J♥ Esher/Walton & Weybridge One of two proposed London boroughs which ultimately remained in Surrey, the combination of Esher and Walton & Weybridge is known today as Elmbridge. The northeastern corner is built-up and commutery, and might possibly have been better off in the capital, but the upscale remainder would never have felt at home. For today's post I've taken a four hour walk along Elmbridge's northern boundary, the River Thames, and selected ten places of interest along the way.[8 photos]
If you're following the Thames Path proper, this is the side of the river you never walk because all the good promenading is on the north bank around the edge of Hampton Court Park. On the just-in-Surrey side most of the waterside is inaccessible, unless you live up one of the streets backing onto it or have a boat, which a lot of people round here do. Thames Ditton is a small riverside village which became deeply suburban, its growth boosted by a rail connection to London and a location off the Portsmouth Road. The twisting High Street reveals its age, with the occasional weatherboarded cottage and crooked pub, a cluster of independent shops and a somewhat inward-looking feel. Round the back of Ye Olde Swan an iron footbridge leads to Thames Ditton Island, home to the lucky few, with a locked gate to prevent access for lesser mortals.
To give you your bearings, this is the patch of land opposite the magnificence of Hampton Court, where the River Mole empties into the River Thames. Hemmed in behind Hampton Court station, Cigarette Island earned its peculiar name during the Edwardian era when the banks were rammed with jolly houseboats. The Cigarette was one such pleasurecraft, owned by Sir Henry Foreman (MP and Mayor of Hammersmith), whose 60-footer wasn't the largest of the bunch but clearly captured the public imagination. Most of his neighbours were rather more bohemian, so the stories go, until all the gaiety was expunged in 1931. What remains is a rather dull triangular park whose best feature is the view, and which (most appropriately) still provides a convenient hideaway for fag-smoking pre-teens.
Unusually for the Surrey Thames, this mile of riverbank spreads back to form an unbuilt-up crescent of public parkland. Formerly known as Molesey Hurst it has an amazing recreational history, including possibly England's first ever game of golf, one of Britain's first ever balloon flights, a national renown for bare-knuckle fighting and a major racecourse to boot. The racecourse closed in 1962, with a housing estate built on part of the land and open access established across the rest. Hurst Park's grand for a stroll, with views across to Hampton (not Court) on the opposite bank. The tiny Hampton Ferry has been running since 1514, making it one of Britain's 10 oldest companies, but closed for the winter this week so don't come down specially and wait on the bank.
A surprising amount of the Thames valley upstream from Hampton has been given over to municipal water services. Further back is the mighty Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir, alongside two smaller less regal ponds, while much closer to the river is the Molesey Reservoir Nature Reserve. Walkers on the Thames Path won't be getting inside, nor indeed seeing anything whatsoever beyond half a mile of lofty banks. All they will see, eventually, is a modern sluice gate sucking in water from the Thames for treatment, opposite a old concrete wall imprinted by the Metropolitan Water Board. Thames Water are very proud of the eel screens they've installed in the eleven sluice gates - I watched one such mesh strip whirring quietly round.
Of the dozen or so islands in the Thames between Thames Ditton and Weybridge, this one's unusual because you can cross onto part of it. A high footbridge spans the cut close to the Thames Conservancy cottage, leading to a thickly wooded path lined by low lights encased in black plastic tubes. This illumination is for members of the Middle Thames Yacht Club, whose motorboats are moored up unseen on the Sunbury-facing flank. Technically you can't continue much further along the path because you reach Sunbury Lock, but if the lockkeeper has forgotten to hang the chain you can blunder through and make your illicit way back to the Thames Path across a series of lock gates. Try not to stand on the metal plate immediately outside the lockkeeper's window, however, because the loud noise it makes is a dead giveaway that you're not boat crew and shouldn't be there.
Walton-on-Thames is another old settlement which started up by the Thames and has spread inexorably south towards its station. In the 17th century a riverside wharf was built for the transfer of goods from skiffs and barges, and later all the coal for the Walton Gas Works arrived this way. The Swan is the older of the two pubs beside what's no longer a wharf, and is famous for a 1910 visit by composer Jerome Kern who promptly fell in love with the innkeeper's daughter (and later married her). The riverbanks hereabouts are flush with the homes of those who love boats, on the Walton side larger houses with short steep gardens, and on the far side squatter chalet homes whose owners will wish they had an upstairs the next time the Thames seriously floods.
The only road bridge between Chertsey and Hampton Court crosses the Thames at Walton, and is the sixth incarnation on this spot. The third was bomb-damaged in WW2 and replaced by a 'temporary' Bailey Bridge, augmented in 1999 by a new road bridge which turned out to be structurally inept. The current sixth bridge is its expensive replacement, opened in 2013 to general acclaim, and the first single-arched span on the Thames for those travelling upstream. Elmbridge council were so enthralled by the panorama that they built a silvery-finned cafe on the southern bank, which finally opened (late) last summer, and whose outside terrace was unexpectedly well frequented by supping pensioners when I passed by.
Here's peculiar. In the 1930s a lengthy meander past Shepperton was bypassed by a straight canal, named the Desborough Cut after the baron who was president of the Thames Conservancy Council at the time. This created a new island in the Thames, at 111 acres much larger than the average, and accessible only by road bridges at either end. The western third of the island is water meadow and perfect for dog-walking, assuming owners can find a space in the tiny car park. At the eastern end are a large sports field (where canines must not go) plus a moody Victorian pumping station, and around the sinuous perimeter runs a secluded woody towpath. I thoroughly enjoyed my 30 minute hike round the northern edge, spotting two coal tax posts along the way and revelling in the unexpected remoteness.
But you'll not be getting onto this one, which lies a couple of hundred metres downstream from Shepperton Lock. Gilbert & Sullivan impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte acquired the island in the 1890s, tweaked its shape to resemble an ocean liner and built what he hoped would be a flamboyant hotel. Alas Weybridge magistrates refused to grant him a licence for serving alcohol, so Eyot House became the kind of home that showbiz stars of the day simply hoped to be invited to, and then fell into private hands. It was sold a fewyears ago for £4m - cheap at the price for a 13 bedroom folly with its own boatyard. A seriously steep footbridge now links the island to the shore, resolutely locked and guarded by a none-too fearsome dog.
Ah but I've written about this tiny ferry crossing before, three years ago, so I'll not go into detail again. All I'll say is that it'd make a fine finale to a walk between here and Hampton Court, an all-weather Thames Path stroll along a Surrey riverside which could have been in London, but probably thankfully isn't.