The Thames Path, Kew to Teddington

I know it has been nearly a year since I last did a section of the Thames Path, but I always intended to do at least one more bit, and I finally got round to it. Incidentally, here’s a trivia question for you: there are four World Heritage Sites in London, all visible from the Thames Path. What are they? Answers in a footnote.*

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The first notable thing to be seen on this part of the walk — apart from a boat with a Grace Jones figurehead — is an island called Brentford Ait. Apparently ‘ait’ or ‘eyot’ is a word used for an island in a river, particularly the Thames. No, I didn’t know that either.

Anyway, the reason it is interesting, to me, is that it has a large heronry on it. The only heronry I knew about it London was the one in Regent’s Park. They obviously fly quite a long way looking for food, because you see herons all over London wherever there’s a patch of water, including my garden pond, but they congregate in nesting colonies and build big nests in trees. Something you can’t see very well in this rubbish picture, because the nests were too far away; I’ve cropped the picture down significantly but you still can’t see much.

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There were some more herons nesting further upriver, as well, on some small islands at Richmond.

The path then goes around the back of Kew Gardens. The path is raised up with some kind of drainage ditch on the other side from the river, so it would be quite difficult to sneak over the fence, but you can see a little bit of the gardens from the path. Meanwhile on the north bank of the river is Syon Park. So it all feels quite rural, and the flowers were out and the birds were singing — lots of wrens, particularly, when I was there — and it’s all pleasant enough, although I’d say that if you’re in that part of London and want to go for a walk: pay the entrance fee and walk in Kew Gardens itself.

This is the back of Syon House, built in the mid-C16th by the Duke of Somerset:

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After Kew Gardens the path goes past the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Club, and over the river there’s another tree-covered island, Isleworth Ait, to help keep up the rural feel. The drainage ditch, if that’s what it is, widens out here into a respectable looking stream which seems to be quite thoughtfully managed for wildlife. By which I mean that it has been allowed to get a bit untidy and overgrown, with willow trees growing in the water, but there are clear signs of maintenance, so it’s not just neglected. I heard blackcap and willow warbler and saw a sedge warbler singing in the undergrowth, so that was quite encouraging — although at this time of the year they may just be passing through on their way to somewhere else. There were also quite a lot of butterflies, particularly one of my favourites, the orange tip.

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The next stage really is Richmond, with more herons, lots of generally expensive looking people and some places to stop for lunch. And what might be a Canada Goose × Bar-headed Goose hybrid. It was with a group of Canada Geese and one Bar-headed Goose, so it’s I think it’s a reasonable guess. Neither species is native here, and they don’t occur wild together — the Bar-headed Goose is from Central Asia and the Canada Goose from North America — but waterfowl hybridise fairly freely.

EDIT: the nice people at the Flickr Hybrid birds group seem to think it might be Canada Goose × Greylag/domestic goose.

Anyway after Richmond, it’s more of the same — leafy towpath — until Teddington Lock where I crossed the footbridge and caught a train at Teddington. Pleasant enough but not very interesting. Although Teddington Lock was where the Monty Python fish-slapping dance was filmed, which is kind of mildly neat.

Incidentally, at Teddington I had a little lesson in why it might not be a good idea to rely too heavily on Google Maps. This is my iPhone’s advice on the best route to the station from where I was on the other side of the river:

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Which would seem pretty reasonable if I wasn’t standing right next to a footbridge at the time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant having magical maps in your pocket the whole time; I’m just glad I consulted the A-Z before leaving the house.

» You can see more of my photos from this section of the walk on Flickr. You can even see them on a map although some of the locations are approximate.

* Those World Heritage Sites are, in the order you pass them walking upstream:

  1. Maritime Greenwich, i.e. the Queen’s House designed by Inigo Jones, the Royal Naval College designed by Christopher Wren, the Observatory designed by Wren and Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St Alphege’s church, Greenwich Park and so on.
  2. The Tower of London. Pretty self-explanatory, I think. Notably, of course, the Tower is not just a historically important medieval castle; it’s unusually early, since a lot of it dates back to the C11th.
  3. Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster (i.e. the parliament buildings) and St Margaret’s Church. In some ways the Abbey and the houses of parliament could almost be two separate World Heritage Sites, being both very important in their own right and separated by several centuries chronologically, but the whole complex of buildings is interconnected so I guess it makes sense.
  4. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Which is why I got started on the subject now. Kew Gardens are important to the history of science and of landscape gardening. And indeed it’s still an important scientific institution.

All very fair choices, I think. The most obvious gap in the list would be St Paul’s Cathedral, I guess. Or since they don’t mind lumping a few buildings together to make one WHS, how about ‘St Paul’s Cathedral and the city churches’ to take in all those Wren and Hawksmoor churches built after the Great Fire. Buckingham Palace is an obvious possibility, perhaps, except that I don’t think anyone claims that it’s particularly architecturally interesting.

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The Thames path, Putney to Kew

And two months later, I get back on the Thames Path again. One exciting addition to the routine: sunscreen. Yup, proper sunny weather; spring turning into summer. And it made for a very pleasant walk; this section of the path feels almost rural. Admittedly, for much of the walk the rurality consists of little more than a few trees and about five feet of weedy verge, but in the full greenness of May, that was pretty good. In November, the impression of being in the countryside would no doubt be a bit weaker.

And if I list some of the plants that were in flower, it certainly sounds rural. Cow parsley, white deadnettle, wild garlic, lady’s smock (cuckooflower), hawthorn, elderflower, forget-me-not; I just love the names. And at this time of the year, everything is so green and full of life: even the sycamores, a tree I basically think of as an exceptionally big ugly weed, looked pretty good.

path somewhere towards the Kew end

There were some non-floral points of interest, though. Soon after Putney Bridge, you start walking past the boat houses owned by various schools and rowing clubs, and people rowing on the river. In fact my walk was pretty much the route of the Boat Race. Over the river you can see Craven Cottage, the stadium of Fulham FC, the football club owned by Mohamed “Prince Philip is a Nazi Frankenstein” Al-Fayed. For non-Londoners, Fulham (both the area and the football club) are best defined by the fact that, as much as they’d like to be, they just aren’t Chelsea.

Alexanders and Craven Cottage

The path here was originally a towpath, I believe. In fact, I think most of the Thames path from here on up to the source of the Thames follows the old towpath: that it, the path used by horses towing the canal boats along the river. I can’t quite imagine the logistics of it: what happened if someone needed to overtake? Or two boats approached from opposite directions? Was the whole river a big cat’s cradle of towropes?

It’s odd to think that, especially before the railways, the canals were the industrial arteries of Britain. They had advantages though: apparently one reason Josiah Wedgwood was a keen investor in canal-building was that, sending his porcelain from Staffordshire to London by road, 30% of it would break on the journey.

The path goes past a couple of nature reserves. One of them, the London Wetland Centre, describes itself as ‘the best urban site in Europe to watch wildlife’. I don’t know enough about the urban sites in Europe to judge that claim, but they’ve certainly done a really impressive job there. It was built on the site of a water treatment facility, I think, and they’ve created an impressive wetland area. Their headline success, I suppose, has been to attract bitterns in winter, but they also get a variety of waders and ducks, nesting terns, and a colony of sand martins (US: bank swallows). None of which is apparent from the Thames path, it has to be said, except for the sand martins which I watched for a while hunting for insects overhead. These are not sand martins; it’s a crow mobbing a heron.

While I’m writing about birds: it was mostly the usual stuff. Great views of a wren, singing beautifully with its little tail cocked up behind it; good views of a couple of blackcaps, singing even more beautifully and with impressive volume. A couple of exotics: the more unexpected was Egyptian Goose, a bird which is fairly well-established in England but I don’t see that often. No surprise at all to see Ring-necked Parakeets nesting in a tree by the path. They’ve been spreading out from further up the Thames valley for decades now, but in the last four or five years, numbers seem to have exploded: you hear them screeching in any bit of green space in London.

Nesting ring-necked parakeet

There are two marvellous urban myths about the parakeets. 1) They are all descended from a few birds kept by Jimi Hendrix when he was living in London. 2) They are all descended from parakeets used on the set of The African Queen when it was being filmed at Shepperton Studios. But no special explanation is needed for feral populations of exotic cagebirds — there are loads of them around the world. A couple of years ago, I had to resort to parrot-fancier websites to work out what species I’d seen in a park in Seville.

Rather unusually, the other nature reserve was designed to protect an exotic species: the Two-Lipped Door Snail, which, according to the informative sign, “is thought to have been originally been introduced accidentally by the Romans from mainland Europe, where it is much more common.” I support any excuse for protecting patches of urban woodland, but an exotic species of snail which is common in its native country seems like a low priority. But it has been here for a couple of millennia, so I guess we can grant it honorary native status.

Tommy Cooper

The path also goes past St Paul’s School. When I was on the school bridge team we once played a fixture against the St Paul’s E team. I think it may have been one of the few matches we won, so they can’t have been very good, but the fact the school could field five bridge teams still seems slightly extraordinary. In case you’re interested, I also represented the school at chess and fives. I was pretty rubbish at those too. No killer instinct.

» All these photos and a load of others have been posted to my Flickr account. You can see the whole Thames Path set or just the set for Putney to Kew. I’ve geotagged them so you can see them on a map but to be honest the locations are rather approximate.

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