To walk along the Thames between Hampton and Kew is to forget that you are in one of the ten most populous cities in the world. Here the river is not the dramatic, steel-grey ex-panse that flows past the State buildings and skyscrapers of central London.

Instead, it is a country waterway, meandering past parkland, boatbuilders and

ferrymen. Sleepy pubs hide behind willow trees, moorhens dabble in the mud, anglers tend their rods as the tides ebb and flow.

Rowers stroke lazily past, and walkers slow to a stroll. Only the sight of jets making their approach to Heathrow Airport shatter the rural illusion.

It is this special quality of peace that Kim Wilkie hopes to preserve through his management strategy. Working in Richmond, he believes this stretch of the Thames acts as an invigorating force refreshing all who come into contact with it.

'I get very angry when people go on about what a wonderful city Paris is. London has more to offer and certainly along this area the river is much less uniform. We are lucky with the way it has developed and should preserve it for future generations.

Unlike the higher, more urban reaches of the Thames, this 11-mile section has been largely preserved from development by successive monarchs who secured large tracts of land for recreation, or removed their courts to its banks to escape the city's foul pollution.

Hampton Court, Richmond Park and Kew Palace and Gardens are all products of this legacy, as are the lesser-known Syon House, Marble Hill and Ham House. The stretch of river also inspired landscape gardeners including Capability Brown, writers such as Pope, Virginia Woolf and Noel Coward, and musicians including Holst and Purcell.

Many had residences near the river where the effects of industry could not always be ignored - obnoxious tannery smells wafted into Pope's grotto, while some of Horace Walpole's stained-glass windows were blown out by an explosion at a nearby gunpowder mill.

The view of the Thames curving away from Richmond Hill inspired Queen Caroline to create the Serpentine in Hyde Park and has been recorded by countless artists, notably Turner, who painted and sketched many other river scenes while living in Brentford, Isleworth and Twickenham.

With a neat irony, these one-time playgrounds of the elite are now among the most open and accessible parts of the capital, offering escape from the maelstrom of modern city living.