diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 17, 2010

Random borough (24): Richmond (part 1)

London's greenest borough, Richmond is packed out with spacious Royal parkland. It's the only London borough to span the Thames. It's long and lumpy, stretching from zone 3 out to zone 6. And it's wonderfully photogenic... unless, that is, you visit on an extremely wet day in the bleak midwinter. I could have timed my trip a lot better, but I was very much spoilt for choice for places to go and see.

Somewhere pretty: Richmond Hill
It's an almost perfect view. Verdant pasture, a blanket of trees, stately homes, a distant castle, and a broad sweeping curve on the Thames. I hoped that the marvellous panorama from Richmond Hill might inspire me, as it has countless writers and artists over the centuries. If only the rain would ease off, that is.

I started off at the bottom of the hill, on the eastern side of Richmond Bridge. It wasn't raining when I slipped into the Old Town Hall, and headed first to the tourist information office on the ground floor. As befits a borough with a five-star tourist website, this is a top-notch fact-packed information portal. And I finally discovered why the nice people at Walk London keep telling me that London Loop leaflet 9 is out of stock - it's because every single copy must be on display here, awaiting 100 local ramblers who feel the need to walk to Hatton Cross. Taking the lift to the second floor I ventured into the Museum of Richmond "where history comes alive". A dear old lady on the front desk looked me up and down and then wrote a tally mark in the 25-44 section on her visitor grid. I hope she estimated the day's other visitor spot on too. The dark alcoves revealed Richmond's royal past, the town apparently named after the Tudor palace where both Henry VII and Elizabeth I breathed their last. Other exhibits detailed the hunting grounds that evolved into today's Royal parks, and displayed bits of leftover church scavenged from across the borough. There are more exciting borough museums in London, but at least there's proper history here.

Back outside, the heavens had opened. I zipped up my jacket and headed uphill, past a selection of bijou shops awaiting bedraggled clientèle. The road ascended rapidly, above the roof of the factory where Britain's annual total of 38 million Remembrance poppies are assembled. The benches on Terrace Walk were empty, apart from a bloke in a cagoul nibbling sodden sandwiches. I stood overlooking the legendary view, beside information boards which told me what I ought to have been able to see. The bend in the Thames was grey rather than blue, the middle distance was blurred, and Windsor Castle was visible only as a silhouette in the mist. A lone black-clad figure cavorted halfway down the slope in Terrace Gardens, performing some mysterious daily fitness ritual as the rain beat down even stronger. [photo]

Dodging the traffic, I entered Richmond Park. Normally I'd stop and look for deer, but on this occasion I was intent on walking along the ridgetop as quickly as possible. The ornamental gardens were bleak and flowerless, and the bare-branched trees provided no shelter whatsoever. Europe's largest urban park is no place to be in a storm.

About twenty litres later I reached King Henry's Mound, an earthwork perched on the highest point of Richmond Hill. Not entirely unexpectedly I had the entire summit to myself. Out west the turret of Petersham church was the only landmark readily identifiable in the gloom, while of far-distant Runnymede there was no sign. But it's the 300-year-old northeastern view that's more famous, and which indirectly impacts on all skyscraper development in the City of London. A ring-shaped hole has been cut in the hedge, through which a vista stretching 10 miles to St Paul's Cathedral can be seen. This is one of London's official protected views, and the erection of any building which interrupts this line of sight is forbidden. Stamford Bridge, Sloane Square and Downing Street all lie on the prohibited vector, right the way up to Wren's dome and beyond. It's a wonderfully quirky throwback - intrinsically pointless and yet culturally rich. And in yesterday's weather conditions, of course, the view's utterly invisible.

Somewhere nearby, supposedly, is a musical bench dedicated to the memory of Ian Dury. Plug your headphones into the armrest and you can pick from eight of his songs and a Desert Island Discs interview. I didn't find it, I didn't want to hang around in the open any longer than I had to (and it's solar powered, so it probably wouldn't have been working anyway). Instead I hurried down the muddy hillside towards the Petersham road, where I hoped to dry out in a bus shelter. A no-longer-relevant sign at the top of the slope warned locals that "Tobogganing is not advised". Something about lack of emergency access and unseen obstructions, apparently, whereas I thought this hill might be the most perfect sledge-run in all of London. Long, steep, treeless and broad - I bet the younger residents of TW10 had a whale of a time here last week.
by train/tube: Richmond   by bus: 65, 371

Somewhere retail: Teddington
Teddington's not the most obvious place in the borough to go shopping. Anyone seeking the major chain stores and a bit of class would head to Richmond town centre, while Twickenham Church Street's got most of what anyone would need. But I plumped for suburban Teddington, mainly because I'd never been there before, and to see what retail opportunities the place had to offer. One main shopping street cuts across the centre of the town, from royal Bushy Park to top-tidal Teddington Lock. Although a few well-known High Street names have muscled in, the majority of the shops along this High Street are independents. The Kitchen Sync cookshop, Jenny Blanc Interiors and Teds clothing store, selling things that are nice to have but not entirely essential. A children's giftshop, a goldsmith and a bistrot (presumably the final 't' is silent) all add to the slightly luxurious air. There are two 'new age' shops, which is at least one too many, and various other unchallenging locations where ladies can while away the daytime hours. Residents even appear to have the sense to shun the ugly oversized Starbucks for the rather homelier Coffee Mill cafe, and its ilk, which shows hope for the future. I'm struck whenever I venture into West London how very different many of its shops are to what I'm used to back East. We have kebabberies, pound shops and bookmakers, whereas Teddington boasts cheesemongers, cigar vendors and picture framers. I know which side of town I'd rather spend my money.
by train: Teddington   by bus: 33, 281, 285, 481, R68, X26

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