Thames Path Stage 5: Putney to Kew

Published 11 December 2013

The greenery of the Thames

All the best cities have water at their heart, be it a river, a seafront or even a massive lake. Try to imagine Paris without the Seine running through it. It just wouldn’t be the same. Over in Switzerland, the most picturesque parts of the city of Bern are those that the River Aare flows by. Walking by the fish market on the shores of the North Sea on a sunny day in Bergen can’t be beat. There’s Amsterdam and Bruges in Belgium, both with their enticing network of canals that just make you want to explore every single alleyway. And standing on the edge of Vancouver Harbour surrounded by towering skyscrapers, watching the sea-planes land on the water is the closest I think I’ve ever come to feeling like I’m in a Studio Ghibli film.

Of course, water doesn’t always make a great city. Sorry Salford, but you need more than just the Manchester Ship Canal flowing through you, in order to get the award. And there are, just occasionally, great cities where there’s no obvious water. Edinburgh, for example, is one of my favourite places in the United Kingdom, but flowing through the heart of the town is not a river, but a railway line tucked in a valley between the Old and New Towns. It may be iron rails that flow through the town, but it feels like it’s water. And it’s not surprising when you learn that Waverley station and Princess Street gardens both sit on the former site of Nor Loch, which was drained in 1759.

Prominent rivers or water features provide a focal point in a great city. And needless to say, I class London as a great city. Even the most ardent of haters of London will struggle to stand on Waterloo Bridge after sunset, and not admire the scene of Parliament, the London Eye and countless other buildings brightly illuminated against the dark sky.

The fact is though that the water is generally bigger than the city. At some point, the city ends, but the water continues on and on.

Putney Bridge may be still pretty close to the centre of action, however the Thames Path was beginning to feel like it was leaving the city behind.

Westminster School Boat House

The sun was out in force, rather surprisingly for a Bank Holiday weekend in August as we arrived back in Putney, Sam’s buggy in tow, for our fifth day on the Thames Path. The south bank path was bustling with people, and the water was full too, as rowers were everywhere.

Putney is the rowing capital of London. The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race starts here, as does the prestigious Head of the River Race, which follows the same course and which pits Britain’s best rowing clubs against each other.

I confess I’ve never particularly understood the appeal of rowing. It just seems like some sort of medieval torture; a conclusion firmly reached during my time at the University of Durham, where the early hours of the morning would usually find several boats on the River Wear at the unearthly hours of 5:30am, come sun, rain or snow.

Kings College School Boat House

And then there’s the effort it takes. For many years I diligently went to the gym several times a week, subjecting myself to a torture routine consisting of treadmills, exercise bikes and more in an attempt to improve my level of fitness. I eventually gave it all up in preference for swimming, the rationale being that I actually enjoyed doing fifty lengths of the pool, but that was not before spending many hours desperately trying to get anything useful out of the gym’s rowing machines. I’d sit there, huffing and puffing away, trying to get the perfect body before having to give up seven minutes later having gained nothing more than stretched and aching arms.

Boat club houses line the bankside at Putney, huddling close together as if for warmth. It’s at Putney that you’ll find the Thames, London and Vesta rowing clubs, along with the boat house of Imperial College Boat Club. And then there’s the school boathouses: Kings College Wimbledon, Dulwich College and Westminster College all have bases in the area, providing visible examples of your private school fees at work. Even the local council has a boathouse, notably shoved out of the way further up the river from the others.

Each of the club houses was bustling, with a large number of racing boats gliding over the water, even at low tide. Each to their own, but of all the things I could think of doing on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, rowing on the Thames wasn’t one of them.

Glimpses of sport other than rowing

Most of the Thames’s London tributaries seem to have been diverted into sewers over the years. The Fleet, Tyburn and the Effa are amongst those that are now hidden out of sight. However a few do survive. At Wandsworth we’d passed the Wandle as it flowed into the Thames, and at Putney there was another. The flood defences that mark the arrival of the Beverley Brook at the Thames give it an appearance of grandeur; providing the impression that it’s far more plentiful than it actually is. In fact the nine-mile long river is tiny, barely getting any bigger as it makes its way through Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common.

What it does do is mark a change in the Thames Path. At least, on the south bank anyway. For much of its journey through London, the Thames Path has two options. You can walk on the north bank, or the south bank.

There’s pros and cons to doing each option, but we’d decided to go with the south bank for no real reason, other than that the Thames Path actually starts on the south side at the Thames Barrier.

A plethora of signs

On the map both options tend to look similar, providing a mixture of roads, riverside paths, parks and buildings. Until now anyway. Whilst the north bank would continue pretty much as always, on the south things were about to get green.

For the next couple of miles, the Thames Path would wind its way along a tree lined avenue as it took us to Barnes. The tarmac and paving slabs gave way to a muddy track, and most of the flats and houses disappeared (or at least, hidden behind the dense undergrowth.) Whilst the Thames Path had featured many transitions on the short time we’d been walking it, this was by far the most prominent change. The green surroundings were enhanced by the path going alongside a set of school playing fields, and the back of the London Wetlands Centre, home and haven to many a rare bird. Were it not for the sight of development across the river on the north bank, and the Chiswick and Hammersmith road bridges crossing over ahead, you’d almost be able to forget you were walking in the largest urban conurbation in the United Kingdom.


Joggers on the Thames Path

Joggers were everywhere, mostly clad in neon Lycra, as we passed the large salmon coloured buildings of the Harrods Furniture Depository – a former warehouse now inevitably converted into luxury flats. Not far on and the path ducked below Hammersmith Bridge, a suspension bridge designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette of Embankment fame, in the 1870s. As with the Albert Bridge, a few miles downstream, it’s struggled to cope with the demands of modern traffic, not helped by being the target of a bomb planted by the Real IRA in 2000. Having already been affected by weight restrictions on the traffic going over it, the bomb damage required even stricter measures to be implemented.

With the bridge and depository passed, the Thames Path reverted to greenery as it made its way alongside the disused Leg of Mutton reservoir, which now houses a local nature reserve. The Leg’s name comes from its distinctive shape which sort of looks a bit like a leg of mutton. If you squint and turn it upside down, anyway.

It was one of many reservoirs built near the river in this part of London by the Metropolitan Water Board, although by the 1950s the Leg of Mutton had been deemed surplus to requirements. Plans were put in motion to fill the reservoir in and build several blocks of flats on the land; plans which were rejected following a vocal campaign by locals to keep the land undeveloped. With a site right on the edge of Barnes itself, it was inevitable that several further development attempts would follow over the next decade. Eventually a plan was finally accepted to turn the land over to a nature reserve.

Giving a grateful nod to those efforts which had kept this part of the Thames so tranquil, we passed by the nature reserve and headed into Barnes to grab some lunch in an old pub whose beer garden seemed to be at least ten times larger than the pub itself. Sat in the shade of one the garden’s many covered areas we sat munching food. Or throwing it on the floor, as was our son’s preference.

The Griffin Brewery

Several of London’s older breweries were sited on or near to the Thames. Not that they used the water. In London the Thames is tidal, meaning salt water will inevitably make its way up. Instead the river was used for transporting the finished product. In much more recent times, three breweries dominated the river, at least until the Young’s Brewery in Wandsworth closed in 2006.

Many beer drinkers will easily name one of the remaining two breweries – beer has been brewed at Fuller, Smith and Turner’s site in Chiswick since the time of Oliver Cromwell, and its London Pride bitter is a staple on many a bar in the capital. But the third?

The signs on the side of the The Stag Brewery in Mortlake looked rather faded but did include the name of their “star” attraction. For Mortlake is actually the UK home to American beer favourite, Budweiser.

Boat on the Thames

Until 1958, this site was known as the Mortlake Brewery, although it got a hasty re-brand when Watney’s closed their original “Stag Brewery” at Victoria, and the name and production transferred to Mortlake. Consolidation in the brewing industry eventually saw the new Stag Brewery in the hands of Scottish and Newcastle breweries before being leased to Budweiser for the production of its lager. In fact, the Stag Brewery’s output is far larger than its local competition.

The future of the brewery is, however, far from secure. An earlier decision to close the site was reversed in 2011, temporarily until 2014 at least. Brewing started here in the 15th century, however the 21st may yet be its last.

The Stag Brewery, Mortlake

Sat happily in his buggy and being far too young to drink any alcoholic beverages, Sam wasn’t paying any particular interest to a piece of London’s brewing heritage, but did seem to be rather bemused as to why the speed of his carriage had suddenly slowed dramatically. And probably why his father was cursing and straining too.

“The wheels have bloomin’ stuck,” I shouted in frustration as we ground to a complete halt. Looking down at them, there seemed to be a major problem with the buggy with respect to its mud tolerance. The back wheels were fine; the axle attached to the large wheels from one side only, but the axle for the front wheels was attached to the frame on both sides. All morning we’d been walking over less than solid paths and the gap between the frame and the top of the wheel was now completely clogged up. Clearly what had happened was that over lunch the mud had begun to dry out. As soon as we’d set off once again, the dried mud had then started to move from around the wheel, before making its way to the top and compacting there.

We were stuck. The path was narrow and there was nothing obvious on the ground which could be used on a de-clogging exercise; my attempts to clear it out with a bit of twig just resulted in the stick breaking within a second.

There was nothing for it but to get Sam out. Strapped to his mum’s back in a handy, convenient backup baby carrier, I then proceeded to hoist the buggy up and push it along on purely on its back wheels for a quarter of a mile until we could find some space on the tow path to asses the problem.

Outside a pub we stared glumly at the damage, wondering how on earth we’d be able to carry on.

“Is there anything we can do?” asked Catherine as Sam wriggled happily in his new position.

“We need a screwdriver,” I muttered glumly. “Something I can poke in and shove all that mud out. At this rate we won’t even be able to make it home easily.”

“Hang on,” said Catherine, before rifling in the nappy bag. “Would a pen do the trick?”

Copious amounts of mud

A few minutes later, a patch of tarmac outside the Ship public house suddenly found itself the new home to several tonnes of the Thames Path’s finest, slightly damp soil. Wheels now moving freely, we sauntered more happily along the riverside path, under the Chiswick Bridge.

The excitement of being back in a moving buggy again was clearly too much for Sam who promptly zonked out, sleeping happily as we walked the final, rather uneventful mile-and-a-half to Kew Bridge. There’d been hazy thoughts that we could go on and do the next four miles and end at Richmond instead, but having gone six miles with a baby in a good mood, it would probably be safer not to hedge our bets too much.

Kew Bridge

The Kew Cricket Club were in full swing as we passed their ground, before crossing the river to get to Kew Bridge station, which in the way these things tend to go, isn’t in Kew at all but in Brentford. As we approached the station, we passed a plaque on the side of the Express Tavern which commemorated the journey of Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere who, in 1805, had leapt off his ship in Falmouth and headed straight to London to bring the news that Lord Nelson had died following the battle of Trafalgar. The route he took is now commemorated by several of the plaques, under the title of “The Trafalgar Way”.

“271 miles long,” I said to Catherine. “Fancy doing it with the buggy once we’ve finished the Thames Path then?”

“Hmm. Maybe not,” she replied, before beckoning me to board the train home.

Next time: ultra runners, locks, big parks and big houses, lots of people, a ferry and the non-tidal Thames.

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