The opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s The River’s Tale set out unambiguously the poet’s love of the Thames: Twenty bridges from Tower to Kew Wanted to know what the river knew, Twenty bridges or twenty-two, For they were young, and the Thames was old And this is the tale that the river told.
More than a century later and it is impossible not to concur. The River Thames is London’s liquid lifeblood; the artery that snakes its way through the city and bisects it into a north-south divide has forever quietly served the capital, despite its own fluctuating fortunes. In the Middle Ages, the Thames brought fresh water and fish; by the 19th century, it was little more than an open sewer. Today, the vibrant embankments and glass-topped clippers allow tourists to gain a transformative perspective on proceedings. And for visitors to London, it is well worth exploring beyond the stretch from Embankment to Borough, which takes in the London Eye through to the Tate Modern. The Thames, like the city it pumps through, harbours a wealth of historic treasures. For an alternative view of the river, there is no better place to start than in the southwest of the city. Eel Pie Island in the Borough of Richmond is an intriguing place to kick off explorations – and for fans of rock’n’roll, an area worthy of pilgrimage. For a tiny landmass, it is curiously big on legend.
The 19th-century Eel Pie Island Hotel stood on this site, famous for its ballroom dancing after the First World War, and later, in the 1950s, for hosting famous jazz acts, including The Grove Jazz Band.
But it wasn’t until the 1960s that future rock superstars moved in on the leafy island: The Rolling Stones and The Who were among a plethora of legends to rock the hotel’s dancehall before it burnt down in 1971 in mysterious circumstances. Today the island is privately owned and has around 120 residents, but visitors can gain access by a main pathway from the bridge. On certain dates in June and December, Eel Pie Island Art Studios – once owned by Pete Townshend of The Who – is open to the public. For the traditionalist who prefers their history centuries rather than decades old, this stretch of the river is more than equal to the task. Less than 20 minutes’ walk away sits the resplendent Marble Hill House, all gleaming white Palladian lines and perfect proportions.
Set in 66 acres, it was built by Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, to escape from court life and entertain a circle of friends including Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift.
Howard, mistress of King George II and part of a formidably intellectual set, commissioned architect Roger Morris, who modelled the design on Palladio’s Villa Cornaro near Venice. In turn, modish Georgian society fashioned their villas after this new standard ideal. To wind the clock back yet a further century, river explorers should hop on the long-serving Hammerton’s Ferry that links Marble Hill House on the northern bank with Ham House on the southern.
Built in 1610, the National Trust makes claims for Ham House as “unique in Europe as the most complete survival of 17th century fashion and power”, and its red bricks make it an exemplar of the Stuart mansion. Built by Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to King James I, it later became the home of William Murray, the Earl of Dysart, and his daughter, the Duchess of Lauderdale. Bestowed upon him by his childhood friend King Charles I, the gift was at least in some part given in gratitude for Murray’s role as a literal whipping boy for the then-prince in their youth.
Barely sooner than the unfortunate Murray had taken up residence at HamHouse than Civil War had broken out, inwhich he loyally fought on the king’s behalf against Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians.
The reason, however, that the house did not fall victim to the war was that his daughter cleverly maintained good relations with Cromwell while sending secret missives to the exiled Charles II (who would later return and take vengeance on those who had fought, defeated and ultimately beheaded his father).
It was Elizabeth who continued to live in the house with her husband, JohnMaitland, Duke of Lauderdale, and made it the exquisite repository of treasures it is today. A 10-minute walk along river delivers the ambler to Petersham, where today’s fashionable set know only one pitstop: Petersham Nurseries. Cars jostle for spaces along the picturesque River Lane, but the canny visitor arrives on foot to the rustic sheds that house some of the hottest tables in town. The resident Boglione family owns the nursery, which, for the uninitiated, is considerably more than just a place to buy plants. Grab a table for a light lunch or slice of cake; for a more lavish repast, be sure to book ahead – the restaurant here has, at various times, held Michelin stars. Wellies and dogs are as acceptable at this most casual of hotspots as towering heels.
For more horticultural and culinary views, the dazzling and unparalleled Kew Gardens is less than 15 minutes’ drive away.
Established in 1759, it houses some 30,000 species of living plant, while its herbarium contains more than seven million preserved specimens. While it is a place of serious academic study and a world leader in botanic research, it is an ever-popular public park, where picnicking is the only sensible way to drink in the beauty of the surrounds. Visit its glasshouses, the most famous of which is the Palm House, a curvaceous structure built in the 1840s, where the palm species thrive.
If you are still not sated with parkland and the historic houses that preside over them, then hop in a taxi to Brentford, where a long drive – suggestive of the grand entrances to estates depicted in Jane Austen’s novels – sweeps visitors up to Syon House. The current London home of the Duke of Northumberland, it was built in the 16th century by the 1st Duke of Somerset, when it was no stranger to famous – and infamous – guests. King Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, spent her long imprisonment at Syon before being executed at the Tower of London in 1542.
Since 1594, however, it has been in the hands of the Earls of Northumberland – generations of whom have made their own improvements, not least of which, in the 18th century, was the landscaping of the gardens by the inimitable Lancelot “Capability” Brown and work to the interior of the house by Robert Adam.
Do ensure to visit the Great Conservatory in the gardens, and, if inclined to linger, stay at the Hilton London Syon Park in the grounds.
For a final stop on this south-western river odyssey, head for Putney Bridge, where a short walk from the tube will find you at Bishop’s Park, so called because it was where the bishops of London resided in palaces, in order to have easy access to the courts, but enabling them some distance from the thick of the city.
It is here that you’ll find the grand, Grade I listed Fulham Palace, which has an atmosphere that’s half Oxbridge college, half monastic retreat, and complete with a moat bridge, a walled garden and a plethora of nooks and crannies in which to get lost.
Unsurprisingly, it’s popular with wedding receptions and photo shoots, thanks to its stunning grounds, which include a botanic garden. Kipling’s poem speaks as much to us today as it would have done to an Edwardian audience; there is, after all, an immutable quality to the Thames and its flowing majesty that continues to enrapture us.