diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 29, 2013

DISTRICT: Fulham Railway Bridge

Before my District line month ends, I thought I'd go for a walk down the Wimbleware. Not all of it, just two neighbouring stations, because I didn't have that long. I tried Southfields to Wimbledon Park, but that was really boring (apart from the walk through the eponymous park). So then I tried Putney Bridge to East Putney, and that was much more interesting. And unique.

The Underground crosses the River Thames a total of eleven times. Most of these crossings run beneath the river, but two in the west of London run above. Both are on the District line, and both allow brief panoramic views of the tidal Thames. But only one of these allows pedestrians to walk alongside the trains and enjoy the same view, but better. And that's the crossing at Putney Bridge, which isn't Putney Bridge, it's Fulham Railway Bridge.

It is a slightly confusing station, Putney Bridge, because it's not in Putney, it's on the other side of the river in Fulham. It's also rather a pretty station, at platform level, with ridge-and-furrow canopies and white serrated valancing. I like the heritage roundels with their bloodshot rim, and yes that really is a pill box at the southern end, built to protect the bridge beyond in case of invasion. The forked wooden staircase down to the ticket hall is much as it would have been in 1880 when the station opened, only now with safer treads. And the entrance itself is lofty and arched, making a bold external statement, though slightly diminished by addition of a row of modern bus shelters.

Ignore the waiting hubbub in the street outside and head for the cafe on Ranelagh Gardens. There on the side of the bridge is a plaque to Frederick Richard Simms, pioneer of the English motor industry, born 150 years ago this month. Simms is credited with coining the words 'petrol' and 'motorcar', and built the world's first armoured car, and invented the rubber bumper, and founded the RAC. It's amazing really that Frederick isn't more widely known. His very first commercial workshop was under the arch of this bridge, a space for fitting Daimler engines to motor launches, in what was probably Britain's first motor company. It's most appropriate therefore that the space is currently occupied by a car hire company.

Pass on, down the alleyway, towards the river. There's a sign that says 'Footbridge to Putney' if you're not entirely sure. A set of steps, initially hidden, leads up from ground to railway level. They're quite steep steps, the sort you might struggle to use with luggage or a pushchair. But the effort's worthwhile as the pathway flattens out beside the District line tracks. They're over a barrier, through a mesh, beyond an iron lattice. A series of lamp fittings curl over from the metalwork at regular intervals, like drooping flowers, for after-dark illumination. And where the bridge proper begins, the pillar is topped off by a most ornate pediment, with swirls and scallop painted in delicate green. Welcome to Fulham Railway Bridge. It's not usually busy up here.

There's no view to the northwest, towards Putney Bridge and the boat race course, because the railway obscures all. But you can look east towards the apartment towers of Wandsworth, and three cranes building more. That stretch of greenery on the north bank is Hurlingham Park, a private recreational enclave where the Thames Path retreats half a kilometre inland. The matching treeline on the south bank is Wandsworth Park, more public but less interesting. And if you have one of the houses backing down to the river between the park and the bridge, lucky lucky you.

Before descending on the far side, take a moment to look ahead at the railway arches curving off to the left. A motley assortment of businesses occupy the set, most motor-related, and two painted boldly with the Cross of St George. You can't walk that way, you have to take the sidestreet through a fairly well-to-do part of Putney. Oxford Road is nicer still, with its gabled brick villas and a Victorian art school. This is the sort of area where I imagine residents read the Evening Standard and find all those property details and society reports relevant to their way of life. Indeed the shops on Upper Richmond Road are a world away from what you might find in Stepney or East Ham, not least The Beer Boutique and Mister Buttercup's hand-painted furniture emporium.

East Putney station has a peculiar piazza, with pillars to each side topped by signs in an atypical stencilled font. It's hard to see the ticket hall entrance from the road because a florists squats in front, with passengers diverted to either side (past the estate agents or phone shop). Until 20 years ago this was a British-Rail-owned station, even though Waterloo-bound services ended several decades before. That's why up top there's an entirely disused platform, and an over-large island platform in the centre for southbound services. Most of those starting their journey here crowd onto the separate northbound platform, again nothing special architecturally, but the only way to ride back across Fulham Railway Bridge... and complete the loop.

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