To Kingston upon Thames, not for Christmas shopping but to escape the deranged festive build-up of December with a riverside stroll. I'm taking the Barge Walk, a mixture of tow-paths, wharfs and muddy tracks along the river downstream from Hampton Court Bridge along the Thames Path.
A fingerpost informs me that my walk may be lacking in ambition: it's a surprisingly distant 29 miles downstream to Tower Bridge – though only 12 miles by road. If I choose to head the other way, it's all of 147 miles to the source of the Thames. It's not distance, though, but some snatched tranquillity within the boundaries of London that I'm after.
And there is a regal beginning to the walk. The river Thames is broad here, embarking on a gentle arc on its way towards the sea, and on my left is Hampton Court Palace. The view of the redbrick Tudor palace is allied to glimpses of the Baroque lines added by Sir Christopher Wren. The ochre walls accompany the start of this walk and there are further views of the gardens, yew trees, waterfalls and statues already wrapped up, ghostlike, for the winter.
I'm struck by just how busy the river is. Henry VIII appointed a keeper of cormorants, and the cormorants' distant descendants flap along the river before perching on willow trees, airing their seemingly greasy wings in a way that makes them look like coat hangers. A skein of geese flies overhead and a small flock of goldeneye ducks paddles by.
Humans keep busy on the water too, with coxed fours and eights working up a Sunday-morning sweat, along with fishermen, while the smell of wood-burning stoves can be traced back to the colourful canal boats along the northern side of the river.
The water quickly forks either side of Thames Ditton island, a curiosity that is worth visiting (though the suspension bridge to the island connects to the south bank of the Thames). The locals have described themselves as cut off from the rest of mankind in a miniature world.
Hawthorn and horse chestnuts trees now line the Thames, and rose hips are still hanging on. Some of the birds are more exotic than cormorants, and the sweet song of blackbirds is drowned out by the screeching of green ring-necked parakeets. They're an exotic spectacle, some way from their native Himalayas. An abundance of berries (hawthorn, among others) and less harsh winters have allowed them to flourish since they first appeared in the mid 19th century – tales that they are escapees from customs seizures at Heathrow airport appear to be apocryphal. I'm struck that for a mile I haven't seen a single car, even if this is the outer edge of the capital.
That soon changes as the A307 edges in on the eastern bank, but the noise is muffled by willow trees and the road again veers off, giving way to a waterside walk that now runs along both banks of the river. On the far side, paddle steamers are moored at the Turks Launch Pier, close to the fetching Grade II-listed Edwardian gazebo.
Passing an avenue of horse chestnut trees, I walk across Kingston Bridge, which dates to 1818, though has since been much widened to accommodate traffic.
Right ahead is the façade of the Bentall Centre, where a collection of chain shops is rescued from mediocrity by a superb 1930s frontage, a design classic of cream and brown stonework and high rectangular windows, that is said to have been inspired by Wren's handiwork down the river at Hampton Court. It's best admired from Wood Street, a short there-and-back again stroll from the bridge itself.
I drop down to the south bank of the Thames, passing a flurry of swans and threading my way through the throngs walking off Sunday lunch. It's a strange contrast: The Charter Quay development of shops and apartments is busy even on a winter Sunday afternoon, yet black-headed gulls gather in sizeable flocks and I pick out winter visitors such as redwings.
I bear left to follow the minuscule Hogsmill river, finally leaving the Thames. Just 100 yards away from the crowds, the river squeezes through the three arches of Clattern Bridge, a Grade I-listed affair that dates to the 12th century. Tucked away, almost out of sight under one arch, a heron is patiently waiting for its lunch to swim by.
Before finishing my walk there's one last curiosity to seek out, so I step up on to the High Street and follow Eden Street to the beginning of Old London Road. Back in 1989, some time before quirky street installations became a must-have for local authorities, David Mach put in place his "Out of Order" collection of 12 red telephone boxes. They tip one over another like dominoes, and are more or less the same size as the prototype mobile phones of the late 1980s that have made them almost redundant.
Start: Hampton Court Bridge
Finish: Kingston upon Thames railway station
Distance: 4 miles
The route starts at Hampton Court bridge and follows the north bank of the Thames to Kingston bridge, crosses it and heads for the Rose Theatre. Then it heads east up Eden Street to the start of the A308 and up to the railway station.
Hampton Court and Kingston upon Thames are served by South West Trains from London Waterloo (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).
Mark Rowe stayed at the Holiday Inn, Kingston (020 8786 6565; hikingston.co.uk), which has doubles from £79, including breakfast.
- More about:
- Christopher Wren
- Kingston Upon Thames
- Nuts And Seeds
- River Thames
- South Bank