Lewis Carroll’s surreal version of it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

The club management, doubtless aware that crazes often decline as quickly as they arise, diversified in 1875 by setting aside space for lawn tennis, then in the process of emerging as an adapted and simplified version of so-called ‘real tennis’, a much older game dating back at least to mediaeval France and once keenly played by Tudor royals. Tennis soon eclipsed croquet, and since 1899 the club’s full title has been the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The latter game is still played but on a much smaller scale than tennis, since 2007 at a separate ground in Roehampton.

From its early days the club raised funds by organising croquet tournaments and in 1877 it applied the same approach to tennis. This first iteration of what became the Championships involved 22 male players in singles matches only. As the rules of the game weren’t yet standardised, the club issued its own rulebook, only finally superseded by the International Tennis Federation rules in 1924. Around 200 spectators paid 1s (5p) each to witness the final between Spencer Gore and William Marshall. Gore, who lived nearby and much preferred playing cricket, won 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, then told the press that “lawn tennis will never rank among our great games.” Women’s singles and men’s doubles were added in 1884, women’s and mixed doubles in 1913.

By then, defying Gore’s prediction, tennis had become hugely popular, and the increasing numbers wanting to see top players like Suzanne Lenglen, known in her native France as la Divine, forced the club to find a new site. It moved to its current corner of the former Wimbledon Park in 1922, though some of the courts it left behind at Worple Lane are still there today. The new No 1 Court, closest to the Ring, is on a portion of land added in 1967 with the absorption of the New Zealand Sports & Social Club, known as Aorangi Park from a Maori name for Mount Cook meaning ‘cloud piercer’. Wimbledon’s growth into the phenomenon it is today, though, really dates from the following year, when restrictions on professional players competing in the big tournaments were removed. It’s now one of the four international ‘grand slam’ contests offering the biggest prize money, and the only one of these still played on grass.

Though the tennis scene has evolved hugely from its genteel Victorian origins, the whiff of upper class privilege still hangs about the game. The legacy of the sporting gentleman founders is preserved at Wimbledon not just in some of its rather stuffy traditions such as the consumption of strawberries and cream (spectators got through 34,000 kg and 10,000 l respectively in 2017) and the insistence on players wearing whites, but in its secretive and exclusive structure as a private club with less than 400 carefully selected members. Black players weren’t permitted until 1951 and Jewish players had to wait until the following year. Women’s prize money was lower than men’s until 2007. Angela Buxton, joint women’s doubles champion and singles finalist in 1956, alleged in 2004 that antisemitism had kept her on the membership waiting list for decades.

Back on the Ring, Bathgate Road and Queensmere Road follow the boundary between Merton to the south (left) and Wandsworth. The tennis courts in the triangle where these streets divide inevitably also belong to the All England Club and are used as practice facilities during the Championships: you can sometimes spot well-known players using them. Further on are numerous upmarket residences, including Queensmere House, once part of Southlands teacher training college but converted to luxury flats in the 1990s, and a 21st century apartment block built after seven separate owner-occupiers of consecutive houses on the south side agreed simultaneously to sell up to a developer.

Wimbledon and Putney Commons

Putney Heath.

The adjacent open spaces of Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath between them cover just under 450 ha, making them about 40% bigger than Hampstead Heath. The area is one of London’s most valuable green assets, with terrain that varies from a high and open plateau topped with gravels, giving rise to heath and acidic grassland, to thick woods that sprout from the clay lining the valley of the Beverley Brook in the west. Half the heathland left in London can be found here, which is one of the reasons why around 364 ha are a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and European Special Area of Conservation.

Ling and bell heather grow on the dry heath, with reeds and rushes in damper areas. Around 100 species of birds can be seen, a remarkable number for an urban area, including kestrels and a pair of breeding skylarks, while badgers and various bats are perhaps the most notable mammals. 30 species of butterfly, over 500 of moths and 20 of dragonflies and damselflies have been recorded. The common is noted as an important habitat for stag beetles, which can grow to 75 mm long, and the globally rare false click beetle. There have even been reports of sugar gliders, small arboreal marsupials native to Australia, with membranes between their limbs that help them glide between trees: presumably they arrived as escaped or dumped exotic pets.

Among the large mammals listed on the Commons Conservators website is the extremely local speciality Womblus commonus subsp. Litterpickerus, though in truth you’ll find these harder to spot than the sugar gliders. The wombles, secretive, long-lived, pointy-nosed and highly intelligent tunnelling creatures, are the fictional creation of children’s author Elisabeth Beresford (1926-2010), who got the idea when, during a walk on the common, her young daughter mispronounced the name as ‘Wombledon’.

Beresford published five novels and a short story collection between 1968 and 1976. The fame of her creations and of their southwest London home was boosted further by a stop-motion animation TV series narrated by Bernard Cribbins, made between 1973 and 1975, with a revived version in 1996. Created at a time of rising environmental concern, the wombles spend their days gathering and recycling rubbish left behind on the common by humans, and in the books it’s revealed they have a sixth sense for green spaces. They would be perfect mascots for a green capital, though I do wonder if any child ever deliberately dropped litter here just so Orinoco or Wellington had something to pick up.

Like most of the surrounding area, the wombles’ magnificent habitat could so easily have been lost for good in the second half of the 19th century. Thankfully it was protected from development by legal action, and since 1871, Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath have been owned and managed by the Wimbledon and Putney Commons board of conservators, who also look after the separate and much smaller Putney Lower Common, off our trail to the north. The joint management of the two adjacent open spaces, each in a different London borough, reflects their shared history.

As mentioned above, in mediaeval times both Wimbledon and Putney were part of the large parish of Mortlake and among the estates of the Archbishops of Canterbury. The modern green spaces are the surviving remnants of the extensive parish common lands, where local people had the right to graze cattle, gather fuel and food and dig gravel between Michaelmas (28 September) and Lady Day (25 March).

Putney, with its important ferry crossing and later bridge across the Thames in the north, gradually assumed its own distinct identity centred on a busy riverside town. By the 15th century, it had its own manorial estate, Putney Park, excluded in 1548 when Wimbledon manor was given to Thomas Cecil by Edward VI’s regency council. In 1658 Putney briefly became a distinct parish, and though the parish church reverted to a ‘curacy’ of Wimbledon two years later, the separation of the two areas persisted, even after John Spencer acquired both the park and the manorial rights to Putney, including control of commons, to add to his Wimbledon holdings in 1780.

When the territory covered by the Metropolitan Board of Works was drawn up in 1855, the more urbanised Putney was grouped in with Wandsworth as part of the ‘Metropolis’ while Wimbledon was excluded. Putney then went on to become part of London with the advent of the MBW’s successor the London County Council in 1889, while Wimbledon remained in Surrey (though in the London postal district and Metropolitan Police district) until the creation of Greater London in 1965 when it became part of the London Borough of Merton. So once again the Ring finds itself tracking what was until relatively recently the limit of the capital.

Spencer and his descendants both exploited and neglected the commons, authorising illegal encroachments, failing to protect them from dumping and in 1812 felling all the pollarded oaks to sell for timber. The Manor Court, which since at least the 15th century had arbitrated disputes, had become a toothless body. It rapidly acquiesced when the fifth earl, John Poyntz Spencer, a liberal peer also known as Viscount Althorp, presented a plan to extinguish commoners’ rights, sell off Putney Heath and use the proceeds to inclose Wimbledon Common, building himself a new manor house by the windmill. This, he said, was the best way to manage the “boggy” land with its “noxious mists and fogs” and to protect it from “great nuisance [that] was caused by gypsies”.

Spencer reckoned without Henry Peek, one of the new middle-class residents of the area, a tea and spice trader whose home, Wimbledon House, faced the common from across Parkside. Peek formed a local opposition group, the Wimbledon Commons Committee. This in turn influenced the broader-based Commons Preservation Society, founded in 1865 and now known as the Open Spaces Society, and the parliamentary enquiry which resulted in the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866. Meanwhile, as Spencer attempted to advance a private member’s bill through Parliament to further his plans, the Committee took legal action against him over the state of the land. The complex dispute continued for several years, during which Spencer intensified gravel extraction and leased out land as brickfields and sewage farms.

The situation was resolved with an act of parliament in 1871, which protected the remaining commons and placed them in the care of the Board of Conservators – but at a price. Spencer was to receive the then-substantial sum of £1,200 a year to compensate him for loss of earnings, raised from an additional levy on local property rates. The Spencer family continued to profit from the commons for the best part of a further century until the Conservators bought out the annuity in 1968. Today, the Conservators, now a registered charity, manage the land mainly for informal recreation and biodiversity, though some of it is allocated to golf courses. Unusually, none of the board members is a local authority appointee: five are elected by levy-payers, three appointed by central government departments.

The Capital Ring is usually described as crossing Wimbledon Common though this is only just true. Its route is almost entirely either along the historic east-west boundary between the Common, in Merton to the south (left), and Putney Heath, in Wandsworth to the north, or within the Putney side. Entering the site from Parkside, the trail is just within Putney, running through one of the thicker patches of woodland on Putney Heath towards the cluster of buildings around the famous windmill, where it meets and joins the boundary at a boundary stone. The buildings themselves are within Wimbledon: the boundary runs on the path between the café and the car park.

Wimbledon's landmark windmill, designed by mistake.
Permission for a windmill was granted in 1817 on the condition that it provided a public facility. It’s a hollow post mill, common in the Netherlands but rare in England. This is likely because its builder and first miller Charles March was a carpenter and not a millwright, and simply copied a similar mill which once stood on Bankside in central London, without realising it was of an unusual design. March exploited the high vantage point by taking a second job as constable, looking out for duellists among other miscreants. Duelling was technically illegal in England, though still widely practiced in the early 19th century, and Wimbledon was a popular venue for it: in 1798 the prime minister William Pitt the Younger faced William Tierney, MP for Southwark, in a duel where both opponents missed twice, perhaps deliberately.

Milling ceased in 1864 when Spencer persuaded the Marsh family to sell up. To prevent the mill from operating in competition with them in future, they took the millstones and much of the machinery with them. The building was used as a family home in the later 19th century, and part of it became a museum in 1975. In the early 2000s the sails were restored to working order thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, and the museum improved and expanded: it’s now open on summer weekends and bank holidays. The grant also covered improvement to the adjacent park ranger headquarters, including an information centre which is open daily. The café, known as the Windmill Tea Rooms, is also well worth a look.

The Ring dips into Wimbledon to pass the clubhouse of the London Scottish Golf Club behind the windmill. Golf is a Scottish game by origin so it’s appropriate that there’s a northern connection to the second oldest golf club in London and the third oldest in England, as well as links to the use of commons for military purposes, which go back to George III’s time when it was the site of Royal military reviews.

In 1860 Spencer offered to host the inaugural meeting of the National Rifle Association, founded as a corps of volunteers raised to defend Britain from a potential French invasion, with Queen Victoria firing the first shot. Rifle ranges were a permanent feature until 1894, when a stray shot accidentally killed a gardener in the adjacent Putney Vale cemetery, but the commons were used for army training again in both world wars, and the Ministry of Defence still appoints one of the Conservators.

Soon after 1860, golf-playing members of the London Scottish Rifle Volunteers dug seven holes on the common. A formal club followed in 1865: the current clubhouse is the third such building, dating from 1897. A second club, Wimbledon Common Golf Club, founded in 1908, plays on the same course but has a separate clubhouse and a different starting hole. Golfers from both are easily recognised as for safety reasons the Conservators require them to wear pillar-box red tops.

Downhill through more trees, the trail arrives at Queensmere, by far the deepest of the nine lakes and ponds on the commons. It was created to mark Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee at the end of the 19th century by damming a stream that crossed a marshy area once popular with duellists. It’s evolved into an atmospheric, perhaps slightly gloomy place, surrounded by trees on all sides, with water lilies flourishing in summer and large tench and pike patrolling the depths. Past the pond and once again tracing the Wimbledon-Putney boundary, the woods on the right cover the former rifle butts, then you cross a sandy area on the edge of the golf course that retains something of a heath-like appearance.

The trail descends again to join a path known as the Stag Ride. Through the trees here, only a short detour away and on the alternative Green London Way, is the First World War Memorial, a granite cross encircled by trees, with the suggestion – presumably unintentional – of an ancient stone circle. Created in 1925, it bears no names but a lyrical inscription:
Nature provides the best monument. The perfecting of the work must be left to the gentle hand of time but each returning spring will bring a fresh tribute to those whom it is desired to keep in everlasting remembrance.
The memorial stands on one of the former fields of Newlands Farm, part of a 17 ha portion of land acquired by the Conservators in the 1920s. Most of this, visible through the trees past the memorial, is now managed as sports fields, named Richardson Evans Playing Fields after someone who was instrumental in securing the land for public use.

The Ring then meets and briefly follows the Beverley Brook. The official source of this river is near Worcester Park station, from where it flows roughly north for 14.3 km via New Malden, Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park to Barnes. Here it turns east to join the river Thames at Barn Elms just above Putney. There’s also a substantial tributary, the 5.3 km Pyl Brook, which rises in Sutton and joins the Beverley at New Malden.

The brook's name harks back to a rural past when it was noted for beavers, but it's now an urban river which has been straightened and culverted in many places. It suffered from the dumping of poorly treated sewage until 1998 when improvements in water treatment increased its wildlife. Further restoration is now taking place, including in Richmond Park. A 10.5 km signed trail, the Beverley Brook Walk, was created by the Ramblers and the local boroughs in the early 2000s, following the brook from New Malden to Barn Elms.

The course of the brook has long served as an ancient boundary, marking the western edge of Wimbledon and Putney and the Hundred of Brixton, and large stretches of it still demarcate Wandsworth and Merton from the boroughs to the east. So when just short of a sports pavilion the Ring turns left to cross it, you finally leave the commons and Wandsworth for a brief visit to the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames.

Kingston Vale

Robin Hood Gate, not quite a roundabout.

The Capital Ring crosses one of the University of Roehampton’s sports fields to arrive at the busy Robin Hood Gate road junction, where the A3 Kingston Bypass peels away from the old Portsmouth Road through Kingston, here known like the district as Kingston Vale. This is the only interruption of a lengthy stretch of green walking, but it’s now about a painless as it could be despite the busy roads. A Pegasus crossing – so called as it accommodates horse riders as well as walkers and cyclists – takes you across the westbound traffic and onto a teardrop-shaped patch of ground at the apex of the junction.

Despite its shape, this was treated as a roundabout until 1995 and is still sometimes called the Robin Hood Roundabout locally. The pipe sprouting from a plinth to the left is not some strange monument but a sewage vent or ‘stink pole’ for a pumping station beneath the junction. Then another crossing allows passage across the eastbound traffic from both the A3 and Kingston, leading straight to the stump of a street that ends in the Robin Hood Gate of Richmond Park. Until the early 2010s the only safe way across here was an ugly footbridge which still stands to the left, so the at-grade crossing is a major improvement.

Kingston Vale today is a sharp triangle inserted between Richmond and Wandsworth, its point just to the northeast of the junction, where the Beverley Brook enters Richmond Park. But the historic boundaries were much less angular, as the land now forming the southern part of the park was also part of the parish of Kingston upon Thames. As outlined on London Loop 8, which passes right through it, Kingston is one of the most historic centres in suburban London, the place where several Saxon kings were crowned. It was the basis not only of a large parish but also of one of the Surrey hundreds, bounded by the brook to the east.

Kingston stood on the major highway between London and Portsmouth, which branched off Roman Stane Street (crossed in the last section) at Clapham. This route only increased in strategic importance as Portsmouth developed into England’s foremost naval port. The road now known as Kingston Vale formed a part of the highway, its name distinguishing it from Kingston Hill, the stretch that climbs the promontory above the Thames where the town centre stands. The locality was once known as Kingston Bottom, and only adopted its current name sometime in the 19th century, presumably encouraged by developers who favoured something less likely to make schoolchildren giggle.

The original road junction here was a relatively minor one. It still exists today, a little southwest of where we cross, where Robin Hood Lane leaves Kingston Vale. The lane was once a farm track leading to Robin Hood Farm, and by the 18th century a coaching inn known as the Robin Hood had appeared on the corner, as well as a scattering of houses around both the junction and the gate into the park. In 1870, to accommodate increasing traffic, the inn moved to a larger site opposite, on the Richmond Park side of the main road, with stabling for 30 horses: this building also still stands as Robin Hood House, converted into flats in 2004.

Kingston had long been known as a bottleneck on the Portsmouth road, a problem exacerbated by the growth of motor traffic in the early 20th century. The campaign for a bypass began in 1910, and the road was completed in 1927, by which time it had been designated part of the A3. At 13.7 km, it was one of the longest bypasses built at the time, leaving the old road here at Robin Hood Gate and rejoining it at Ditton Common near Esher. It was opened by the prime minister himself, Stanley Baldwin. Soon more houses appeared alongside the road and on the surrounding fields, creating the cluster familiar today. Now regarded as having a particularly attractive mix of architecture despite the busy junction, the locality has become a designated Conservation Area.

Stag Lodge Stables, on the right just before the gate, was known as Parkside until the mid-1960s. Its core is likely 18th century though its current mock-Regency stucco façades date from a remodelling in the following century. In the days of horse-drawn transport it was the place where the ‘cock horse’ was stationed – the additional horse who joined the team to help haul heavy wagons up Kingston Hill. Its business is still equestrian but rather more leisure-oriented, as a riding school and livery stables ideally positioned for both common and park.

Richmond Park

Pen Ponds, Richmond Park.

At 955 ha, around three times the size of New York City’s Central Park, Richmond Park is the single biggest and perhaps the most beautiful and valuable public open space entirely in London and the biggest urban park in Europe. Although there are areas of formal gardens and mown playing fields, most of it is rough, rugged and astonishingly rural, a rolling expanse of largely undisturbed acid grassland dotted with lone mature trees, patches of bracken and small woods. Its character is maintained by the centuries-old practice of grazing with deer, who roam freely. Most of the park is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), in particularly because of its population of rare beetles that flourish on old dead wood, and since 2000 it’s been a National Nature Reserve (NNR), one of only two in London (the other, Ruislip Woods, is on the Hillingdon Trail).

The story of how this giant patch of urban countryside was preserved as the well-loved public resource it is today begins, rather ironically, with the actions of a selfish monarch. In 1625 Charles I took refuge from an outbreak of plague in London at Richmond Palace and took a liking to the place, except for one thing: the existing hunting park, in a bend of the river to the north of the palace, simply wasn’t big enough for him. In 1637 he seized a much bigger portion of land to the southeast as the ‘New Park’, inclosing it with a 13 km-long wall, much of which still stands today, and introducing 2,000 deer. Some of this was already in royal ownership and used for hunting, but the rest was a mix of farmland and common land spanning several parishes: Ham, Kingston, Mortlake, Petersham, Putney, Richmond and Wimbledon.

Understandably the King’s action provoked an outcry. He eventually agreed to compensate local landowners and to create six gates so that local people could continue to gather firewood and cross the park on public rights of way rather than making long detours around the wall. This was only one of numerous issues over which Charles, a fervent believer in the divine right of kings, clashed with his subjects and undoubtedly added to his declining popularity. His repeated conflicts with both the English and Scottish parliaments eventually provoked revolution and civil war. Following the establishment of the English Commonwealth, so far the only republic in mainland Britain, the king was executed for high treason in 1649.

Richmond Park was vested in the City of London during the Commonwealth period, on the basis that it would be “preserved as a Park still, without Destruction; and to remain as an Ornament to the City”. It was returned to royal hands following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The idea of the park as an ‘ornament to the City’ was challenged again in 1751 when George II’s daughter Amelia was appointed ranger. She claimed the park as her personal pleasure ground, locking all the gates and only permitting entry to the select few. Several years of both legal moves and direct action followed: the vicar of Richmond defiantly led his parishioners through holes in the wall so they could complete the annual Beating the Bounds ceremony.

In 1755, a Richmond brewer, John Lewis, followed a carriage through the Sheen gate and, when challenged, insisted on his right to walk through the park. Forcibly expelled by the gatekeeper, Lewis went to court. Doubtless nervous of provoking Royal irritation, the Surrey Assizes found reasons to delay hearing the case, and there was an attempt to discredit Lewis by associating him with a seditious pamphlet.

But growing public support finally forced the issue, and in 1758 the justices found in his favour. The princess reluctantly installed ladder stiles but placed the rungs so far apart only the most athletic adults could use them, and Lewis had to return to court to get this fixed. The financial burden, combined with a flood in his brewery, reduced him to penury, and he lived for several years until his death in 1792 on a modest annuity established by grateful locals. He’s buried in Richmond church.

Amelia, now bored with the park, resigned her post as ranger in 1761, and the access regime relaxed again, although for many years carriage drivers had to obtain special tickets and walkers were restricted to a few well-defined rights of way. Under Queen Victoria in the next century, the official view of the Royal Parks in London gradually shifted from private playground to community asset, culminating in the Parks Regulation Act of 1872 which provided for their management as public open space. An essay on Lewis by Max Lankester of the Friends of Richmond Park speculates that without him, political and social changes would eventually have led to the reopening of the park, but perhaps not for another century. “The determination and shrewdness of John Lewis remain a landmark in the Park's history, and worthy of being celebrated,” concludes Lankester.

The job of looking after Richmond and the other Royal Parks passed to the government, which in 1993 created the Royal Parks Agency to manage them. As part of the contemporary mania for disposing of such state responsibilities, this was succeeded by an independent charity in 2017, though the land itself is still Crown property. Meanwhile the elision of the historic boundaries within the park walls was made official in 1890 when the entire site became part of Richmond municipal borough, the predecessor of the London Borough of Richmond. The park had its own constabulary until 2005 when it was merged with the Metropolitan Police.

Robin Hood’s Gate is one of the six original gates in Charles I’s wall. It was rebuilt in the 1780s to designs by John Soane, though widened in 1896 and again in 1907 to admit motor vehicles, which inherited the right to pass through the park on certain routes originally established for horse-drawn transport. Today the intrusion of traffic is seen as unwelcome, and although there are a couple of through-routes still in use during daylight hours, this gate was closed to motor vehicles as part of a raft of reduction measures in 2003. A round-the-park walking and cycling route, the Tamsin Trail, crosses here.

The Ring avoids the surfaced drives and heads instead up the flank of a grassy slope, atop which is Spankers Hill Wood. Like many of the woodlands in the park, this is a relatively recent plantation, created in two stages in 1819 and 1824 – as deer graze tree bark and destroy saplings, the reintroduction of woodland areas had to be managed carefully. Beyond the next car park with its popular refreshment kiosk, another woodland, the King George V Plantation, is to the left. As its name suggests, this is more recent, planted to commemorate the silver jubilee of the titular monarch in 1935: he died the next year. Far over to the right you might glimpse White Lodge, a Grade I listed hunting lodge built for George II in 1730, and where Edward VIII was born (I said a bit more about him in connection with a rare pillar box on section 3). It’s now occupied by the Royal Ballet School.

You’re now on a broad stony track that soon follows the causeway between two of the park’s most striking features, the twin Pen Ponds, which between them occupy 12 ha. Fed by various streams, these were dug for George II in 1746 and are shown on a 1777 map as ‘canals’. They have functioned as fishponds and as part of drainage systems as well as decorative features and are still used by anglers in season. They were temporarily drained during World War II to make them less obvious a navigation aid for enemy pilots.

It’s at this point, walking between placid ponds set among a vast expanse of rolling grassland punctuated by raggedy woodlands and clumps of trees, that you might well have to remind yourself you’re really still in London. Traffic noises from the surrounding roads have almost entirely faded away, and all is quiet except for the planes passing overhead on their way to Heathrow. Your sense of isolation might be reinforced in winter by the chilly temperatures: the ponds lie in a notorious frost hollow and regularly freeze over. The feeling persists as you climb the slope beyond the ponds, with the much smaller Leg of Mutton Pond over to the left, then cut across the rough grass towards Sidmouth Wood.

This is one of the most likely places on the trail to spot the deer. There are now around 630 of them, some with an ancestry that predates Charles’ inclosure, with two distinct species. Fallow deer, tan in colour and often with a distinctive dappling of lighter spots, were introduced to Britain in Norman times and are now the most widespread. The larger red deer, with a reddish-brown coat, are a native species, the island’s largest land mammals. To regular park users, the deer are familiar and even seem tame, but the Royal Parks are keen to remind people they’re wild animals, so keep a distance of at least 50 m and consult the official safety advice before taking a dog. You’ll need to take special care in the rutting season in September and October, when the males compete aggressively for females, and the birthing season of May to July when the females are protective of their young.

Another, more controversial, seasonal issue affecting the deer is the regular cull. Left to their own devices in this enclosed space, the herds would rapidly expand to unsustainable levels, with severe consequences both to the health of the animals themselves and their environment. So park rangers selectively kill deer by shooting them through the head, the males in February, the females in November, with temporary closures of park gates, usually at quieter times. There’s considerable opposition to this practice, and calls to use contraception instead, but park managers insist they continue to review all options and no other alternative is currently practical. Contraception couldn’t be administered reliably except by injection, involving rounding up the deer and subjecting them to severe stress and injury.

At a complex junction of paths by the fence around Sidmouth Wood, you can see a large fenced-off oak tree just to the left: this is the Richmond Royal Oak, one of the Great Trees of London designated by Trees for Cities. The woodland on the other side is the largest of the park’s 19th century plantations, dating from the 1820s. It’s named after politician Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth (1757-1844), who was deputy ranger at the time, and had been prime minister between 1801-1804.

When the trees aren’t in leaf on the left, you’ll catch a glimpse of one of the oldest buildings in the park: White Ash Lodge, an unpretentious brown brick house dating from the 1740s. This is currently rented out as a private house, surely one of the most exclusive addresses in London. Then you follow part of the drive of Oak Lodge, built within the plantation around 1852 as a home for the park bailiff and now a base for the park rangers. It’s rather curiously named, as its woodland surroundings consist of rather more chestnut than oak.

Around Pembroke Lodge

The Ring arrives on Queen’s Road, a remaining traffic through route along one of the old rights of
way. You’re within sight here of Pembroke Lodge, surrounded by public gardens with numerous features of interest. If you stick rigorously to the official route, you’ll dodge entirely around them, but there are options to dip in and out of it via gates, or you can use the alternative Green London Way instead, which goes right past the lodge itself and up King Henry’s Mound. If you’ve never visited the park before, I highly recommend a detour. An adjacent refreshment kiosk and a Friends of Richmond Park information centre also provide a convenient pitstop.

The lodge is on the site of a much-humbler dwelling. In 1754 a cottage known as Hill Lodge was built here to house the park molecatcher, a position created in 1702 after William III had a riding accident in the park, falling  and breaking his collarbone when his horse tripped on a mole tunnel. Complications from the fracture ultimately caused the king’s death from pneumonia. The prime location at the highest point in the park, overlooking the Thames valley, later caught the attention of Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery. She persuaded George III to grant her the site, and commissioned John Soane to design a painted brick mansion, completed in 1796.

Victoria later granted it to Whig prime minister John Russell, in office 1865-66, and his grandson, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) grew up here. Actor David Niven knew the place when it was the headquarters of his regiment, the GHQ Liaison Regiment, a specialist army reconnaissance and intelligence unit, during World War II. It’s currently leased by a private company and used as an upmarket tea room and events venue. 5 ha of landscaped formal gardens around the buildings house a monument to the Russells and the grave of a dog belonging to a later resident, the Countess of Dudley.

King Henry’s Mound, to the north, may well be a Bronze Age burial chamber and was used as a lookout in hunting park days. On 17th century maps the site was marked as King’s Standing, though the tradition that Henry VIII stood here to observe a rocket fired from the Tower of London confirming the execution of his second wife Anne Boleyn almost certainly has no factual basis.

Since 1710 the mound has provided a ‘keyhole’ view of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in the City, with a tree-framed sightline carefully preserved by landscapers through the centuries. As one of the protected views of the cathedral, it can’t legally be obstructed, but a 143 m residential block, the Manhattan Loft Gardens building, is currently under construction in Stratford immediately behind it. Whereas previously the dome stood out against an empty sky, now it’s backed by a modern geometric skyscraper. To anyone with any degree of aesthetic awareness, the result is almost as bad as the view being blocked entirely, yet supposedly nobody thought of this before the new tower was authorised.

Your mind might turn to reasons to be more cheerful if you explore further north of the mound, following the rose arbour to Poets Corner, a pretty landscaped garden with views towards the Thames. This began in 1851 as a simple memorial board attached to a tree nearby, dedicated to the Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-48), best known for his series of poems The Seasons and the text of ‘Rule Britannia’, who died in Richmond. In 1895 the Selbourne Society installed the first version of the current board on its present site.

Today’s visitors are perhaps more familiar with the subject of a second memorial here, the singer, songwriter and actor Ian Dury (1942-2000), commemorated by a bench designed by Mil Stricevic and installed in 2012. Dury regularly visited the park with his children and favoured the view from here. The bench is equipped with a solar-powered digital player so visitors can plug earphones in and listen to songs and an interview, though like many such features its performance over the years has been erratic. More enduring is the text “Reasons to be Cheerful” carved into the backrest, and if you need reminding, here are a few:
Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly,
Good golly Miss Molly and boats,
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet,
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats,
18 wheeler Scammels, dominica camels,
All other mammals plus equal votes,
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny sniffing Willie,
Being rather silly and porridge oats.


The view from Petersham Park.

As previously mentioned, the Ring avoids the lodge, heading straight across the drive and passing a gate into the gardens on the right. Then it’s through another gate into a separate area of the park known as Petersham Park, following a path that curves around the western perimeter of the gardens, with the ground falling away steeply to the river Thames on your left. The views from here across the broad valley are exhilarating. Most prominent are the two rugby stadia in Twickenham, the main Twickenham Stadium, known as the ‘Cabbage Patch’ and home to the England team, and the smaller Twickenham Stoop, where the Harlequins are based, but you might even be able to spot Windsor Castle on a good day.

This part of the park was once common land in Petersham manor and included a manor house. Soon after Charles I’s land-grab the house, renamed Petersham Lodge, became the home of one of the park’s deputy keepers, renowned playwright Ludovic Carlile, whose wife Joan was one of the first women in England to paint professionally.

Its separate character was reinforced when it was leased in 1686 to Lawrence Hyde, the Earl of Rochester, who developed it into a grand estate known as New Park. Rebuilt in 1721 by William, Earl of Harrington, the lodge is referred to by James Thomson, who writes in Seasons of “the pendent woods that nodding hang o’er Harrington’s retreat”. The house (not the building now known as Petersham Lodge on River Lane) was derelict by 1835 and was demolished, with the surroundings incorporated once more into Richmond Park. It was located on the lower slopes of the meadows but there are no visible remains.

The path reaches a flight of steps on the right, your last chance to visit King Henry’s Mound and Poet’s Corner. Downhill from here is one of the steepest, and most precipitous when wet, descents on the whole trail. You leave the park past a children’s playground and through Petersham Gate, not one of the originals.

There are records of a manor at Petersham from early in the 10th century, when it belonged to Chertsey Abbey. It remained abbey property at the time of the Domesday survey and was only given up in 1415 when the abbot surrendered it to the crown and it was annexed to Richmond. Henry VIII gave land at Petersham to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, as part of their divorce settlement, and it later passed through several private hands. A portion further upstream was carved out to become the separate parish of Ham, home to Ham House, seat of the Dysart family, which still stands and is now owned by the National Trust. Swathes of both Ham and Petersham were then included in Richmond Park.

The Dysart Arms pub opposite the park gate was known as the Plough and Harrow until the early 19th century when it was renamed after the local bigwigs. The current building is a ‘Brewers’ Tudor’ rebuild from 1904, and the fact that since 2005 it’s been operated as an upmarket restaurant rather than a pub speaks to the way this corner of an already prosperous borough has become one of London’s most desirable addresses. Following a footpath rounding the side of the church, the green Capital Ring waymarks temporarily replaced by black ones to conform to Richmond’s planning rules, it’s easy to see why, as Petersham still gives the passable impression of a chocolate box English village.

George Vancouver's grave in Petersham church.
Grade II*-listed St Peter’s Church, described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “of uncommon charm”, is likely a Saxon foundation, as it’s mentioned in the Domesday survey. Much of the fabric of today’s building is 16th century, with 13th century fragments in the chancel, and it’s thankfully avoided the worst excesses of Victorian improvers. Inside are some 18th century box pews segregated by panelling and intended to allow families to sit together, a once-common design that is now rare.

There are numerous memorials and headstones of interest inside and out, including the grave of explorer George Vancouver (1757-98), who charted the northwest Pacific coast of North America and gave his name to Vancouver Island and the cities of Vancouver in both British Columbia, Canada and Washington state, USA. Another naval explorer interred here is Henry Ligbird Hall, who first charted Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand in 1788.

A track from the village continues the rural theme by crossing Petersham Meadows, a remarkable agricultural survival noted among other things for being painted by J M W Turner in 1815. These water meadows have been grazed by cattle since at least the 17th century when they were attached to the Ham House estate. When this was broken up at the end of the 19th century the fields were threatened with housing development, but campaigners succeeded in securing parliamentary support for the Richmond, Petersham and Ham Open Spaces Act 1902 which transferred ownership of these and several other commons and open spaces to Richmond council for the purposes of public enjoyment.

Alongside public access, for decades the council continued to lease the grazing rights to a well-known local dairy firm, Hornby and Clarke, and when this closed the lease passed to private investors. By the end of the 20th century, the tenants were becoming reluctant to maintain grazing on such a small area where there was no longer potential for profit, so in 1998 local people led by athlete and outdoor enthusiast Chris Brasher formed the Petersham Trust, dedicated to retaining the ancient practice.

This trust leased the meadows from the council and began fundraising with the intention of passing them on to the National Trust with an endowment to ensure grazing continues, an objective achieved in 2010. The meadows are currently home between spring and autumn to a small herd of Belted Galloway beef cattle, and the Trust retains the tradition of paying an annual rent to the council in the form of a posy of wild flowers.

Before you get too deep into the meadows, look up the hill on the right for a view of the enormous red brick Grade II-listed Royal Star and Garter Home, opened in 1924 as a care home for disabled ex-servicemen on a site donated by Queen Mary. It took its name from the Star and Garter Hotel which previously stood here. The charity that ran it still cares for forces veterans and their partners with disability and dementia but moved out in 2013 and now operates at several other locations with more modern facilities. Predictably, the original home has been converted to luxury flats. 

Richmond riverside

View towards Richmond Bridge.

The Capital Ring now reaches the side of the river Thames in Buccleuch Gardens, merging with the Thames Path National Trail. From here it follows the towpath upstream towards central London for around 1.6 km. As I’m planning to cover the Thames Path in more detail later, I’ll say more about the Trail and the river then. But take a few moments to think back to the last time the Ring ran alongside the Thames, where it’s much wider and beginning to turn estuarine at Woolwich, and the gentler aspect it presents here as an inland navigation. Note that sections of the towpath may be underwater during particularly high tides, especially between Richmond Bridge and Richmond Lock.

A succession of points of interest lines this stretch. Buccleuch Gardens and its much bigger sister, Terrace Gardens, on the other side of Petersham Road to the right, are the remains of another aristocratic estate. The land was once part of the common attached to Richmond manor, and in the 1630s the slopes were peppered with tile kilns making use of clay dug from the hillside. In the 1760s George Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan and Duke of Montagu, built a riverside mansion on the site where a brick shelter now stands, just as the trail reaches the riverside.

The Duke began acquiring land on the other side of the road to extend his private gardens up the hill, linking the two sides with a barrel-vaulted subway in the style of a grotto, still open today and a little further along the trail. The estate passed by marriage to the Dukes of Buccleuch who in the mid-19th century entertained visiting royalty here, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Leopold I of Belgium, and the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz I.

The Buccleuchs sold Terrace Gardens to the parish vestry, predecessor of the Metropolitan and London boroughs, in 1886 for use as a public park, but Buccleuch Gardens remained private property until 1937 when it was bought by Richmond council. The house was demolished soon afterwards, although some of its arcades are still visible, and replaced with the current shelter. Both sites are on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens and enjoyed a major refurbishment in 2009, so it’s well worth a detour via the grotto for a more detailed exploration.

The building with the three pitched roofs visible to the right just after the gardens is the Three Pigeons, a residential rebuild of an old pub that burned down in 1993. You then pass the boathouse of Richmond Canoe Club, founded in 1944, with the distinctive curved roofs of modern Blade House above. Then there’s Riverdale Gardens, a small park on the site of a house of that name which had been demolished by 1930. Past this are the backs of the remaining buildings of what was once a spectacular 1720s terrace called the Paragon.

Stein’s restaurant with its terrace is on the site of the Lansdown Brewery, founded sometime before the 1880s and closed in 1915: the brewery stores still stands, fronting onto Petersham Road. There were once several breweries along the riverside here, including the one belonging to Richmond Park access campaigner John Lewis, mentioned above. While the danger of flooding was ever-present, the river provided both power and a convenient way of getting ingredients in and beer out: contrary to popular opinion, breweries would not have sourced their brewing liquor from the already-polluted Thames.

The next small garden is known as the Gothic Garden, after Gothic House, part of the Paragon but demolished for road-widening in 1938. Another Great Tree of London, the Richmond Riverside Plane, the tallest of its species in the capital, stands in the garden of Gaucho’s restaurant. Just past this is Richmond Landing Stage: from spring to autumn boats leave from here to Kew Gardens and central London as well as upriver to Hampton Court. Rotary Gardens, further along, is on part of the grounds of a Queen Anne house, Northumberland House, demolished in 1969. Moored here is a historic Thames lighter, the Duke of Cambridgeshire, built around 1900 and now home to a social enterprise, the River Thames Visitor Centre, open daily with exhibitions, information and a café. The smaller flats downstream of this are on the site of the old house.

Finally, you reach Bridge House Gardens, on the site of another vanished house built in the 1690s. In the early 20th century it was a fashionable riverside tea room but had become derelict by 1959 when it was largely demolished to make way for the current park. A fragment of its lower level survives as part of the Tide Tables Café, the main part of which occupies some of the arches of Richmond Bridge. A bust overlooking the gardens commemorates Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme (1778-1842), leader of the revolutionary movement that freed Chile from Spanish rule in 1818 and the country’s first Supreme Director. He lived in Richmond while a student in the 1790s.

Richmond Bridge, opened in 1777, is the oldest bridge across the Thames in London still in use. There are several older crossing points where the current bridges are more recent, but Richmond still retains its initial structure. The bridge was widened and its hump reduced in 1937 and you can spot the join as you walk under it, but the original Portland stone facings were replaced to keep the historic appearance.

The bridge answered a growing need for a more reliable crossing point in this developing part of the capital than the existing ferry, which was regularly disrupted by flooding and high tides. In 1774, with the bridge already under construction, the novelist and Whig politician Horace Walpole, who lived at Strawberry Hill House on the Twickenham side, wrote to a cousin who had served in Austria that after a month of rain:
The Thames is as broad as your Danube, and all my meadows are under water…The ferry-boat was turned round by the current, and carried to Isleworth. Then we ran against the piers of our new bridge.
The bridge cost £26,000, raised from private shareholders who earned profits for life on tolls charged to cross it. The last of the investors died in 1859, having spent her last years living comfortably on an annual income of £800 from tolls, at which point the crossing became free.

Past the Richmond Bridge Boathouses, where master boatbuilder Mark Edwards perpetuates this traditional riverside industry, you reach what at first glance appears to be a preserved Georgian square surrounding a series of grass terraces and steps descending to the towpath. But a closer look reveals that, though a few of the buildings are genuinely old, much is modern pastiche. In places you can even spot the false ceilings through the Georgian-style sash windows. This is the controversial Richmond Riverside development masterminded by architect Quinlan Terry in the late 1980s, praised by some, including Prince Charles, derided by many others who dismiss Terry as “the Andrew Lloyd Webber of architecture.”

Richmond Riverside: contemporary architecture's answer to Cats?

The oldest buildings, all Grade II-listed, are the ones just downriver from the bridge, though they’ve been altered as part of the redevelopment. The one-bay Tower House, immediately above the boathouse and easily recognisable from the Italianate belvedere that explains its name, dates from the mid-19th century. The next bay, also with a terrace above the boathouse, is the Royal Family Hotel, built in 1820.

Above the grassy terrace and in a similar style is the Palm Court Hotel: built in the 1850s, it absorbed its smaller neighbour in 1947. To the left (upstream) of the archway is the oldest building in the group, red brick Heron House, built in the early 18th century though extended several times. Hotham House next door is perhaps the most egregious modern fake, borrowing the name of a 17th century building on the site which collapsed in 1960. The war memorial to its left is an original feature from the 1920s.

A century ago the hotels lived up to their names, with their suggestions of elegance and luxury. The grassy slopes were then private terraces and you can just about imagine them populated by Edwardian sophisticates sipping cocktails rather than the boozy crowds that now spill out of the Pitcher and Piano. By the 1970s, though, the area was decayed and partly derelict. In 1975, a group of campaigners led by writer and activist Erin Pizzey squatted the Palm Court to set up one of the earliest refuges in the UK for women victims of domestic violence. Today, when developers seize on any available riverside property for conversion to prestigious offices, unaffordable flats and globalised catering chains, it’s hard to imagine a London in which properties like this could be put to such informal and socially valuable use.

The white riverfront buildings further on are also fakes, but Riverside House and the stock brick warehouse on the corner of Water Lane are older: the latter dates from the 18th century and is Grade II-listed. They were once part of another brewery, Collins, which operated between the 1720s and the 1870s, after which the warehouse, slightly ironically, housed a municipal waterworks. The picturesque lane led to the ferry departure point, in operation from at least Norman times until the bridge opened. For most of this time two boats were used, a smaller one for passengers, and a larger one for horses and small vehicles: the steep incline on the Twickenham bank precluded larger carriages and carts. A slipway here still provides river access.

The White Cross, also Grade II listed, was originally known as the Watermans Arms and was the Collins brewery tap. The current building is an 1835 rebuild with an additional storey added in the 1860s. It overlooks St Helena Pier, from where Turks Cruises sail upriver to Kingston and Hampton Court. The pier takes its name from the adjacent St Helena House with its terrace and boathouses below, built in 1837 for Collins. Section 6 of the Ring ends where Friars Lane reaches the riverside, with a signed link to Richmond station: Section 7 simply continues along the Thames Path, but even if you’re not breaking your journey here, it’s worth wandering a little away from the towpath to explore Richmond’s historic heart.

Richmond Green and Palace

Asgill House with its ex-Great Tree of London.

Richmond’s full name is Richmond upon Thames, to distinguish it from the other Richmond, a market town in Swaledale, North Yorkshire, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The duplication of names is not coincidental. Until 1501, our Richmond was known as Sheen, meaning ‘shelter’, a name that survives in the adjacent neighbourhood of East Sheen. The village and its ferry likely grew to serve the palace which existed here for many centuries as one of a chain of royal residences along the river.

Sheen isn’t listed in the Domesday survey and there’s no clear record of when the palace was first built: the first mention of royal use is by Edward I in 1299. Richard II had it destroyed out of grief for his deceased wife Anne of Bohemia, who died here in 1394, but it was rebuilt by Henry V a couple of decades later as part of a project known as the King’s Great Work. This also ultimately led to the creation of Syon Park, of which more later.

The English aristocracy spent most of the second half of the 15th century locked in a bitter power struggle known as the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York. At the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the reigning monarch, the Lancastrian Richard III, was finally defeated by Yorkist forces led by challenger Henry Tudor, who took the throne as Henry VII. Henry was the Earl of Richmond, the Yorkshire town, and when Sheen became his favoured residence, he decreed it renamed after his ancestral estates.

It was Henry who had the palace rebuilt and extended in 1501 after much of it was destroyed by fire in 1493. The original Richmond, incidentally, takes in name from the village of Richemont in Normandy, in the modern département of Seine-Maritime: in French the name means ‘rich [as in fertile] hill’, so the geographical term ‘Richmond Hill’ has an internal redundancy. London’s Richmond, in turn, has given its name to various places in the New World, perhaps most famously Richmond, Virginia, so called because the James river reminded one of the original settlers of the Thames.

The rest of the Tudor dynasty also made use of the palace, though Henry Tudor’s son Henry VIII preferred Hampton Court on the opposite bank (see Bushy Park on London Loop 9). This belonged to Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor who buttered up the king by giving it to him and obtaining his permission to live in Richmond instead.

Being imprisoned there briefly during the reign of Mary I didn’t deter Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, from spending her winters at the palace, where she died in 1603. As already discussed, Charles I annexed vast tracts of adjacent countryside to satisfy his love of hunting, creating the present Richmond Park, but following his execution the palace was sold and large parts of it demolished, its masonry recycled for new buildings. The land became royal property again after the Restoration but the palace was never rebuilt and its site was sold off in several portions in 1793.

The station link follows Friars Lane, so-called because it separated the precincts of the palace, on the downstream (left) side, from the Franciscan friary on the opposite side, founded by Henry VII in 1499 and suppressed by his son in 1534. The lane didn’t originally extend to the riverside: the kink in it marks its extension around a group of 1740s houses on Cholmondeley Walk. The curious hexagonal building on the corner is a decorative gazebo, probably dating from the mid-18th century, in the garden of Queensbury House, the large red brick 1930s apartment building that now dominates most of the left side of the lane. This replaced a 1740s mansion on part of the palace site, built for the Earls of Cholmondeley (after the village in Cheshire, pronounced ‘chumly’) and renamed when it was bought in the 1760s by one of the Dukes of Queensberry.

The lane leads out to Richmond Green, a 5 ha expanse of grass dotted with trees that was described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “one of the most beautiful urban greens surviving anywhere in England”. Originally this was common land immediately outside the palace and surrounded by houses and workshops for palace staff, visitors and supporting tradespeople. Grazing sheep shared space with archery practice and regular jousting tournaments. Historian John Stow, writing at the end of the 16th century, describes how in 1492 there took place (I’ve modernised the spelling):
…a great and valiant jousting within the king’s manor of Sheen…which endured by the space of a month, sometime within the said manor, and sometime without, upon the green without the gate of the said manor. In the which space a combat was held and done betwixt Sir James Parker, knight, and Hugh Vaughan, gentleman usher…and Sir James Parker was slain at the first course.
The green is still owned by the Crown Estate, though managed by the council. The contests that take place here now are rather less hazardous than in Tudor times: regular cricket matches have been a feature since the early 19th century. There are too many listed structures and features of interest to mention all of them, but if you continue to follow the official station link, you’ll pass an early 18th century terrace that ends at no 32 (Richmond Green is also a street address) and a late 19th century Grade II-listed Portland stone drinking fountain on the green itself, more-or-less opposite the Cricketers pub. The row of buildings facing the southeast side, including the pub, is entirely listed: note the early 18th century houses at nos 10-12. Just before the corner with Dukes Street is an early 19th century cast iron lamp standard, also listed.

The smaller patch of grass across the road ahead is known as Little Green and is also overlooked by historic buildings, the most prominent of which is Richmond Theatre, with its twin domes and elaborate terracotta detailing. Built in 1899 as the Theatre Royal and Opera House, it’s considered one of the finest works of celebrated theatre designer Frank Matcham, and the most completely preserved, both outside and in. The neo-Gothic Richmond Central Lending Library next door is the oldest library building in London still in its original use, opened in 1881. On the other side of Little Green, across from the theatre and library, is Fitzwilliam House, where Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister from 1964-70 and 1974-76, had a flat.

Continuing ahead, you cross the railway, where a passage on the right leads to Richmond station. The rails arrived in 1846 when the Richmond and West End Railway opened a branch from Clapham Junction, though the original station, a terminus, has since vanished beneath the NCP car park to the south. This line was extended two years later towards Windsor. The London and South Western Railway opened an adjacent station on a line from Kensington Olympia in 1869, which was later connected to the District Railway: this stretch is now used by London Overground towards Stratford and by the London Underground District Line. The fine Moderne-style frontage in Portland stone with its imposing square clock was designed by James Robb Scott for a 1937 rebuild merging both stations.

Rejoining the route from the station, consider branching off the official link route on a path that heads diagonally right across both greens, towards the palace gate. The two rows behind and to the right are slightly less distinguished than the others, but still contribute pleasantly to the overall view. Richmond Terrace, on the northeast side behind you, includes some more recent buildings, as well as two pairs of imposing white stucco Italianate villas just past Little Green, dating from the 1850s. To your right and on the northwest side is a row of rather sterner-looking yellow brick houses from the same period, Pembroke Villas.

Ahead and to the left, in simpler but impressively elegant style, is what’s generally thought to be the finest row of old houses around the Green, the Grade I-listed three-storey Maids of Honour Row. Built in 1720, these get their name because they were built to house maids of honour to Caroline of Anspach, wife of the future George II, when he was Prince of Wales.

The diagonal path ends at a pillar box opposite a driveway known as the Wardrobe, with another Great Tree of London, an umbrella pine, on the left and the Old Court House to the right, from the same period and originally in the same style as the Maids of Honour but much altered. Even if you aren’t breaking your journey in Richmond I suggest you at least divert temporarily away from the riverside at Friars Lane, walk past Maids of Honour Row while admiring the green, and cut back along the Wardrobe through the palace site.

The drive passes through an arch, the original Tudor gateway from 1501, though the arms of Henry VII in the porch above have been restored more recently. To the left of this is the old gatehouse, essentially Tudor though much altered in both the 18th and 19th centuries. Old Palace Yard beyond gives something of an idea of what the site must have been like as an enclosed and fortified space, though the view ahead today is of the back of the Trumpeters House, an early 18th century private mansion, built on the site of the Middle Gate which led to the heart of the palace with its great hall and privy chambers where the monarch lived. The building didn’t house the royal brass players, as some imagine, but was named after two mediaeval stone figures of trumpeters that once stood in the yard.

The building on the left (east) side of the yard, the Wardrobe, may be the oldest still standing on the site: its timber frame is thought to predate Henry VII’s rebuild, having survived the 1493 fire. The masonry is mainly 16th century and the brick facing is partly from the 18th century redevelopment. The building was most likely intended as servants’ quarters, but it’s also said to have housed Elizabeth I’s extensive royal wardrobe and is claimed to be the building where she died in 1603, spending her last days refusing to lie down and haunted by guilt at having ordered the execution of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots.

Back on the riverside along picturesque Old Palace Lane, it’s worth backtracking upstream a little for some further features of interest: if you stick faithfully to the official route which simply follows the Thames Path, you’ll pass them anyway. This section of towpath, like most of the promenade on land reclaimed from what was once a wider river, is known as Chomondley Walk. The castellated structure in the wall of Trumpeters House is a mid-18th century gazebo or summer house, originally a bathing pavilion for riverside swimmers, its design intended to recall the Tudor palace. Behind it you can glimpse the façade of Trumpeters House itself.

On the upstream corner of Old Palace Lane stands Asgill House, a compact and rather beautiful Palladian villa built in the early 1760s for Charles Asgill, merchant banker and former Lord Mayor of London, on the site of former palace brewhouse. Its architect Robert Taylor also designed the Lord Mayor’s Coach still in use today. It’s an unusual example of a building that’s been restored to its original form, in 1970 when some 1840s additions were removed. In the garden is a twisted tree trunk dotted with the stumps of cruelly lopped branches: this was formerly a magnificent copper beech, one of the Great Trees of London, but tragically was badly damaged by a storm in 2012. All its branches were removed for safety reasons, with the trunk retained as a home for invertebrates. Its Great Tree status has since been removed.

Update September 2023. Sadly, the Asgill copper beech subsequently suffered further damage from fungal growth and was felled in the early 2020s.

To Richmond Lock

Looking upstream from the Richmond Lock footbridge.

The river Thames now passes under two bridges in quick succession. The first carries the railway to Windsor, opened, as mentioned above, in 1848. The piers date from then, but the rest of the structure, now Grade II-listed, was rebuilt in 1908. Twickenham Bridge was built in 1933 to carry the new A316 Great Chertsey Arterial Road connecting the A4 in Chiswick (and therefore the West End) with various routes to the southwest: since 1967 it’s been a feeder for the M3 to Southampton. The final design by architect Maxwell Ayrton was the outcome of much wrangling over what was and was not visually appropriate in such a historic and picturesque setting. The result, in art deco reinforced concrete with distinctive bronze lamp standards, is now regarded as distinguished enough to merit a Grade II* listing. The bridge housed the first static speed camera in the UK, installed in 1992.

The road and railway line have severed the palace site from its historic hunting park, the one that Charles I found inadequate. Since Charles’ creation of Richmond Park, the site has been known, literally enough, as the Old Deer Park. Although it’s ultimately still owned by the Crown Estate, it’s become something of a patchwork, with a council-operated public park and recreation ground, a private golf course and a cricket ground. The royal holdings encompass nearly all the riverside land upstream as far as Kew, though the land to the north of the Old Deer Park was historically managed separately, some of it leased out to courtiers as private estates. In 1801, George III reunited these, and an existing exotic garden in the northern part, close to Kew, evolved into the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, officially opened in 1840.

We’ll turn off the Thames Path before reaching Kew Gardens, so I’ll discuss them in more detail in a future post. But Ring walkers can still lay claim to having visited the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew World Heritage Site, designated by UNESCO in 2003. There are only four such sites in London, with another on the tentative list, and this is the only one on the Ring. An earlier Grade I designation on the Register of Parks and Gardens includes the Old Deer Park downstream of the railway bridge and right of the towpath, on the other side of the ditch, but not the path itself. The World Heritage Site includes a more expansive buffer zone, beginning on the immediate upstream side of the road bridge and encompassing the Thames Path on both sides of the river, as well as the whole of Syon Park, which we cross later.

The obelisks in the Old Deer Park, Richmond, once used for setting London's time.

A curiosity of the Old Deer Park is the pair of stone obelisks soon visible from the towpath. They date from 1769, and the construction of the King’s Observatory for George III, a keen astronomer: this still stands and can be viewed through the slot in the nearby information post. The obelisks, and a third some way to the north, mark out a north-south meridian used to calibrate the instruments. London’s official time was once calculated from observations made here, with noon occurring when the sun was at its highest point in the sky above the meridian, although this job eventually shifted to Greenwich. If the ditch separating the towpath from the Old Deer Park makes you feel like you’re walking on a causeway, you’re right: the towpath is on an artificially constructed embankment here.

And so you reach Richmond Lock with its attached footbridge, its twin decks and cast iron balustrades marching for 106 m across the river on five graceful arches between brickwork piers. The lock was opened in 1894 as a solution to a longstanding problem: since the old London Bridge was replaced in 1831 with a new structure that obstructed the flow of water much less than its predecessor, the tidal differences in upstream water levels became more extreme than they had been for hundreds of years.

The problem was exacerbated by dredging below the Pool of London to ease the passage of big ships, the construction of a lock and weir upstream at Teddington in 1811, the dumping of untreated sewage and the increasing extraction of water for the public supply in the late 19th century. The upshot of all this was that the Thames between Teddington and Richmond turned into a narrow, muddy channel for several hours each side of low tide, impassable by all but the smallest boats.

Contained in the three central arches of the footbridge are three substantial sluice gates weighing 32.6 tonnes each, which can be hauled out of the water and tucked away in the deck supports. Their ingenious rolling design was the brainchild of Irish-born engineer and sluice specialist Francis Goold Morony Stoney, who later applied the same principles at a larger scale on the Aswan Dam.

For much of the time, the lowered gates form a substantial barrage against the water’s flow, boosting the depth of the official navigation channel upstream to at least 1.72 m. Passing boats then need to use the lock under the arch on the Richmond side. But for two hours each side of high tide, the sluices are raised and both the water and the vessels on it can pass unimpeded. The footbridge helped recoup some of the construction expense, as walkers were at first charged a penny (0.4p) toll: it’s now free, though the gate is closed at night. The remains of the turnstiles and tollbooths are still visible on both decks, though only the downstream deck is usually open today.

The structure, with its elaborate and cheerfully-painted cast iron work, its substantial engineering features, its lockhouse and odd scattering of small and curious buildings, makes for a particularly quirky and pleasing assemblage. It certainly provides a marvellous western river crossing for the Capital Ring. The Thames Path, meanwhile, continues ahead towards Kew Gardens and central London, while the Green London Way also opts to stay on the south bank, on a roundabout route to Brentford via Kew Bridge. Don’t forget to pause halfway across, not just to admire the view, which is well worth it, but to mark the trail’s passage from south to north London.

St Margarets

Mouth of river Crane at Railshead Ferry, with Isleworth Ait in the background.
When the lock was first built, crossing the footbridge took you from Surrey to Middlesex, a county which was finally abolished in 1965 when nearly all its remaining territory that hadn’t yet been claimed by the London County Council was swallowed by the expanded Greater London. I introduced it in more detail when the London Loop entered it on Section 9. Today you don’t even change boroughs when crossing here: Richmond upon Thames is the only London borough which straddles both sides of the river.

The footbridge lands in the neighbourhood known as St Margarets. Until the late 18th century, this was a countryside area in the parish of Isleworth. There were only two houses, one of which had been built as a school in the 17th century when the estate was known as Twickenham Park, and later occupied by the dramatist Richard Sheridan. It was rebuilt in 1830 for Archibald Kennedy, the Marquess of Alisa, who renamed it St Margarets. In 1856 the land around the house was redeveloped as upmarket homes by the Conservative Land Society, and the growth of the modern suburb was boosted by the opening of St Margarets station in 1876 on the existing railway line from Richmond to Windsor.

 Along with the rest of Isleworth parish, St Margarets was incorporated into the Heston and Isleworth Urban District in 1894. This later became a Municipal Borough, but when the new London Boroughs were created along with Greater London in 1965, the boundary was re-aligned to follow the river Crane and the area was grouped in with Twickenham as part of Richmond borough. This wasn’t without historical precedent: there were numerous crossovers with ownership and control of the parishes and manors in Isleworth, Richmond and Twickenham back in mediaeval times.

Below Teddington Lock the Thames Path National Trail offers a choice of paths on both sides of the river, so the Ring now follows the north bank route, soon leaving the road for another quiet riverside path. There’s an information board here marking one of the start and finish points for the River Crane Walk, although the Crane itself is a little downriver.

Sticking to the Thames, you soon pass a 1960s boathouse with an interesting history.  Originally used to build racing rowing boats, it was bought in 1976 by Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townsend, who refitted it as a recording studio, known like his existing facility in Soho as Eel Pie Studios. The name is from Eel Pie Island, a Thames ait a little upstream in Twickenham housing a venue where the Who and many other key bands of the time regularly played in the 1960s.

Townsend was banned from driving so the riverside site enabled him to travel to work by boat. The studio was later occupied by the Cocteau Twins and the Lightning Seeds. Townsend also refitted a Dutch barge, the Grand Cru, as a studio and until 2008 this was moored on the river outside the boathouse. In that year the building was sold and converted to residential use, but Townsend kept the Grand Cru, which still provides recording facilities at its new home in St Katherines Dock.

The area on the landward side here was once the St Margarets Estate. The house was rebuilt in 1851 to a design by Thomas Cubitt for Francis Needham, the Earl of Kilmorey, and renamed Kilmorey House.  Needham was rather an eccentric figure notorious for eloping with his ward Priscilla Hoste, almost 40 years his junior. When Priscilla died in 1854, she was interred in an ancient Egyptian-style mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery. The earl didn’t stay in the house for long after that, selling it in 1856 to the Royal Naval Female School, a boarding school for the daughters of naval officers.  It was demolished following bomb damage in World War II and a teacher training college built on the site, but this closed in the 1970s. In 2005, the site was redeveloped into an upmarket gated estate, which also included improvements to the riverside walkway.

The other big pre-19th century house on the riverside survives and is soon visible to the left. This is Gordon House, the central portion of which dates from the late 17th century. The earliest known occupant was Jewish businessman Moses Hart, principal funder of the rebuilt Grand Synagogue in Aldgate, who lived here between 1718-56. It was expanded in 1758 by Robert Adam as one of his early commissions, and later became the home of Francis Needham. When he died here in 1880, he joined his beloved Priscilla in her mausoleum, moved from Brompton to a site nearby where it still stands today. Gordon House became the Industrial School for Girls, then part of the Royal Female School, then a teacher training college, and finally a part of Brunel University, until it too was sold for conversion to flats in 2004.

The Thames Path is deflected away from the river just short of the mouth of the river Crane, following Railshead Road. In the 14th century the name Railshead, referring to rails or stakes rising from the river here, was applied to the locality as a whole. Thistleworth Marina, which blocks access ahead, is now mainly a mooring for houseboats but from the 1930s until the 1970s a boatyard known as Kris Cruisers operated here, building motor torpedo boats for the Navy during World War II and later police launches, as well as cargo and fishing vessels and pleasure cruisers. The yellow brick cottage at the end of the marina fence is the old ferry house: the Railshead Ferry operated to the Richmond side here from the time of George III until the outbreak of World War II.

Although there’s no through-route, you can duck down the path beside Riverside House, a smart 1990s block of flats, for a closer look at the mouth of the Crane. The tributary officially begins at Bulls Bridge near Hayes and flows for 13.5 km to join the Thames here, though it’s essentially a continuation of another stream, the Yeading Brook, which rises in Pinner Park near Headstone Lane station, about 12 km above Hayes. Its lower reaches dip south via Twickenham before turning north to Isleworth, and its profile is further complicated by various engineering re-channelling works that have altered its course over the centuries.

The most obvious of these is the Duke of Northumberland’s River, which we’ll encounter a little further on. Substantial lengths of sections 9 and 10 of the London Loop are shared with the River Crane Walk, and much of the Hillingdon Trail tracks the Yeading valley, so you can read more about the river in my posts on these trails. The appearance of this lowest, tidal section is the result of 20th century straightening and culverting, and flood alleviation works in the 1990s.


Isleworth riverside: a disused crane, the Cathja barge, All Saints Church and the Syon Park Pavilion in the distance.

From late Saxon times, the small riverside town of Isleworth was the centre not just of a single parish but of a huge manor covering three parishes, the others being Heston (Hounslow) and Twickenham. Together these also formed the ancient Middlesex hundred of Isleworth. The first reference to the town is in a charter dated 695, and though this might be fake, Isleworth was well-established by the time of the Domesday survey in 1086. The name means ‘Gīslhere’s inclosure’. One reason for the large size of the manor many have been that most of it, away from the riverside, consisted of the rough and rugged Hounslow Heath, which was once much larger than it is today (see London Loop 9).

After the Conquest, Isleworth passed through the hands of various Norman nobles and in 1337 became part of the extensive holdings of the Duchy of Cornwall. Just before Henry V died in 1422, he granted it to the Bridgettine Order of nuns at Syon Abbey. By 1598 most of it belonged to the Earls of Northumberland, and their descendants are still around today. As elsewhere along this part of the river, land was inclosed and sold off from the 17th century to build upmarket country houses, though Isleworth was also noted for orchards and, later, market gardens. Suburban development followed the arrival of the railway with the opening of the Hounslow Loop Line in 1849.

Once you could cross the Crane at Railshead Ferry and continue along the riverside into Isleworth village. Then in 1832 William Cooper, personal doctor to George III, had the road diverted away from his property at Isleworth House as part of a major rebuilding. Today, the Ring and Thames Path are still forced away from the Thames, entering the London Borough of Hounslow across Railshead Bridge, a Grade II-listed structure in stock brick constructed as part of the diverted road.

The trail now follows the pavement along the landward edge of this sizeable riverside estate. A private house likely stood here from 1635, and by the early 19th century it was owned by the Anglo-Jewish Franks family, which Cooper married into. The works he commissioned in 1832 included a complete rebuild of the house under architect Edward Blore.

Isleworth was the centre of one of London’s largest Roman Catholic communities and in 1895 it once again became the home of a female religious order when the Poor Sisters of Nazareth, an offshoot of the French Petites Sœurs des Pauvres, bought Isleworth House, renaming it Nazareth House. The sisters opened a girl’s school and orphanage and in 1901 added a chapel designed by renowned Catholic church architects Pugin and Pugin. The convent closed in 2002 and after several derelict years the complex was redeveloped in 2017 as a gated residential community.

Partly buried under the surroundings of Nazareth House is an archaeological site and ancient monument that tells an alternative history of Isleworth, which wasn’t just a picturesque setting for rich men’s homes. As a small riverside town, it was a local industrial centre, and brickworks, wheelwrights, breweries, lime kilns and corn mills have all played their part. Most notably, Joseph Shore operated a pottery between 1756-87 on a site to the south of the house, which became one of five important makers of fine porcelain in London. English porcelain, originally produced to challenge the popularity of imports from China, later flourished as a key product of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in the area around Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, but the foundations for this success were laid in London, and the site here is one of the best preserved.

There’s an intention to restore the riverside path but it hasn’t happened yet, so you’ll need to look through gaps in the wall to spot the red brick Pugin chapel with its Gothic-style windows and the tall 1830s stucco house, known locally as the White House, peeking above it. Also dating from Cooper’s time are the imposing white gateposts and adjacent gatehouse at the main entrance, a little before the mini-roundabout in Isleworth village. Glance to the left here and you’ll see Upper Square, a tiny triangle of village green with a memorial drinking fountain, installed in 1870 to commemorate a local vicar, Henry Glossop. The cattle trough behind it was installed in 1904, replacing an earlier trough attached to the fountain.

The trail turns in the other direction, back to the river at Lion Wharf, its name another reminder of industrial Isleworth. The wharf handled gunpowder from mills further up the Crane (see London Loop 9) and rubber for the Firestone factory on the Great West Road as well as chemicals, clay, coal and timber. On my last visit a temporary diversion was in place as the site was undergoing redevelopment into yet more upmarket flats, but this will ultimately also provide an improved riverside path.

The waterway here is just a narrow channel separating the riverbank from Isleworth Ait, at 4 ha one of the largest of the numerous small islands in the Thames traditionally known as ‘aits’ or ‘eyots’. It’s the only survivor of six that one clustered here. Historically used like many Thames aits to grow osier willow trees for use in boatbuilding, it’s now owned by Thames Water, housing an outlet for purified sewage, though most is leased to the London Wildlife Trust, who manage it as a Local Nature Reserve, apart from a small boatyard that still maintains Thames barges. It’s particularly noted for its population of two rare snail species: the delightfully-named German hairy snail, a tiny creature no bigger than a fingernail, and the two-lipped door snail. The ait is only safely accessible by boat and opens to the public for guided tours twice a year.

You may now find yourself dodging tables full of al fresco drinkers as the trail runs straight through the terrace of the 1980s-built Town Wharf pub, on the site of a coal wharf. Just past this, a footbridge crosses Isleworth Stairs, an ancient riverside access point where both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn recorded hailing watermen to row them back to London in the 17th century.

Further along, the twin chimney stacks of Holland House, built in 1774, are visible to the left. An electric pedestal crane preserved as a skeletal reminder of the past overlooks the permanent mooring of a 1930s Dutch barge, Cathja, which since 1996 has been occupied by a charity providing woodworking and sculpture activities for people with mental health issues. Just past this you’re forced away from the river again by the mouth of the Duke of Northumberland’s River, but take the opportunity to enjoy the view upstream towards the prettiest part of the village.

Despite its name, the Duke’s River is an artificial watercourse, cut in the 1540s to power mills nearby and originally known as Isleworth Mill Stream. I’ve said a bit about it on London Loop 9, and another branch of the River Crane Walk follows it from here, so expect to read more in a future blog. The trail soon reaches Church Street, where across the road the watercourse opens out into a wide brick basin which once served a flour mill. You can still see the iron rings in the walls where boats moored up to load and unload, as well as a gushing weir. The mill stood on the land immediately behind the basin from the 16th century, and in the mid-19th century, when it was known as Kidd’s Mill, it was one of the biggest in the country. It was demolished after being bought and closed by Rank in 1934 and part of the site is now covered by woodland.

Church Street crosses the Duke’s River on a bridge built at the same time as the basin in 1820, then passes several listed 18th and early 19th century houses to regain the Thames again by the Grade II*-listed London Apprentice pub. With its brown brick core dating from 1732, this is one of very few surviving London pub buildings predating the late Victorian period, although it’s been reworked several times since, most recently in 1906, when the bay window was added: the window is also of 18th century origin but was transplanted from another building.

The pub supposedly derives its name from its popularity with apprentices from livery companies in the City, who would row here for a drink and return in the morning, but it also has possible connections with smuggling, as the remains of a tunnel from the river survive below it. In 2015 I researched the fate of 12 ‘best pubs in London’ named by the food writer Adrian Bailey in Len Deighton’s London Dossier, an offbeat guidebook published in 1967, and found all but two still open, including this one.

Upstream of the pub are a grassy terrace and a slipway created when new embankments were built along the riverside as a flood protection measure in the 1880s. Although there are pub tables on the grass, the area is a registered common and open to the public.

Overlooking the river from an even more elevated site is the Kentish ragstone tower of All Saints Church. This is its oldest-known feature, dating from the late 15th century: undoubtedly the church had a previous history but little is known about it. The rest of the building was burnt down by an arsonist in 1943, and eventually rebuilt in 1970 by architect Michael Blee, who chose to forego mediaeval or Victorian pastiche in favour of a forthright contemporary design within the footprint of its predecessor. Modernist, geometric red brick walls jut out from 18th century arcades, and a Baroque-style sundial hangs suspended above concrete slabs. The juxtaposition, according to the Grade II* listing, “creates a complex of poignant complexity, reflecting evolution, damage and renewal”.

The ongoing need for flood protection here is demonstrated by five plaques in the church wall that record high water levels on various dates between 1774 and 1965. An Isleworth Society plaque nearby states the last serious flooding was in 1976: since then, the Thames Barrier has kept water levels under control.

Syon Park Pavilion from the foreshore at Isleworth.

Walkers are forced away from the riverside again just past the church, but you might catch a glimpse of a curious round pink building just ahead: if the tide’s out, it’s worth descending to the foreshore for a better view. This is a late 18th century pavilion in the grounds of Syon Park, in elegant and rather playful neo-Classical style: originally there were boathouses attached but they have disappeared and the structure has been converted to a private home. The building on the left just round the bend is the rebuilt ferryhouse for the Church Ferry, a crucial link between Isleworth and Richmond from the early 16th century. Later it served Kew Gardens, continuing to operate until as recently as 1997.

Syon Park

Syon House, still a private home.

The rich heritage of this section of the Ring continues as the trail dodges through the gates of Syon Park, a grand 18th century estate with remnants of its origins as a mediaeval manor. It’s the last remaining major country estate in the capital still in private aristocratic ownership, used by the Percy family, Dukes of Northumberland, as its London residence. The 12th Duke, Ralph Percy, is one of the richest men in England, with a net worth of £365m thanks largely to owning almost 500 km2 of the northeast of England, including Alnwick Castle. The family has proved adept at managing its London assets: Syon Park was one of the earliest stately homes to exploit the nascent tourist industry when its gardens were first opened to the paying public in 1837.

There’s still an admission charge to visit the house and much of the grounds and gardens, which are open between mid-March and the end of October (check opening times for the house if you want to visit as it’s not open daily), and various other commercial enterprises are scattered round the site. But thankfully the main drive through is a public right of way, with free views of the house, the wider parkland and some other notable buildings.

When Henry V rebuilt Sheen Palace in the 1410s, as part of the King’s Great Work, he surrounded it with religious institutions. It’s thought one of these, a Celestine monastery, briefly occupied the site that became Syon Park, but Henry rapidly dissolved this after the its largely French occupants refused to pray for his victory at Agincourt. A more enduring foundation was the Monastery of St Saviour and St Bridget of Syon, the only community in England of an order of Augustinian nuns often referred to as Bridgettines. The original site where the abbey was established in 1415 is uncertain but it was likely further upriver towards Twickenham, facing the palace across the Thames.

The name ‘Syon’, incidentally, is just an alternative spelling of ‘Zion’, the anglicised form of the Hebrew name Tsiyyon (Sahyoum in Arabic) which has been applied over the millennia to several different hills in Jerusalem and used as a synecdoche for the entire city and for the biblical land of Israel. Today the word is inextricably linked with Zionism, the modern political movement for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which resulted in the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. But it has always held various mystical and metaphorical meanings too, as a spiritual place or state, thus its appropriation for a 15th century nunnery.

Just before his death in 1422, Henry assigned the whole of the giant manor of Isleworth to the abbey, and in 1431, finding its existing accommodation too small, the community relocated downstream to the present Syon Park, with the abbey buildings around the site of the present house and between it and the Thames. By the time the abbey was suppressed during Henry VIII’s dissolution in 1539, it maintained over 12 ha of orchards and gardens. The manor temporarily returned to the Crown and was grouped for a while with Hampton Court. The king’s body rested overnight here on its final journey from Westminster to Windsor in 1547, and there’s a grisly and likely apocryphal tale that the coffin leaked “putrid matter” which was licked up dogs, fulfilling the prophecy of a Franciscan friar opposed to Henry’s religious policies.

After the king’s death the site was occupied by Edward Seymour, the ambitious Duke of Somerset. The new king, Edward VI, was only nine years old, and Seymour, his uncle, was appointed Lord Protector, essentially ruling on Edward’s behalf. In 1549, following a series of armed revolts, Seymour was toppled, and in 1552 beheaded at the Tower of London. Seymour was the occupant who first rebuilt the monastery into a private house, and his construction of a triangular terrace intended to provide riverside views was used in evidence against him as it was assumed to be the first stage of a planned fortification.

The next occupant was the next Protector, John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, who also ended up on the wrong end of Tudor power politics. The successor by birth to the ailing Edward, Henry’s oldest daughter Mary Tudor, was a devout Catholic intent on reversing the growing dominance of Protestantism initiated by her father’s break with Rome. At the behest of Dudley and his colleagues, the ailing teenage king disinherited her, instead naming as his successor his first cousin and Dudley’s daughter-in-law, the 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey, an intelligent and well-educated young woman who was also a committed Protestant.

On 10 July 1553, a few days after Edward’s death, Jane left Syon Park where she’d been staying, and boarded a boat at Isleworth Stairs to the Tower of London where she was proclaimed queen. Mary meanwhile rallied armed supporters in the Catholic stronghold of East Anglia. With the prospect of a civil war, support for Jane melted away and the ‘Nine-Day Queen’ was deposed on 19 July, before she’d been crowned, in favour of Mary. Dudley became among the first of many opponents executed by so-called ‘Bloody Mary’, and Jane herself was beheaded on Tower Green in 1554. During Mary’s reign there was an attempt to rebuild Syon Abbey, but in 1594 it was leased by Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, himself no stranger to court intrigue as he was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and imprisoned in the Tower for 17 years.

The Percys and their relatives have held Syon Park ever since. In 1751 the then-Earl, Hugh Smithson, commissioned architect Robert Adam to remodel and refurbish the house, and the ever-busy Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to landscape the grounds. It’s essentially their work that you see today. Apart from an area to the northwest developed for housing in the 1970s, and a more recent hotel, the estate has remained remarkably intact since pre-Tudor times. The house is Grade I-listed and the park is a Grade I-registered Historic Park and Garden, as well as forming part of the buffer zone for the Kew Gardens World Heritage Site.

The trail enters past the porter’s lodge, one of several additions in 1817, and follows the permissive path to the right of the drive. Behind the wall on the right, inaccessible to the public, is an area of tidal tall grass washland, the only one of its kind in London and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. To the left, though fenced off, is the grazed open parkland created by Brown: you might catch a glimpse of his one of his characteristic lakes, now used for private fishing.

Eventually you walk along a low wall and ha-ha that reveal the house itself on the right, an imposing castellated building with symmetrical turrets at each end: it preserves something of the appearance of Seymour’s time and you can understand how he was suspected of making military preparations here. The striking composition is completed by the two lodges alongside your path which frame the house, added by Henry Percy in 1607. Look to the left and you’ll see an avenue of lime trees marching towards the lake, connecting with a meandering drive to what was once the main gate on London Road, known as the Lion Gate as its grand entrance is topped by a heraldic lion sculpture: this was permanently closed in the 1990s.

Further along, occupying several of the outbuildings, is the oldest garden centre in the UK, the remains of a late 1960s initiative to establish a national garden festival on the site. It’s open daily, including in the winter, and is worth popping into even if you don’t need to use the toilets or the creditable café. The main part of the centre is housed in an unusual 1820s iron-framed building once used as a riding school, while in a yard behind it is the Abbey Barn, the only surviving complete building from Bridgittine days, part of which can also be viewed from the path. Originally built of ragstone, it’s been much altered, in the late 17th century and again after a fire in 1905.

Syon Park Conservatory.
This is the best place to glimpse perhaps the most spectacular building on the site without crossing a paywall. Thrusting above is the elegant crystalline dome of the Great Conservatory, laced with delicate ironwork. This innovative building, designed by Charles Fowler, was provided to delight the public when the gardens were first opened in 1827.

The grounds east of the conservatory towards the Thames, in the paid-for zone, are the site of the two Battles of Brentford: in 1016, when the Anglo-Saxon leader Edmund Ironside defeated the Danish king Cnut, and during the English Civil War in 1642 when the Royalists under Prince Rupert defeated a small force of Parliamentarians. The Royalists then proceeded to sack the nearby town.

Various other commercial enterprises line the drive by which you leave the park. The biggest of them is the 151-room Hilton London Syon Park hotel, opened in 2011 and originally part of the Waldorf Astoria Group. If you plan on walking the Ring on a series of consecutive days, this is a decidedly luxury overnight option. You also pass a paid-for adventure playground and an upmarket day nursery before emerging at Brentford on the rather more down-to-earth surroundings of the London Road.


The derivation of the name ‘Brentford’ seems obvious: the ford where the Bath Road crossed the river Brent just upstream of its confluence with the Thames. But the Thames itself was also relatively shallow here, so the ford referred to may be the one across the larger river. Brentford claims to be the place where the Roman emperor Julius Caesar crossed the Thames and battled with the local Celtic king, Cassivelaunus, in 54 BCE, but although the claim is consistent with the sparse facts of Caesar’s own account, no archaeological evidence has been found to support it. There’s plenty of evidence, however, to demonstrate Brentford was already an important settlement in Caesar’s time. Local finds go back to the Mesolithic period and numerous artefacts from the Bronze Age (around 2500-800 BCE) suggest there may have been a metalworking factory here. Brentford is therefore one of the London suburbs which predates the City of London itself.

Growing up along the main road on both sides of the river, Brentford straddled several mediaeval parishes. The part where the trail first enters, to the west of the Brent, developing after a new bridge opened in 1446, is known as Brentford End and was historically part of Isleworth. New Brentford, immediately to the east of the Brent, occupied a thin finger of Hanwell parish known as Boston Manor, in the Middlesex hundred of Elthorne, which stretched south to the Thames. Old Brentford, to the east of the street known as Half Acre, was part of Ealing, in Ossulstone hundred. Old and New Brentford were formed into a single Brentford District in 1874, later Brentford and Chiswick Urban District, but Brentford End didn’t become part of the same local government area until the creation of the London Borough of Hounslow in 1965.

With its good road and river links, Brentford continued as a centre of industry and commerce into modern times. A market and annual fair were both licensed in 1306, with the High Street soon becoming a row of coaching inns and pubs serving the road. Gravel pits, tile factories and brickfields were all active by the 16th century, and by the end of the next century the town housed extensive granaries, flour mills, maltings and breweries. 18th century Brentford was one of the major industrial centres immediately outside London, and the arrival of the Grand Union Canal in the early 19th century brought further industries including a distillery and soap, gas and water works. Much of this had moved out by World War II, closing or migrating north along the new Great West Road, but Brentford today remains a busy residential and retail centre.

The original Great Bath Road played a key role in all this. The current High Street and London Road are built along the line of the main Roman road west from London, which branched at Hounslow to serve Silchester and Bath. The route has remained in continuous use since and there are traces of Roman construction underneath the present road. Its importance increased further in late mediaeval times as it also provided a link to Bristol, by the mid-14th century Britain’s third biggest town and a major port.

But the poorly maintained and largely unsurfaced road was a constant source of complaint. Main roads in England were known for their poor condition anyway thanks to the informal parish-based system for maintaining them, which was often abused, and the stretch through busy Brentford was particularly notorious as the split responsibility between three parishes provided ample opportunities for buck-passing. The road was narrow and hemmed in with buildings, there was regular conflict between through traffic and busy locals. In the 17th century the bridges had to be widened following several incidents of vehicles elbowing pedestrians into the Brent.

In 1717 the road was turnpiked – improved by private investment recouped through tolls – between Kensington Olympia and Staines. But the stretch through Brentford still struggled to cope with the traffic. In 1807 the agricultural writer John Middleton described its condition in winter as:
…Eight inches [20 cm] deep in fluid sludge, the rest of the road being from one foot [30 cm] to eighteen inches [46 cm] deep in adhesive mud. Notwithstanding His Majesty travels the road several times every week there are not many exertions made towards keeping it clean in winter…The street is much too narrow, does not admit of being easily widened, and it is always filthy.
Pressure on the road was reduced in the 1830s and 1840s as freight transferred to the railways, but the arrival of tramways and the motorcar congested it anew in the early 20th century. The opening of the Great West Road to the north diverted much of the through traffic, but even in 1939 Cecil Roberts, in his exploration of the Bath Road, described the approach to Brentford as “like the gate of Hell with the gas works and the coal yards already there for stoking the punishing fires”. The scene has changed since then with a widening scheme in 1959 destroying many historic buildings and more recent works taking an opposite approach by deliberately slowing traffic and attempting to add interest back into the space.

As a densely-populated town with a large working-class population, Brentford also has a vigorous political history. In 1700 the hustings for electing Middlesex’s allocation of two Members of Parliament were shifted to New Brentford from Hampstead Heath. This is the basis of Brentford’s claim to be the county town, though it never had anything like a county hall: Middlesex was always administrated from central London. In those days, property and gender qualifications limited the electorate to around 2,000 men, who if they wished to participate had to attend the hustings personally and vote in public. The elections also attracted large numbers of disenfranchised people who would attempt to influence the outcome, not always in the most peaceable way.

Perhaps the most famous MP elected at Brentford was radical journalist and orator John Wilkes (1725-97), whom we’ve already met at Earlsfield on Ring 5. Wilkes, known as the ugliest man in England, was already notorious for his attacks on the king and the government in his magazine The North Briton when in 1764 he was declared an outlaw for co-authoring a seditious and obscene poem. He fled to France but ran out of money and was forced to return four years later.

Elected as an MP at Brentford, he claimed parliamentary privilege, but still went to prison. In 1769 he was expelled from Parliament as he had been an outlaw at the time of the election and therefore disqualified from standing. The Middlesex voters promptly re-elected him, after which he was expelled, re-elected and expelled again, finally persuading Parliament to withdraw the expulsion. The firebrand eventually joined the Establishment: he became Lord Mayor of London in 1774, then Chamberlain of the City of London. In this latter capacity, he ordered soldiers defending the Bank of England to fire into the crowd during the Gordon Riots of 1780.

The Dock, the Bridge and the Canal

Ghosts of warehouses near Brentford Gauging Lock.
The Ring doesn’t dig too deeply into Brentford, not even crossing the bridge, but if you have time you may wish to explore further. The main stretch of the High Street is just over the bridge, with plenty of pubs and shops, the market square and some pretty streets and squares to the north, including the Butts which Henry VIII set aside for archery practice and where the hustings were once held. Further along is the Watermans Arts Centre on the site of a gasworks and brewery and two quirky museums: the Musical Museum with its unique collection of self-playing instruments and the London Museum of Water and Steam, on the site of a former waterworks.

Just before the bridge, you’ll spot the remains of a rail viaduct and bridge abutment to the left. This is what’s left of the Brentford Branch Line, opened in 1859 as part of a major development by the Great Western Railway known as Brentford Dock. The extensive docks, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel on the triangle of land on the west bank of the Brent between the bridge and the mouth of the river and Grand Union Canal (to your right as you approach from Syon), were intended to transfer goods between the railway and the Port of London via the Thames. They were particularly busy in the inter-war years where it’s estimated 10% of Britain’s trade passed through them. The docks closed in 1964 and the area has been redeveloped as housing and a marina.

The 6.4 km branch line linked the docks with the GWR main line at Southall. The line also carried passengers: the building attached to the viaduct is on the site of the former Brentford station, which was closed in 1942, though the line continued in use for goods until the closure of the dock. The northern part of it is still used as a goods line, serving a recycling site built on the former goods yard.

The earliest record of Brentford Bridge is from 1224, when tolls were charged to cross a wooden bridge. This was replaced by a stone bridge in 1446, which was rebuilt in 1742. The current bridge dates from 1824, though it’s been widened several times. By the time it opened, the waterway passing beneath had been re-engineered as part of the creation of the Grand Junction Canal, or Grand Union Canal as it’s now known.

You’ll find more detail about the canal under London Loop 11, which follows a substantial section of it, but to summarise: it opened in stages between 1798 and 1911, originally linking the Thames at Brentford and the Oxford Canal at Braunston, Northamptonshire, which provided a route towards Coventry and Birmingham. A more direct connection to central London was soon added with the opening of the Paddington Arm from Hayes to Paddington in 1801, linked to the docks at Limehouse via the Regents Canal by 1820.

The southernmost part of the canal between Brentford and Hanwell is essentially a canalised stretch of the river Brent, although in several places an earlier course of the river remains as a separate loop of waterway. I’ll say a bit more about the Brent in the next section, which tracks its valley for some distance.

The bridge is not only an important waterway landmark but a junction of waterside trails. The Thames Path diverges here, following the canal downstream to Brentford Dock then rejoining the Thames towards central London. The Ring now piggybacks on the Grand Union Canal Walk, which follows the towpath from Brentford Dock all the way to Birmingham. Also signed from the bridge is the Brent River Park Walk, which I’ll cover in the next section, and Shakespeare’s Way, a semi-official route linking Stratford-upon-Avon with the Globe Theatre at Bankside, which uses the towpath to Brentford and then the Thames Path.

Keeping to the west of the bridge, the Ring crosses London Road to pick up the towpath past Brentford Gauging Lock, with one of those loops of the Brent heading off to the right just before it. This was originally the lowest lock on the canal (though numbered 100 as the sequence starts at the Braunston end) but the rise and fall of the tide caused problems for boats passing under the bridge so in the early 19th century Thames Lock was built further down by Brentford Dock. But the gauging lock remained the place where tolls on the canal were assessed and paid: the lock-keeper gauged how low in the water a boat was floating, used this to calculate the weight of its cargo and charged accordingly. The Grade II-listed stock brick toll house, rebuilt in 1911, still stands on the opposite side of the lock.

The Athlete sculputre at GSK House, Brentford.
The towpath uses a wooden footbridge to cross the mouth of a small dock, now a mere water feature surrounded by the rather bland flats of the Brentford Lock West development, the results of a regeneration project led by the Canal and River Trust which has been opened in stages since 2013. For years a collection of rather atmospheric derelict warehouses stood beside the path here, and thankfully both the atmosphere and the heritage haven’t been entirely effaced. A little further on, you walk through what was once a dock sheltered by a large and lofty overhead canopy attached to adjacent warehouses. Most of the rusting corrugated iron has gone, but the developers have retained the spindly framework of the roof structure, like a skeletal ghost of the days when this was a hub of economic activity.

Update October 2018. For several months in 2018, the towpath was closed beside the dock and under the warehouses, with no reopening date advised and a less attractive diversion in place. The Canal and River Trust said this was due to the dangerous state of the warehouses. Thankfully the issue was resolved in mid-September and the path as described has now been restored. Thanks to Mike Biggs for the update.

You pass under two bridges. Bridge 208A carries the Hounslow Loop Line, opened in 1849 by the London and South Western Railway as a suburban loop from the Waterloo to Reading line between Barnes and Hounslow. This bridge isn’t the original one but a 1932 replacement. Bridge 208 carries the Great West Road, opened in 1925 from what’s now Chiswick Roundabout to Hounslow as a bypass of the Bath Road and soon afterwards numbered A4. This is where you’ll leave the towpath if you end your journey at Brentford station, one of the original Loop Line stations and not to be confused with the now-closed station near Brentford Dock passed earlier.

The Great West Road was famous for its string of large factories and other businesses in striking art deco buildings, which earned it the nickname the ‘Golden Mile’. The massive and visually striking Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) building on the opposite bank just past the road bridge occupies the site of two of them: the Trico windscreen wiper factory, which moved in 1992, and the Macleans toothpaste and cosmetics factory.

The latter was taken over by Beechams, in turn absorbed by pharma group GSK, which cleared the site to make way for its new global headquarters to open in 2001. There are five buildings, including a 16-storey tower, linked by a fully-glazed indoor ‘street’ clad in Belgian glass and Italian stone, and the design, by RHWL Architects, nods to the art deco heritage of its surroundings and I'm told has windscreen wipers on its main doors. A canalside terrace houses the brightly coloured 13 m-high sculpture Acrobat by pop artist Allen Jones and the elegant wooden Orbit Footbridge (207A) links the towpath with Boston Manor Park.

Boston Manor

Now on the Boston Manor side, the Grand Union Canal towpath passes under the M4.

Boston Manor was once a genuine mediaeval manor, also known as Bordeston, or ‘Borde’s farmstead’, the narrow southern part of Hanwell parish. For centuries the territory was known interchangeably as New Brentford or Boston Manor, with one or the other name popular at different times. Records date back to 1157 when it was owned by the Abbot of Westminster. Later it belonged to another female religious community, the priory of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, until the Dissolution in 1538 when, like Isleworth, it was grouped in with Hampton Court. It then passed through a variety of private hands, including Thomas Gresham (1519-79), founder of the Royal Exchange. It was bought by the Clitherow family in 1670 and was gradually broken up over the succeeding centuries.

The Ring doesn’t enter Boston Manor quite yet, staying on the Isleworth side of the Brent, which here follows the same route as the canal. Visible on the opposite side is Boston Manor Park, the remains of the manorial estate, sold by the Clitherows to Brentford Urban District Council in 1923 after it failed to reach its reserve price at auction. Preserved as a rural oasis in a densely built-up and industrialised area, it was described at the time as including a walled garden, glasshouses growing melons and cucumbers, a temperate house and a vineyard, surrounded by extensive meadows.

Part of the land was used for housing, while the rest became the present park, opened in 1924. The location of the original manor house is unknown, but in 1623 a new brick house was built: this still stands on the north side of the park, on the other side of the M4, and is open to the public on summer weekends and bank holidays.

A little further on, another loop of the Brent branches off to the right, and soon you’re at Clitheroe’s Lock (no 99), named after the Boston Manor landowners. The woodland of Clitheroe’s Island between the Brent and the canal on the opposite bank is particularly rich in wildlife, though not quite as peaceful as it once was, as the viaduct carrying the M4, a more recent successor to the Great Bath Road, negotiates the valley here. This section, between Junction 1 at Chiswick and Junction 5 at Langley, opened in 1965 and the motorway was eventually extended to reach Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. To the left is a scrap metal recycling yard on the former Brentford Branch goods depot.

The Brent rejoins at a weir on the right and the Ring soon enters Boston Manor proper as the towpath switches sides at Gallows Bridge (no 207). This Grade II-listed iron footbridge was cast in Birmingham in 1820: the origin of its name is unknown but it may be linked to a local legend of a man found hanged in the nearby woodlands in the 17th century. The deck is roughly surfaced to provide a better grip for towing horses. Boston Manor Playing Fields behind the hedge on the right were also once part of the estate but were bought separately from the park in 1929 by an independent charity, the London Playing Fields Society (now Foundation), which owns several other such sites. They now provide space for local schools and clubs to play football, rugby, cricket and American football.

Bridge 206A carries London Underground’s Piccadilly Line, opened in 1883 by the Metropolitan District Railway (not to be confused with its arch-rival the Metropolitan Railway, another Underground pioneer) as a branch linking Acton Town, on its line to Ealing, with Hounslow. In 1902 the District became a core part of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London Ltd (UERL), which under abrasive US-born entrepreneur Charles Tyson Yerkes, a veteran of the Chicago elevated railways, expanded to control nearly all London’s underground lines.

The UERL laid the foundation for what in 1933 became the publicly-owned London Underground network under the London Passenger Transport Board, the ancestor of today’s Transport for London. About the same time, the Piccadilly Line took over the branch via a connection at Hammersmith, later extended to Heathrow Airport (see Loop 9).

Boston Manor station: a suburban beacon.
Finally, the towpath passes under the tall concrete piers of the M4 viaduct to reach a path junction where another meander of the Brent splits from the canal. For some reason the official end of Section 7 of the Capital Ring is at Osterley Lock, visible ahead some 200 m further along the towpath, but if you stop there, you’ll need to retrace your steps to the M4 viaduct to follow the station link, so I’ll defer this to the beginning of the next section. The link first follows the Brent, almost immediately entering the London Borough of Ealing, then climbs through the dappled surroundings of Elthorne Woods. This and the playing fields at the top of the hill became a public space in 1975 as part of the Brent River Park initiative, which I’ll say more about in the next section.

The last stretch is through classic suburbia: though the railway had been open since the 1880s, development here didn’t really take off until a tram line was laid along Boston Road in 1906 and many of the houses are clearly inter-war. The large Royal pub, opposite you as you reach Boston Road and now a Harvester pub-restaurant, dates from 1929 and is a typical ‘Brewer’s Tudor’ roadhouse of the period. The Tube station itself, just back inside Hounslow, was originally known as Boston Road. It was rebuilt in 1934 in the Moderne or art deco style then popular on the Underground, though its design is by Stanley Heaps rather than the better-known Charles Holden. Its red brick tower with illuminated glazing still ensures it can’t be missed among the low-rise housing, and it’s deservedly Grade II-listed, providing a distinctively forward-looking flourish to bookend one of the most richly historical sections of the Capital Ring.