WALK LONDON Thames Path Hampton Court to Richmond (7½ miles)
This is magnificent. A meandering stroll along the leafy banks of the Thames, out west where the river is wide and the motorcruiser is king. We're talking rustic, affluent and tranquil. Erith this is not. And where better to begin than the royal palace at Hampton Court? Don't expect to see much of the 500 year old tourist attraction, not without paying. There's a semi-good view of Henry VIII's Privy Garden through a heraldic gate on the riverside, but the path soon strides off around the edge of the estate. And the estate is huge! It takes a good three miles to walk round the southern perimeter, round the back of a hidden golf course, no deviation permitted. Don't worry, you won't tire of the view. On this side of the river there's an arboreal strip of meadow, on the other the detached marinas of Thames Ditton. The drab grey estuary is still tens of miles away.
Kingston Bridge is a scenic arched affair, and supports the only road across the river between the start and end points of this walk. The Thames Path takes this opportunity to swap banks, thrusting walkers into Kingston's vibrant retail centre. Try not to let the shops distract you. On through Canbury Gardens, looking out from municipal parkland to vast riverside mansions opposite. Those who live here have a few million to spare, plus a jetty at the bottom of the garden to moor up a speedboat or two. This stretch of the Thames is also a popular place for sculling and rowing, and you may spot several oar-ed eightsomes thrusting by. But only so far.
Sluice gates jut out into the river at Teddington, channelling downstream traffic through a narrowing sidestream. Teddington Lock forms the upper limit of the North Sea's tidal influence, and it's also the site of Thames Television's legendary TV studios. Kids teatime stalwart Magpie was filmed here, as well as Monty Python's fish-slapping dance (down by the lock itself). Pause for a while to enjoy the view from the ornate spikypedestrian footbridge, before continuing north along another mile of isolated towpath. Tracks lead off into an overgrown expanse of flood meadows and reclaimed gravel workings, now the Ham Lands nature reserve. Somewhere worth exploring in greater detail, I suspect. And out in the middle of the Thames, inaccessible from the southern side, lies Eel Pie Island - Twickenham's most unusual suburban hinterland. Its seven wooded acres provide a semi-private residential outpost for creatives and eccentrics, as well as the odd boatyard and burned-down jazz venue.
Round the bend, in the middle of nowhere, a grand Stuart mansion looms out of the trees. It may look inaccessible by road, but coachloads of old ladies wandering through the entrance gate tell a different story. Ham House is a rare survivor of Stuart nobledom, snapped up by the National Trust and filled with gaudy furniture and delicate hangings. There are no electric light fittings in the house (and all the curtains are kept closed) to ensure that various portraits and tapestries are protected from premature fading. The semi-darkness may also enhance the house's reputation for ghosts and hauntings (or that may just be psychic tosh). The house's famous gardens, of which there are several, are quite splendid. Some are very formal, with shrubbery laid out to pristine perfection, while others look gorgeously natural but are in fact 100% 17th century artificial. Ham House is a detour well worth taking (but be warned - not on Thursdays, Fridays or any day during the winter months because the gates are very shut).
You can abandon the walk here by taking the foot ferry across to Marble Hill House, but it's not too much further ahead to Richmond. The path crosses Petersham Meadows, a key part of the famously-good view from Richmond Hill above. Don't be tempted to ascend the hillside, stick to the Thames-side path. It's here that the Richmond riverside kicks in, the first intrusive civilisation for miles. A new wooden cafe has just been opened beneath the tallest plane tree in London, should you be thirsty. A variety of tickets are available for cruises both down and up river, should you be tired. And keep your eyes open for local celebrity residents strolling along the towpath, should you spot Richard E Grant in a white t-shirt and jogging bottoms carrying designer shopping bags. Like what I did. See, I told you it was classy along here.