The top of Richmond Hill, where J M W Turner painted the terrace overlooking a bend in the river, is now a favourite spot for couples to pose for wedding pictures, and riverside meadows where ladies of the court once cavorted as shepherdesses are now rugby pitches and a golf course.
But large parts of the river bank are overgrown by scrub willow, horse chestnut and sycamore, masking important landmarks. So a strategy is being developed to make the Thames more available to the public while conserving it for wildlife.
An old stone obelisk marking a forgotten terrestrial meridian stands beside the river at Kew. In the 18th century, before time and longitude was standardised by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, scholars observed this stone and the movement of stars from Kew Observatory nearby. They made their calculations and set the time for the Horse Guards and Parliament, but now the stone is obscured by scrubwood and can only be seen by by walking along the towpath within a few yards of it.
About a hundred of these sight- lines and vistas have been identified forming a network along the Thames from Hampton to Kew. They link the sites of the three ancient Royal palaces of Hampton Court, Richmond and Kew, with places such as Syon House, Ham House, and the villas of Marble Hill and Strawberry Hill. Avenues of trees were planted to emphasise these views by the owners of the houses and palaces. The views, many of which have been lost, will now be opened out and some of the avenues of trees replanted according to a plan developed by the Royal Fine Art Commission, the Countryside Commission and English Heritage.
Kim Wilkie, the landscape architect in charge of the project, said: 'In the 18th century the Thames was effectively the M4 out of London. Finely decked-out barges swept up and down with the tide taking aristocratic families to their villas and back to London. The Thames west of London is a unique landscape of villas and palaces linked by outstanding views which are were dramatised by avenues of trees.'
At Hampton, for example, David Garrick, the playwright, had a villa by the river with gardens designed by Capability Brown in which there stood a temple to Shakespeare. Not far away on an island in the Thames called Platt's Eyot is the Thorneycroft boatyard which built torpedo boats in two world wars. The yard is now sufficiently mellow in appearance to be considered part of the picturesque confusion rather than an industrial eyesore.
'We are not wanting to put the landscape back to the 18th century,' Mr Wilkie said . 'I like the irony that these meadows which were the playground of aristocrats are now being used by anybody who wants to come here. Our plan is to persaude the boroughs who own much of the land to co-operate in a management plan which will make the best use of this resource for the future.'
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