Walking from Brentford to Hampton Court along the Thames Path is to move between worlds more peculiarly different than in a sci-fi time slip between parallel universes. The same river and the same country, but very different worlds.
Brentford – South of Acton
Brentford is a place most people pass over – swishing way above on the Chiswick flyover; only noticing the upper floors of newly shiny tall buildings. Down below, in the underworld, quiet, twee little houses cluster shyly along the noisy fringes of the North Circular Road. Cars pass above and below, to north and south, east and west. Not a place to stop.
A motorist is a convertible shoots past towards Heathrow, the tan head rests in his back seats looking as though he’s taking two Sontaran visitors out for a spin.
The point at which the River Brent spills into the Thames, Brentford became the river junction for the Grand Union Canal and an area of higgeldy piggeldy workshops, a collection of eyesores all squeezed together in an improvised scuzzy mess around the Thames lock. The lack of self respect for trade in an area surrounded by zones of affluent consumption. Almost as though it is rubbing their faces in it. A well ordered wood yard, impeccably clean and functional, stands out in the chaos; as though keeping its head when all those about it had lost theirs. A busy yard with forklift trucks moving restlessly sports a sign – “No entrance unless under the guidance of a Banksman”- that sounds like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.
A place where boats and buses come to die; London’s largest functioning boat yard sits in a canal dog leg, three large covered dry docks, one working from the sound of the hammering and whining of drills, two absolutely overflowing with junk. Rusty metal, parts of boats, parts of engines, broken pipes piled up and spilling out. More a knackers yard than a hospital. Nothing new and shiny and proud being built, just the old and clapped out being gutted for parts. In a flat bottom barge in the canal alongside, more discarded metal, a whole earth mover rusted through, useless scrap from gutted machines; all just sitting there in a floating skip with nowhere to go.
Along the bank the buddleia and, amongst them and across the water, the dragonflies winking like jewels, their abdomens swaying contentedly as they suck nectar.
Houseboats sit at rest along every available bank. Some are wrecked; a queue of them either waiting for the short trip to the breakers yard, or just gently decaying at their moorings. Some, further on, and still lived in, have a tired and worn out air about them. One has a Union flag on its mainmast and a Red Duster aft – both faded by sunlight and worn thin and ragged by winds, but still nailed to the mast as a memory of departed glories; and an obvious metaphor for the state of a nation in which too many are too wedded to the past to be able to imagine a future that might be different.
Cormorants flash by, or stand sentinel preening their wings. Wooded islands dream on in mid channel – some of them with disused boat yards or tumble down buildings.
At the Morrisons, to which we repair for energy bars to power our feeble legs, the headlines from planets Times and Telegraph are that polls show “the people” want Brexit “done” by 31 October, by riding roughshod over Parliament to do it if need be. With a country as divided as it is, how they think that such a course of action could be healing, or anything other than a prelude to an extended period of trouble and disturbance is beyond me. Referenda only settle an issue if the result is overwhelming. That one wasn’t. Neither side will be happy with the victory of the other and no one will be happy with a compromise. Perhaps no accident that they are recruiting more police and building more prisons.
Just beyond Morrisons is Brentford Bridge – where an English Civil War battle took place in 1642 during Charles I’s push to retake London. The advancing Royalist Infantry nudged back a Parliamentary Foot Regiment that had dug in behind a barricade they had built across the road; and from which they had initially held off a cavalry attack. Parliamentary barges carrying artillery upriver were then sunk or captured. Victory in this skirmish was short lived and Charles’s attempts to advance much further were held off. He was never strong enough to threaten London again and ended up in Whitehall without his head seven years later. The commemorative plaque for the battle notes that both sides ravaged the surrounding area for forage and that one person out of every twenty five died in the war. The death rate in World War 1 was half that. Civil wars are always peculiarly brutal.
The Houses in between
Long stretches of the Thames Path in this part of London should be renamed the Not Quite Thames Path or The Path that would be the Thames Path if we had access to the Riverbank. Beyond the industrial cloaca of Brentford the housing becomes more elegant and expensive – some of it Poundbury style mock Georgian – and a riverfront is part of the cachet; so the Thames Path has to follow the next roads in. These could be anywhere and, as views go, are reminiscent of the music hall song
“With a ladder and some glasses,
you could see to Hackney Marshes,
if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”
And we wept when we remembered Syon
One of the biggest and oldest of the houses commanding its own river front is Syon Park. This has been the London seat of the Dukes of Northumberland for 400 years; built in the 1500s in huge deer park grounds in border castle style, austere, with corner castles and battlements; as though expecting a party of Scottish border reivers to come whooping over the horizon at any moment: or perhaps just to remind the owners of who they were and what they were supposed to be all about. As Shakespeare’s Prince Hal puts it of Harry Percy – his contemporary and rival –
“He who kills me some six or seven dozen Scots each morning before breakfast,
washes his hands and says to his wife,
fie upon this quiet life, I want work.”
To one side of it is a hugely domed greenhouse that looks like an outpost from Kew Gardens, just across the river, or something out of The Prisoner, with a Garden Centre and cafe doing a roaring trade beneath it. The clientele in the cafe are entirely middle and upper class – eating the fat, fluffy chips of prosperity from woven baskets and talking in entitled tones. Elderly women in big floppy hats that they might wear painting oils in a field. Chaps with specs on ribbons. Boys called Horace.
The elegance of the riverside housing in Isleworth, all slim wrought iron balconies, humanely scaled, organically and gracefully linked, studded with trees and looking like a place of rest; is horribly undermined by being on the flight path in to Heathrow. Every 30 seconds or so a huge airliner barrels in on its way to land – low enough to cast large shadows and make a permanent strain on ears and psyches. The impact on CO2 levels doesn’t bear thinking about. They want to expand to a third as much again.
A little further on and the impact of the airport fades away. Everyone walking past now exudes wealth. Young men with headphones and insouciant looks walk well permed poodles or King Charles Spaniels. A man with the deep tan of the freshly holidayed walks past in a bright blue jacket that is as fresh as if he has never worn it, trousers that look like he dry cleans them every day and a pair of shoes that look as if they have been worn once. Wealthy people never look as though they sweat unless they want to. Looking up at the curve of Richmond Bridge, that looks as though it was built to be painted, its easy to see why this area swings politically between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Living round here, and thinking it normal, how could you not think that more or less all was ok with the world; or that those parts of it that were not ok could most easily be seen as a threat?
On the river, well worn houseboats along tow paths are giving way to neat little cruisers and yachts that are tied up at the end of private sloping gardens as routinely as cars in suburbia – neatly tarpaulined and clean. This becomes even more so as we get up to Teddington lock and the last of the saltwater river is left behind. Not far beyond the long pouring weirs and there are people swimming by the banks. Swim in the Thames much further east and you’d need stomach pumps, tetanus jabs and a gut full of antibiotics. Up here – despite the signs warning of deep water and strong currents – intrepid young people take a dip and a whole class of excited primary age kids in bright orange life jackets and safety helmets near Kingston take the plunge at once, while their friends haul in sail boards.
The mid channel islands are now entirely green and bucolic. The paths are busy with walkers and cyclists.
In the river are the first scullers, elegant brown racing boats swiftly pulled through the dappled water by teams of two, occasionally urged to greater effort by someone with a loud voice made harsh by loudhailer, following on in a motorboat and making up for their lack of physical effort by shouting more intensely.
By Kingston there is a long row of canal barges all lashed together with dour purpose, like Octavian’s triremes at Actium.
In the riverside Park there is the happiest war memorial I have ever seen. A World War 1 soldier is walking boldly forwards, holding his big heavy Enfield rifle behind him by the top of the muzzle and waving his soft peaked cap in an elated way, beaming all over his face. His steel bowler is left at his heel, to show he is finally released from all that misery and suffering. It looks like he has just come home on leave – or that the war is over and he has survived and is showing all his pent up relief. It seems more a celebration of survival than a commemoration of loss. Goodbye to all that – one way or another.
Another huge deer park with a long stone wall all around. An endless arc of stony river path over- arched with boughs that makes it feel like walking through an green cathedral for urban penitents. Fewer people. A young woman in a woven cloche hat stands motionless to one side; seemingly contemplating something deep and dark.
The house itself comes into view in a symphony of chimneys. I am impressed. Jamie is not. We cross the bridge and find ourselves in Surrey. Astonished to find that leaving London has not turned us into pumpkins, we hasten to the bus stop and head for the Kingsbury Nandos. Journeys end.