diamond geezer

 Saturday, October 01, 2022

A Nice Walk: Richmond Hill (1 mile)

Sometimes you just want to go for a nice walk, nothing too taxing, a bit of a stroll, lots to see, great views, plenty of history, a good all-weather surface, close to public transport, won't take long. So here's a gentle mile ascending a hill in Richmond, nowhere near enough to make a day of it but a nice walk all the same.

Let's start at Richmond Bridge, or as local residents may know it 'outside the Odeon'. We'll be sticking to the eastern side of the Thames and climbing approximately 50m to get a better view of it. Aim for Nando's and you'll find yourself in a road initially called Hill Rise, a tautology which nevertheless correctly hints at the upcoming contours. It's also the last hurrah of Richmond's retail offer and unapologetically aimed at harvesting surplus wealth, should you be in need of bridal gowns, antiques or the perfect shade of Farrow and Ball paint. The most middle class thing I saw was a small boy with a toy sword being dragged into the cheese shop because "granny wants to browse", although this is unlikely to be your precise experience.

You've now committed to a climb, although rest assured it's never anything too serious. The houses near the foot of Richmond Hill are tall and thin in an attempt to take advantage of increased elevation, and blue-plaque-watchers should note that actress Dame Celia Johnson was born at number 46. I marvelled at the street's unseasonably colourful hanging baskets and was disappointed to discover that the block which looks like a castle was merely a well-defended prep school. Eventually the pavement becomes a terrace, the view alas still blocked by trees, but eventually those trees break to reveal ooh look, Twickenham rugby stadium. Keep going, it gets a lot better.

Down below are Terrace Gardens, an immaculately-tended space created in 1887 by combining the gardens of two former hillside mansions. You could pop down for a look but bear in mind it's all height you'll have to regain later. And there's plenty to see up top, including a Nightwatchman's Hut in Anglo-Japanese style and an outbreak of benches. Richmond Hill is totally overrun with benches, so many benches, indeed 33 benches along the top of Terrace Gardens alone, all lined-up and facing Thamesward. All are in memory of somebody but not all of them have a view so pick carefully. Also don't feel you need to sit down yet because once you get up the steps there are still 70 more benches to go. So. Many. Benches.

The flank above Terrace Field has attracted daytrippers, artists and pleasureseekers for centuries. It looks out over a perfect panorama of trees and meadows and, most importantly, a proper scenic bend in the Thames. The eyot in the midst of that silver thread is Glover's Island, and the airport in the distance is plainly Heathrow. See how flat the Thames Valley is, and also how incredibly few tall buildings planners in Surrey permit. The stretch of promenade by The Roebuck is the sweet spot, and here human clustering and bench use are at their greatest. I was nudged out of prime position by a classful of children sketching the view and also by a coachful of wedding guests posing for a group photo while raising a glass of bubbly. Never attempt this walk in high heels unless you have a convenient vehicle to totter back to.

At the top of Richmond Hill is the Royal Star and Garter Home, a magnificent edifice built after WW1 to house 180 seriously injured servicemen, and which has recently completed its transition to 86 luxury apartments because of course it has. Out front is an astonishingly ornate cattle trough built by the local branch of the RSPCA in 1891 to reward animals reaching the summit, but which is now overflowing with bright flowers. And immediately ahead are the gates to Richmond Park, finest of all the Royal Parks, which explains the number of cars, bikes and dogwalkers feeding through. Pedestrians are relegated to a side gate and then have to cross a stream of traffic unaided, sorry.

The start of October is peak rutting season according to the monthly warnings inside the gate, but this is not the deeriest corner of the park so you shouldn't be troubled by antler action. You can go all sorts of ways from here but I've chosen to follow Terrace Walk south in search of a view. The trees to the right are impenetrable but a gap eventually opens up to the left which perfectly frames Docklands, then the Shard, then the City. Eventually you get to escape the park fringes into Pembroke Lodge Gardens (no bikes, no picnics, no garden games), a cultivated strip behind a deerproof fence. At this time of year the Poet's Corner pollination garden isn't buzzing and the John Beer Laburnum Walk is somewhat shrivelled, but that's the best carpet of autumn crocus I've seen this season.

Hurrah it's King Henry's Mound, a prehistoric burial hump set on the highest point of Richmond Hill. It's perhaps best known for its protected view of St Paul's Cathedral through a 'keyhole' gap in the trees, the dome unobstructed and perfectly framed despite being ten miles away. A telescope has been provided for those whose eyesight isn't owl-like, and I got lucky (for the first time ever) by having it to myself for a full five minutes. Alas the view of St Paul's has been permanently wrecked by Manhattan Loft Gardens, a 42 storey tower in Stratford whose boxy bulk now rises behind the entire right-hand curve of the dome. Protected view regulations didn't apply to the full corridor behind the dome so this misplaced abomination slipped through the planning process and, well, what a bloody shame.

That's where my nice walk ends, atop a peak that somehow is only a mile from the hubbub of Richmond Bridge. From here you could drop down the hill to Petersham, you could carry on across the heart of the park or you could just retreat to Pembroke Lodge for tea and a scone. Whichever way you go from here it's all downhill, so that's nice.

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