diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 11, 2010

Random borough (25): Kingston (part 1)

That's the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, to give it its full name (although there's not much Thames, and the royalty's long gone). London's southwesternmost borough is a long tongue of suburban hinterland poking into Surrey, to which it traditionally belongs. But it's not packed with fascinating tourist-worthy locations, which made exploring its leafy acres a tad challenging. I think I found enough to write about...

Somewhere historic: Kingston Museum
Opened in 1904, Kingston's museum sits on the ring road near the bus station. It's not a busy place - I was the only visitor there - although being attached to the library must help lure in folk from time to time. And yet it has a fascinating history to tell, because Kingston is one of only a handful of places in England to have hosted a coronation. Reputedly seven coronations, in fact, all Anglo-Saxon kings of whom the most famous was Ethelred the Unready. Westminster Abbey took over from Harold onwards, but back in the 10th century this Mercia/Wessex border town ruled. Amazingly Kingston's coronation stone still exists, despite having spent most of the 18th century used as a mounting block for horsemen in the Market Place. In 1935 it was reinstalled with due reverence outside the Guildhall, right next to the Mayor's parking space, where it's now fenced off and generally overlooked. [photo] [photo]

Kingston's coronations provide an amazing heritage for a London suburb, but don't expect to hear much about them in the borough museum where the 'Kings' bit is glossed over in two cases flat. Instead there's the usual whistlestop selection of flint axes and Roman hoards before the timeline screeches headlong into the second millennium. Kingston's riverside past is celebrated (watermen, swan upping, logboats), as is the Sopwith aircraft factory that developed to churn out Hawker Siddeley bombers in WW2. A separate gallery remembers pioneering Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge (ooh, early moving images) (mmm, panoramas of pre-quake San Francisco). But most of the central display could represent life in any major town around the country - all the usual museum stuff that appeals to schools on field trips. Everything feels a bit ordinary, a bit understated, and most definitely not packed with interactive flashy things for maximum modern appeal. And hurrah for that. If you're ever passing and you like your museums old school, enjoy the contents within. But don't rush.
by train: Kingston

Somewhere retail: Kingston
They're not really keen on tourists in Kingston. There used to be a well-stocked Visitor Information Centre in the old Town Hall in the Market Place [photo], but this shut down at the end of February. Now only a handful of non-useful leaflets remain in the foyer, and would-be tourists are directed instead to reception desks in far-flung hard-to-locate shops and offices. Never mind, I'm sure this has cut the council tax by a penny or two, so who's to complain? Kingston's visitor website is no better, praising the area as "one of the liveliest Royal London Boroughs" (there are only two). It thinks it knows what visitors want, and that's cash tills and steaming coffee. If you only have one hour to enjoy in Kingston, it advises, "....go shopping". So I did.

Kingston's shops are very popular (in London, second only to those in the West End). Some of them are enormous. There's a giant modern John Lewis which disfigures the view from Kingston Bridge, as well as the granddaddy of all things retail hereabouts - Bentalls. This department store's been serving Surrey since 1867, and its cliff-like frontage spans the length of an entire street. An equally-long glass-roofed shopping mall has been carved out behind [photo], its sparkly atrium higher than the nave of Westminster Abbey (Kingston may have lost its coronations, but they've won the war). Less gorgeous is the Eden Walk Shopping Centre, whose underwhelming architecture you can probably imagine once you know it was opened in the late 1970s. Move on - the surrounding pedestrianised streets are far more alluring.

On Saturday morning a throng of Conservative activists had descended onto Clarence Street, thrusting NHS leaflets and beaming Camerons into the hands of passing shoppers. Many of them sported navy blue "I back Zak" jackets in support of the multi-millionnaire banker's offspring who's currently trying to get himself elected around here. You might have assumed that Kingston would be prime Tory territory but no, the entire borough's currently a Lib Dem stronghold. Zak's pack were attracting decidedly less interest than the band of fresh-faced musicians busking in the precinct outside HSBC, but more interest than the bloke trying to flog helium balloons up the street.

Meanwhile one of Kingston's most famous attractions went almost ignored, except by me and my camera. A stream of shoppers walked straight past the famous set of tumbling red phone boxes in Old London Road, presumably because they've been there since 1989 and everybody local's got over the novelty shock value by now. The sculpture's called Out of Order, and would make a fantastic assault course scramble for big kids if only there weren't signs attached saying "No Climbing". Instead it merely acts as an artistic windbreak between a branch of Wilkinson and an Italian restaurant. Let's hope that Kingston's occasional tourists manage to stumble across it without directions. [photo] [photo]
by train: Kingston

Historic Kingston - guided walks (every Sunday, 2:30pm, £3)


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