A Lazy Day on the Thames

It’s a great moment for a blogger – or “blogster” as a friend calls me – when a scenario appears that epitomises the name of your blog. We were only a little way into our travels today when we approached a railway bridge whilst aboard a Thames river boat. A train crossed the bridge and above the train there was a plane coming into land at Heathrow. This was a real “trains and boats and planes” moment. Very satisfying.

Some very good friends had come to stay whilst on their annual grand tour of England from expat land in Kalkan, Turkey. Nothing in particular was organised for the 24+ hours sojourn but, over an excellent lamb Madras at the Delhi Orchid in Richmond and a few nightcaps of Tomintoul Speyside Malt Whisky, a daytrip went from being an idea to a firm plan. The pivotal feature of the plan was to take a boat from Kew, not too far from where we live in South West London, to Westminster in Central London. It’s by far and away the best way to make that journey if you have the time, and time was something that we had in relative abundance.

Our day out started with an introduction to cashless travel on London buses. For about a month or so the buses in London have no longer accepted cash. If you don’t have an Oyster Card or other pre-purchased ticket then contactless bank cards are the answer. As our friends spend little time in London these days, they don’t have Oyster Cards nor, because of the last minute decision to make this trip, did they have a pre-purchased ticket, so contactless bank cards would be used. All went well at first until they tried to use one contactless card to buy two tickets. “Sorry”, says the driver, “you can’t use the same card twice.” A bit of a flaw in the system. A second card had to be produced before we could get on our way.

Two short bus journeys and a walk got us to Kew Pier, the point of departure for our boat to Westminster. While waiting for the boat to arrive a steady flow of private cruise boats passed mostly going downstream. The Thames is tidal right up to Teddington Lock some four or five miles upstream from Kew. We noticed that the tide was flowing upstream at a fair speed and that the passing boats were being tossed about a bit in the water. And then our boat arrived with a load of passengers coming to spend the day at nearby Kew Gardens. They were soon disembarked and we got on board, heading for a row of seats on the open part of the deck at front. We got perfect seats. As the boat left the pier the tide was slowing down, it was almost high water and the water was fairly calm.

Immediately on leaving Kew Pier we passed the first of a number of islands, normally called aits, but this one is called Oliver’s Island. It is named, almost certainly erroneously, after Oliver Cromwell who was supposed to have had a base nearby on the Chiswick or north shore of the river.

Our journey involved passing under many bridges across the Thames. The tidal Thames is crossed by thirty bridges between Teddington and the North Sea. Twenty two are road crossings and eight carry railway tracks. Today we would be going under half of these bridges. The first was the Kew Railway Bridge carrying the North London Line and the District Line trains. We were also directly under the flightpath for planes landing at Heathrow. And it was at this moment that the incident described in the opening paragraph occurred – “Trains and Boats and Planes”.

A boat ride along the Thames takes you past so many interesting places and buildings. Only some can be mentioned in this blog but I hope to give you a flavour of the variety.

The first building of note was the National Archive, the repository for the country’s most important historical documents. There is everything from Cabinet Papers to Census Documents to Military Records to Birth, Marriage & Deaths Certificates. Nowadays many documents are stored electronically but there are still hundreds of thousands of paper documents.

Next door is a small shopping complex and a collection of expensive housing. I wonder if the residents of these properties realise that they are built on the site of the old sewage works that served Richmond and Kew for many years.

Shortly afterwards we went under Chiswick Bridge and crossed the finishing line of the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race. On the day of the race, in March or April each year, the banks are lined with crowds of spectators. It’s a fun afternoon with the riverside pubs doing a roaring trade. But today the banks were virtually deserted. On the southern shore stands the Stag Brewery, formerly the home of the old English brewer of traditional English bitters Watney, Coombe, Reid. Now it is the home of Budweisser, a much more sanitised brew. There has been a brewery on this site for over 500 years.

The river then passes through Barnes with its famous jazz pub The Bull’s Head and shortly, on the opposite shore is Chiswick’s Fullers, Smith & Turner brewery and rows of fine, old terraced townhouses along the riverfront. The river bends to the right and into view heaves the very attractive Hammersmith Suspension Bridge. It is some 125 years old and totally unsuitable for the current volumes of traffic. The bridge is frequently closed while repairs and strengthening take place.

The next stretch of the river, between Hammersmith and Putney Bridges, passes a number of notable sites including Harrod’s Depository (built as a warehouse for furniture for the established rich and now converted to apartments for the nouveau riche), the Barn Elms Wetlands Centre (a sanctuary for migratory birds built in 2000 on a site previously occupied by four large water reservoirs) and Craven Cottage (the home of Fulham FC and the oldest football stadium in London). And then it’s the boathouses of the big rowing clubs of which probably the grandest belongs to Imperial College. Having passed the finishing post of the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race back at Chiswick Road Bridge, some 4 miles 374 yards (6.8km) later, we have arrived at the starting point of the most famous rowing race in the world which will be 170 years old in 2015.

From Putney Bridge onwards towards Westminster on the south bank the river is, for the most part, lined with modern luxury apartment blocks. Although, superficially, they are all individually unique, the underlining theme is of the prow of an ocean liner. The buildings come almost to a point at the front and with tiered decks sloping back to give privacy between the floors. At one point in Wandsworth, these residences are interrupted by a scene of a different nature. The glamorously named but not so glamorous in reality Smugglers Way waste disposal site. This is a facility where London’s rubbish is packed into containers, lifted onto barges and taken down river to a waste incinerator near the mouth of the Thames. The barges laden with their trademark yellow containers are a familiar sight to Thames users and people walking along the river banks in Central London.

The main new development on the north bank is Chelsea Wharf. This is a place favoured by the rich and famous. To my mind the most interesting of these are Rebecca & Charlie Brooks of News of the World scandal fame and notoriety. It was at Chelsea Wharf that there were some strange goings on. Laptops storing incriminating evidence were being dumped in waste bins – allegedly. The captain of our boat was a little more populist in his announcement that the famous residents included Sir Elton John. No mention of the Brooks. Each to their own tastes.

From here the river passes under three bridges in close order, Battersea, Albert and Chelsea. This stretch was famously depicted in the second half of the 19th century as a busy, working river in many paintings by the artist James McNeil Whistler. Today the main feature of the south bank is Battersea Park with its slightly incongruous modern Japanese Pagoda. The north bank has the seven, reddish-brown brick, high-rise blocks of council flats known as The World’s End Estate. Remarkably well preserved considering they were built in the 1970’s, the flats are still largely rented directly by the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. The rest of the north bank is largely occupied by grand, old, three and four story town houses with some dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

Once we passed Chelsea Bridge the familiar buildings of Central London started to come into view. But the eye is distracted by the derelict, iconic Battersea Power Station building. This building is claimed to be the largest brick building in Europe, not in the world as the boat’s captain announced. It has changed hands a number of times over the last twenty years or so but, under the current ownership, there does seem to be a real prospect of the shell of the building being preserved and flats and shopping being constructed inside. Almost next door is a new development which is to house the Embassy of the United States of America. And a little further on at Vauxhall Bridge is the rather strange yellow and green modern construction which houses the headquarters of MI6, the UK Government’s worldwide spy masters. And almost next door, the top floors of a modern glass and concrete building form the London home of Lord Jeffery Archer, the Conservative politician, novelist and sometime jailbird.

Immediately after Lambeth Bridge, the penultimate bridge of our trip, there is a church on the south bank. This is St Mary-at-Lambeth now the home of the Museum of Garden History and sometimes known as the Tradescants Museum after the two Johns, father and son, of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. These two gardeners, along with Admiral Bligh (of “Bounty” fame), were major collectors of plants from around the world and established the idea of formal gardens as we know them today. All three men are buried in the grounds. Next door is Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England.

Moving back to the north bank after Vauxhall Bridge, the boat passed the original Tate Gallery, now known as Tate Britain. Then it is the 118 metre (387 feet) high Millbank Tower closely followed by a large, nondescript, white stone building that houses MI5, the domestic equivalent of MI6 mentioned earlier. And then, there it is, the magnificent edifice of the Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower that houses the most famous clock in the world, Big Ben. Our trip was coming to an end.

We passed under Westminster Bridge to see the great wheel of the London Eye on our right before the boat took a wide sweep to the left and tied up at Westminster Pier on the north bank. The boat had covered about 15km (a bit over 9 miles) in about 1 hour 40 minutes, a time helped by the ebbing tide for most of the journey. It had been a fascinating trip. There is so much to see. Only some sights have been described above, chosen partly because I know something about some of them, and partly to illustrate the wide variety of things to see. The weather had been ideal with sunshine at the beginning and cloud later giving us some protection without delivering any rain.

One inescapable observation is the way the river meanders. Although the general direction of the trip was from West to East, from time to time we were facing North and then we were facing South such are the sharpness of the bends. This changing direction was made most obvious by the direction of travel of the aircraft descending on the flightpath to Heathrow. Whilst they were flying in a straight line, to us they appeared to be twisting and turning from one angle to another. Of course, the movement was entirely that of the boat, and nothing to do with the planes.

The rest of the afternoon was spent equally restfully at two of our favourite haunts. A place for lunch was easy to decide, Gordon’s Wine Bar in Villiers Street just behind Embankment Station. This is one of the most atmospheric and indeed oldest of bars in London. The wooden walls of the main room are lined with newspaper cuttings depicting events of the 20th century whilst the brick cellars have very low ceilings and are lit by candlelight. Gordon’s only serves wine and very good wine it is. The food we chose was a selection of cold meats, Scotch egg, cheese with plenty of salad and pickle. Life is full of co-incidences which all add to the spice. I intend to blog on the subject soon but here is today’s example. As mentioned earlier, our friends live in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and we have a house there where we live up to half of the year. Would you believe that the owner of Gordon’s also has a house in Kalkan. It’s a small world.

After lunch, a short walk took us to Covent Garden and a cafe in the basement. The main attraction here is that during the afternoon groups of high quality student musicians, often from the nearby Royal Opera House, do some busking. We were entertained by a very lively quintet playing two violins, a viola, a cello and a flute. The music was light, popular classics. Very easy and fun listening.

Then it was another short walk across the river to Waterloo Station and the train home. Luckily the next train was going to Windsor & Eton Riverside with our station, Richmond, the fourth stop along the line. Doubly lucky for us is that the rolling stock on this particular service was designed with two 1st Class sections although no 1st Class tickets can be purchased for this particular journey. Not many people know this, as Michael Cane would say, but any passengers are allowed to sit in the 1st Class seats. So that’s where we sat for a comfortable end to a very enjoyable day in extra good company.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement based in Richmond, London. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels in North America, Europe and Turkey plus other places as yet unknown.
This entry was posted in Boat Travel, Bus Travel, London, United Kingdom. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Lazy Day on the Thames

  1. Christine A says:

    Fascinating post about my very favourite river. I think Hammersmith Bridge is the most beautiful of all the bridges – I drove across it to avoid traffic on the A4 one wintry moonlit night not long ago – we were the only car – sublime !

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