WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 8]
Ewell to Kingston (7 miles)
For my penultimate Loop stroll I'm crossing from Surrey into southwest London, and staring at an awful lot of river. Section 8 follows the Hogsmill almost all the way, breaking off only when circumstances and sewage works intrude. I've also blogged most of it previously, back when I was randomboroughing, so I apologise if any of it sounds familiar. At least there was half an hour in the middle I hadn't walked before. [map][6 photos]
Ewell is Epsom's smaller twin, located not on the Downs but at the head of the Hogsmill. The Loop kicks off at the town's most iconic structure, the saucer-like Bourne Hall, squatting at the top of the lawn above the pond like a library from space. Do pop inside and up to the flight deck to check out the museum before you depart. The Loop sets off from an information board by the waterside, then exits the park to follow a chain of woodland north. The path weaves over and between a succession of threaded streamlets, before they eventually get their act together and combine into a single channel. This occurs just in time for the river to duck beneath the railway embankment through a narrow tunnel, with the footpath cunningly following on wooden stilts. This makes for an especially low headroom - a mere five foot four at the far end - so I was particularly surprised when a cyclist came whizzing out of the darkness as I emerged.
Brambly meanders lie ahead, opening out occasionally into meadow spaces allowing canine visitors greater room to roam. The path currently exhibits the first flushes of autumn mud, a few patches of solid surface turning liquid until summer returns again, and the remainder due to follow. At Chamber Mead a tributary of approximately equal dimensions flows in from a nearby estate, crossed shortly afterwards by a dip of stepping stones. Here William Holman Hunt painted his Hireling Shepherd over a three month period in 1851, and had a miserable time of it, oppressed by large flies, the local magistrate and two swans who insisted on nibbling the scenery. Meanwhile his colleague John Everett Millais was busy upriver painting Shakespearean heroine Ophelia floating serenely in the water, at a point we'll be passing in a few minutes or maybe an hour, nobody's quite certain where.
Millais' easel was definitely set up beyond the tiny Packhorse bridge, and the site of the largest gunpowder mill erected in these parts. It was also past the delightfully named Ruxley Splash, formerly a ford, now a considerably more contemporary highway intrusion. It might have been by the footbridge near Riverview School, although the great painting would have been considerably more full of nettles had this been the case. My hopes of taking a photo were thwarted by two modern Ophelias standing on the bridge with their small children, shrieking delightedly as they dropped stones and twigs into the water below. The river remains narrow and shallow at this point, drifting beneath willows and speckled with yellow leaves heading downstream. And this paragraph is all I have to show for the half hour I hadn't walked before - pleasant enough but nothing to write home about.
For the next three quarters of a mile the Hogsmill marks the boundary between Surrey and London. For those on foot the switch happens at Tolworth Court Bridge, once minor, now a roaring dual carriageway. Technically the path continues across the road, but the Loop diverts via the safest sets of traffic lights necessitating a circuitous route that almost lost me along the way. As the river widens so the path alongside it narrows, far less suitable for anything on wheels, nudged up against the rear fence of the Surbiton Speedway. William Holman Hunt's more famous painting 'The Light of the World' may have been painted along this stretch, his Christ-like figure standing in the door of a derelict gunpowder mill and knocking. A scattering of pink 'orchids' enlivens the banks, except this is actually Himalayan balsam, an invasive weed I'll be seeing considerably more of later.
At a small bridge by the Toby Carvery I pause and look over the rail. For a moment nothing happens, then a blue-green flash appears and skims off across the water beneath the trees. All too briefly it's joined by a second, before both disappear over a rooty stump and are hidden from view. It can't be a coincidence that the only other kingfisher I've seen in my life was also on the Hogsmill river, within a mile of this pair, if you ever fancy your ornithological chances. And then the Loop goes wrong. According to TfL's instructions track I can "carry on along the river as it curves to the left passing several sports grounds", and I think that's the way I walked when I was here in 2010. But that route is inexpertly boarded up, and thereby inaccessible, so I'm forced to take TfL's "alternative route" which proves a lengthy diversion.
There is a lane parallel to the river but it's pavementless, and a rat-run, so the alternative involves the avenues of Cuddington. It's an awkward jolt, despite the attractiveness of the houses, and not especially recommended. Try not to miss the turn off down what looks like a cul-de-sac - I did, and ended up half a mile later in Worcester Park. Instead head for the alleyway that leads you back into London, past St John the Baptist, Old Malden, and (eventually) back down to the river. This is another contender for "Ophelia woz ere", specifically Six Acre Meadow on the western bank, annoyingly a few hundred yards back along the unvisited section. I'm not quite sure what's going on here, and why the official documentation is so vague, but it'd be good to see the end of this bifurcation.
The Hogsmill Open Space bestrides the river, covering the zone where house-building has been deemed unwise. The Loop isn't comprehensively signed, but always taking the path closest to the river works a treat, as you'd expect. This is a broadly verdant stretch along a mile of meadow, although plagued in far too many places by Himalayan balsam which appears to have edged out several native species. The Chessington rail bridge isn't too intrusive, but the A3 Kingston bypass is another matter, forcing a subway hike (and offering a rare newsagent opportunity). The Hogsmill is broader now, signalling greater importance as a drainage mechanism, but still with charm... assuming you're not tired of riverside walking by now. But at Berrylands we must say goodbye, and soon you'll be wishing the river was back again.
A parade of shops tumbles down from the local pub, many units now offering hair and beauty treatments or acting as cheap office space. Lower Marsh Lane begins beneath Berrylands station, whose wooden platforms haven't been replaced since the Thirties and still look like a temporary stopgap. The cycleway passes between sludge beds and a sewage works, - the main reason we can't get anywhere near the river, and adding a element of whiff which may make walkers hurry. It's not the nicest setting for Surbiton Cemetery, which is up next, nor for the sellers of granite and marble who congregate nearby. What's odd is how this lane switches from industrially bleak at one end to comfortingly residential at the other, emerging eventually into the outskirts of Kingston. There's rather more busyness as we nudge back towards the river, and across it, and edge back again.
Swan Walk has a community garden to one side and an art gallery at the end, the Stanley Picker at Middle Mill, part of Kingston University London. This sits on a small island in the stream, around which students can be seen milling, and wandering around with folders, and sipping campus coffees, and tapping on screens that might or not be to do with study. The path continues tight up against the playground of a primary school, one of half a dozen educational establishments located hereabouts, then manoeuvres round to a weir by Watersplash Close. Whilst it's nice to see the river flowing freely in this urban setting, tracking it has become a somewhat bitty experience, hurled out onto one last busy main road near Surrey County Hall.
The final few hundred metres are thankfully worth the wait, slipping alongside a tamed channel as the river passes a bevy of administrative buildings - the Kingston Guildhall complex. The most interesting feature, indeed a nationally historic one, is the CoronationStone. Seven Saxon kings are believed to have been crowned at, on or near this sarsen, including Ethelred the Unready, although it wasn't mounted on a monumental plinth at the time. Alongside is the Clattern Bridge, one of the oldest road bridges still in daily use by vehicles, though the 12th century structure has been topped and strengthened somewhat since. Take the narrow staircase down to reach Charter Quay, a much more modern development of boutiques and pizzerias on the banks of the Thames, potentially softened by the presence of swans and herons. Kingston Bridge is only a couple of bars ahead, and the south London Loop is complete.