diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 24, 2023

A Nice Walk: Putney Sculpture Trail (1½ miles)

Sometimes you just want to go for a nice walk, nothing too taxing, a bit of a stroll, lots to see, pretty views, tidal waterside, pockets of history, nine bronzes, multiple refreshment opportunities, entirely step-free, won't take long. So here's a pleasant mile and a half along the Thames in Wandsworth, nowhere near enough to make a day of it but a nice walk all the same.

In the 1980s the sculptor Alan Thornhill made a bronze sculpture called Load and donated it to the people of Putney, who promptly positioned it on the Embankment near Waterman's Green. Twenty years later he donated eight more, which were spread out along the riverfront either side of Putney Bridge to create the Putney Sculpture Trail. It's easy to follow, a pleasant promenade with nine sculptural forms to spot, and most of the plinths include a small plaque with a map to help you on your way. [jpg map] [pdf map] [Google map]

1) Fall (by Alan Thornhill)
If walking east to west you start off in Wandsworth Riverside Quarter, an upthrust of unaffordable apartments promising contemporary living in a vibrant oasis. Come for the dining opportunities, the direct Clipper service to the West End and a burgeoning service charge. The first sculpture has been placed on the promenade beside a small manicured lawn and a row of freestanding adverts for estate agents, eyebrow twirlers and epicurean evening classes. Alan's bronze comprises two entwined bodies, or appears to because "the sculptor asks you to view the sculptures with an open and enquiring mind, without preconceptions of either form or meaning". If you're here before lunchtime the adjacent Lebanese restaurant is more than keen to sell you a coffee, and later in the day a full-on meze platter.

2) Pygmalion (by Alan Thornhill)
A short stroll along Lightermans Walk, past candystripe moorings, brings you to the gates of Wandsworth Park. Alan's second sculpture lies just beyond, at the start of a magnificent avenue of plane trees which overhangs the promenade. The best way to identify the front of each sculpture is to look for the plaque on the plinth, which in this case is on the riverside side, although to see the knobbly mammary protrusions you'll need to walk round the back.

3) Nexus (by Alan Thornhill)
The park contains one more sculpture, located halfway along the far side where Thames Path strollers will never see it. Either cut bravely across the grass, stepping carefully because I've seen how many dogs exercise here, or take the perimeter path past the tennis courts and the minigolf. That's £1.08 per hole, so entirely skippable. Nexus supposedly faces the football pitches, whose white lines were getting a repaint yesterday, and has its collective back towards a parade of what used to be twelve shops. Today all but four have become homes, the survivors being a Korean takeaway, a convenience store, a pet groomers and a motorcycle service centre which goes by the peculiar name of Gambier Reeks.

Homes hug the waterfront along the next stretch so you won't be seeing any sculptures for a while. First exit the park via Blade Mews, whose residents are insistent cyclists get off and walk, although my brief experience is that few oblige. Then enjoy Deodar Road's quirky Edwardian villas, the odd-numbered of which are (or have been) home to a veritable wikipageful of famous people. If you divert up the steps onto Fulham Railway Bridge you can look down onto their rear facades, variously extended, and note that the essential garden accessory hereabouts is an orange lifebelt.

4) Motherfigure(by Alan Thornhill)
5) Punch and Judy (by Alan Thornhill)
Turn right at the British Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and you'll find yourself in Putney Wharf. Before Putney Bridge was built this was where the cross-Thames ferry moored up, and if the tide's out you can still walk down the cobbled slipway onto the Thames foreshore. An old brewery also survives, scrubbed up into a Youngs pub, and a lot of Putneyites come here to graze and sip. But mostly this is a dense mixed-used development overlooked by what used to be ICL HQ and which is now a steep bulwark of stepped flats. Alan's sculptures are located near two of the entrances, one plausibly suckling a babe in arms and the other believably a battling couple.

6) The Turning Point (by Alan Thornhill)
This bronze, another entwined couple, has been plonked outside Jubilee House - a Seifert and Partners office block currently occupied by the Metropolitan Police. It does however feel somewhat lost amongst the hubbub of Putney High Street, just around the corner from the Odeon Luxe. Surplus wealth is in evidence, as exemplified by a sourdough pizzeria and two neighbouring cocktail bars, but also cheaper chains like Burger King and Snappy Snaps. For history you want St Mary the Virgin, the church at the southern end of Putney Bridge, where in 1647 the New Model Army sat down with the Levellers to discuss the future political direction of the Commonwealth. These days it's more a social hub with cafe, and not a cheap one, but the interior's well worth a look if the doors are unlocked.

7) Load (by Alan Thornhill)
This is Alan's original sculpture, the hub of the trail, and resembles a crouching snog. So it's a surprise to find it in a scrappy location at the top of Putney Embankment outside a postmodern wedge which hosts the Thai Square restaurant. The lingering cones and worksite are because the Thames Tideway crew are still clearing up after building a connecting shaft 36m deep to divert the Putney Bridge Combined Sewer Overflow. It's already possible to walk out onto what's poshly described as 'foreshore' but is more a slabbed rectangle embedded with umpteen access covers.

Initially I thought it quite bland, with a single cylindrical-ish monument at one end, but a closer look revealed a smattering of additional artiness. A short poem climbs one side of the pillar, too brief to deliver its intended meaning. The railings are cast in bronze from oars. And a black line inscribed across the granite marks the precise starting line for the Boat Race, which bears off from the original stubby stone marker on what used to be the riverbank. Look out for all this on TV next Spring.

8) Horizontal Ambiguity (by Alan Thornhill)
That's an excellent title, Alan, because this is a flattish sculpture and I'm not sure what it represents. The head count wasn't right for the number of limbs, however hard I looked at it. You'll find it at the foot of Thames Place opposite the Duke's Head, close to numerous roadsigns warning that the Embankment is susceptible to tidal flooding so park carefully. To reach the final sculpture you then have to walk between a lengthy stretch of boathouses and a sloping concrete slipway. This is London's premier rowing hub, complete with chandlery and several public school outposts, so don't be surprised if you have to dodge wet bobs from Dulwich or Wimbledon carrying upturned quads back from the water.

9) Exodus (by Alan Thornhill)
The last sculpture resembles many of the previous forms (although this time with what appears to be a small body on the shoulders of a larger body). It's located bang in the middle of Leader's Gardens, a small public park, surrounded by what looks like a circle of young acers planted to celebrate the Coronation. Feel free to celebrate completion of the trail with a cuppa and a bacon bap from the chalet in the trees. It's called LooLoo's Cafe, but this turns out to be a poor choice of name because they've had to stick up two signs saying We Do *Not* Have a Toilet. And when you're done you should head off down Festing Road, casting a knowing glance at number 52 which you may have seen multiple times on BBC children's TV. That's because illustrator David McKee lived nextdoor and used it as the inspiration for Mr Benn's house on 'Festive Road', but that's an entirely different artistic adventure.

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