Thames Path Stage 8: Hampton Court to Shepperton

Published 23 April 2014

The Thames at Molesey

Water. Where would we be without it? If there was no water, the Thames Path would just be walking down some paths with no tangible link between them; a 184 mile walk rather randomly going between Gloucestershire and East London.

But water can also pose problems as well. Too much rain can cause all manner of trouble. And in the early part of 2014 it did just that.

The rain never seemed to stop during the last few months of 2013. The weather hit the country hard, and almost every news bulletin seemed to carry a new storm related story. The New Year didn’t make it any better. The Thames Barrier was closed 13 times alone in January, but that was nothing compared to what followed the following month. Rivers across the south of the country burst their banks. Electricity supplies went down. People were evacuated from their homes.

And still the rain came.

It was no time to be walking a river based National Trail, that was for sure. Or anywhere. One Sunday I’d ended up coated in mud after a simple walk in a local park. Go off down a tow path whilst half of Surrey and Oxfordshire was underwater? No thanks.

Several weeks later though, things had calmed down enough for us head out. Most of the water had gone; the repair work completed. And most importantly, the sun was out, even if there was a wintry chill to the air. And after a fortifying lunch at one of the many Italian restaurants that lined the streets near Hampton Court station, we headed set off for our first stretch of the Thames Path for many months. We even had a guest in the form of a visiting aunt, also known as my little sister.

The bad weather had been and it had gone again. And it was time to get walking.

Molesey Boat Club

It’s always good to count milestones on a walk. Be it hills, tracks or buildings, it makes you feel like you’re getting somewhere. Our first milestone was perhaps a bit too soon. Molesey Lock is a mere stones throw from Hampton Court Station. The lock keeper was clearly elsewhere as a large sign proclaimed that the lock was “self service”. No one seemed worried by this. There weren’t any boats waiting to get through. Or any at all. There were boats on the water, but mostly they were firmly tethered to their moorings.

We headed on, past large houses and a boat club whose members were engaged putting boats up to store; the men wearing white, yellow and black striped leggings that made them look like their legs were sticks of rock; a far cry from the toned athletic image they were probably after.

In contrast, there was no one at the next door cricket ground – wearing striped leggings or otherwise. Wrong time of year I’m reliably told, not being someone who particularly pays any attention to cricket in any way. I did know that this was a rather special ground as cricket had been played there since 1731, but that was mainly due to the large sign that told me.

We all dutifully read it, shrugged and moved on into Hurst Park. Clearly it was all go in this stretch of the woods as the park was home to a racecourse until the 1960s when housing was built on most of it; a strip of parkland standing between the terraced houses and the river creating a new recreational facility for the new residents.

Ferry boarding point in Hurst Park

The park even has its own ferry, connecting with Hampton on the opposite bank. Reputed to be the oldest ferry in operation on the Thames, there’s been a ferry running here for over 500 years, with the first departing in 1541. Not continuously though. The ferry closes for summer months, and was yet to restart operation for the year. We could have whistled and rung the bell as much as we wanted to but we weren’t crossing that river here.

Next to its departure point, a local community group had installed a circular set of information panels, telling the history of the area. Who knew that there was so much history? Besides a racecourse anyway. Someone had clearly put a lot of effort into it all, but I was already getting history fatigue and my feet were itching to get on, meaning most of it was left unread. Perhaps the next few miles would be a bit less action packed.

Walking near some reservoirs (hidden by a wall)

Water, water everywhere. And there was a drop to spare. At least, there was on the map. The Thames Path was now surrounded by reservoirs, on both sides of the river, including the gloriously named “Queen Elizabeth II Storage Reservoir”; her Madge must have been delighted to receive that particular accolade.

“One is most humble to have one’s name associated with this large container which may be used to provide its hydrating powers to my subjects,” I’m sure the record would have said on the day of the grand opening.

Maybe some of the recent heavy rains had ended up in the QEIISR although we couldn’t really tell from the Thames Path as all the reservoirs were shielded from view by a substantial wall. Perhaps it was to protect the modesty of the reservoir. Or maybe Thames Water didn’t trust the local populous not to leap over from the riverside path and go swimming.

Sunbury Lock

We followed the wall for some way, before bursting out into the open again at Sunbury Lock. Again, the keeper was elsewhere and any boats arriving would have to take matters into their own hand just as they’d done at East Molesey. Perhaps this was the reason why the river was mostly deserted.

Or maybe everyone was just in the nearby municipal leisure centre. Who knew?

Having – once again – spent most of the walk asleep, Sam was now awake and itching to do some walking of his own, so we stopped off at a nearby picnic bench and let him have a run around on a patch of grass. It was at this point that we truly began to understand one of the challenges of walking next to a river with a fifteen month old child.

Playing with Sam on the grass

“Ooh, a large sparkly thing, just at the bottom of this muddy slope! Excellent. I think now would be a good time to find out more!”

Despite attempts to distract attention away from the riverbank, even the might of two parents, an aunt, a green ball, breadsticks and raisins couldn’t distract Sam from wanting to head in for a nice splash.

After such fun (or stress – take your pick), Sam was scooped up once more into his carrier, and we were on our way once more. We passed by a marina, more large houses and even a giant model of animated film character Shrek which was standing proudly in someone’s garden on the opposite bank, proving once again that the Thames Path really does offer something unique out of all the UK’s long distance footpaths.

Shrek in a garden, near a boat

Beat that, the Pennine Way.

At Walton-on-Thames, the Thames Path took a small detour around a building site; the path buried under mud and soil thanks to the building of a new road bridge which had opened the previous summer. The Thames Path was still suffering; the proper route inaccessible by hoarding and construction. The bridge may have opened the previous summer, with traffic thundering loudly overhead, but corrective landscaping work was still waiting.

Walton Bridge, as opened in 2013

The bridge also marked a decision point. A mile and a half way sat Shepperton where the Thames Path crosses the river, doing so by a small ferry. The nearest feasible bridge just happened to be the one we were stood at now. For rather obvious reasons, a sign post near the bridge gives the ferry timetable. The last ferry’s at 5:30pm and anyone who won’t be there in time – or who just wants to avoid the £2 fare – needs to take note so they can take the necessary detour.

With a couple of hours to go before the last ferry, timing wasn’t a problem. Nor was the requisite six pounds a particular issue. The ferry crossing was our destination for the day, and we could get home from railway stations on either side of the river; Shepperton on the north, or Weybridge on the south.

I wanted to get the ferry; it felt like we’d be missing part of the Thames Path experience if we skipped it. But Shepperton station had a problem, and it came in the form of four words which automatically instil a sense of fear and dread into someone’s heart. “Rail replacement bus service.” Going to Shepperton might well involve crossing the river, but it would also involve bouncing down local streets in some dilapidated double decker bus, usually relegated to shuffling school children around. Weybridge it was.

Sandbags at Walton on Thames

That decided, we stuck with the south side of the river, walking past a line of sandbags which gave a reminder of what the Thames had recently endured. Although given they were only stacked two bags high, it was hard to imagine what good they’d do in protecting the occupants of Walton-on-Thames from flooding.

The path continued along Desborough Island, a large island created in the 1930s. Most of it is uninhabited and home to playing fields, a water-works and the occasional house. Given its size, it seemed to have very little purpose at all, although it was actually part of a plan to reduce flooding in the area. Hmm… Maybe that was why Walton only required that small number of sandbags…

The original flow of the Thames at this point had been rather meandering, but it had been given the nautical equivalent of a bypass. The Desborough Cut – named for Lord Desbourgh who was in charge of the Thames Conservancy, who carried out the work, and who clearly didn’t need his minions to suck up to him at all – created an artificial channel between two parts of the river. And thus a new island was made out land that was once on the south bank. As well as reducing flooding, the cut also gave a faster journey to the boats. And Thames Path walkers too.

D'Oyly Island and it's metal bridge

All this was oblivious on the ground. Had you not known about it, Desborough Island wouldn’t have seemed any different to any other the other, more natural, islands that litter the Thames. Islands like such as D’Oyly Carte Island, named for one time owner Richard D’Oyly Carte. Carte, a theatre impresario and producer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, bought the island in 1890, at that point known as Folly Eyot. And no doubt renamed for excellent reasons.

Folly Eyot had been a pretty nondescript island, however under its new guise, Eyot House was built. The thirteen bedroom property, with five bathrooms and, naturally, a grand ballroom, was originally intended to be a secluded annex to Carte’s newly opened Savoy Theatre. However after the authorities refused a license to sell alcohol for the property, Eyot House became D’Oyly’s rural retreat. Only in 1964 did it gain a direct link to the mainland, via a large metal bridge with a high arch; now surrounded by an imposing metal gate which does little to improve the look of the area. Over the years the island has had many owners, and it appeared it was set to get another one. There may have been no estate agents boards outside, but when your property is on the market for a mere £4m, it’s not likely you’re going to get much interest from those passing by. Certainly not from me. No matter how much I hunt for coins down the back of the sofa, I’m still a fair way away from being able to take it on.

The island stood a short way on from the ferry crossing; something which may well be convenient to the new owners, whoever they may well be. Although being on an island, they might also want to consider having their own boat. The ferry however was oblivious to all this; tucked up on the other bank, out of view with no one seemingly wanting to cross. Those on the south side need to ring a bell to call it, but instead we headed inland for the detour to Weybridge station.

The Thames at Weybridge

As the sun shone brightly on the water, I wondered how long it would be before we returned this time. And whether I had enough in my bank account to buy an island. Especially one with its own ballroom.

Next time: do we ever board a Thames ferry?

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