Thursday 24 June 2010
‘A picturesque scene it made, too, with Wandsworth dairy farms visible on the far bank; cows roaming the yellowed fields between the cottages, and a church spire rising in the distance.’
This 1849 description of the Thames comes from Matthew Kneale’s novel Sweet Thames . It’s quite surprising to think of Wandsworth being so pastoral just 160 years ago. Surely Victorian London was all teeming slums, smelly sewers and the poor dying in their hundreds of cholera. I’m in Wandsworth to join some friends who are walking the Thames Path. This is the same lot who knocked off the London Loop last year. They’re either obsessive completists or David Sharp fans (maybe both). I head down to the river from Wandsworth Town station through the pedestrian underpass where several scenes for A Clockwork Orange were filmed. It’s 7.30 in the evening, bright and sticky because the sun has still got plenty of needle in it and the landscape isn’t anywhere near as threatening as that portrayed in the film. The dairy farms, roaming cows and cottages are long gone, replaced by block upon block of luxury riverside apartments.
It’s a fairly short stroll tonight – about 6 km down to Vauxhall. And after starting off the path mostly hugs the river. We pass the London Heliport and are soon approaching St Mary’s Battersea. A striking Grade 1 Georgian building in a spectacular location on the banks of the river. William Blake was married here, Joseph Turner painted here and Benedict Arnold is buried here in the crypt. Then it’s through Battersea Park past the Peace Pagoda. The Duke of Wellington fought his famous duel with the Earl of Winchilsea over Catholic Emancipation in the park (or Battersea Fields as it was then) in 1829. It was reported at the time: ‘The Duke of Wellington and Lord Winchilsea met at the appointed place. The parties having taken their ground, Lord Winchilsea received the Duke of Wellington’s fire [apparently not aimed at him] and fired in the air. After some discussion the accompanying memorandum was accepted as a satisfactory reparation to the Duke of Wellington.’
Once we leave the park we reach a stretch of the path I must have travelled down over a thousand times. When I used to work at the Ramblers I used to jog most lunch times down to Battersea Park and back. That’s almost 10 years of the Battersea Dogs Home, Battersea Power Station, Tideway Walk and crossing Vauxhall and Chelsea bridges. The major change in the last year is work on the new American Embassy. It is to be built on Nine Elms Lane on the site of the old (now demolished) HMSO offices. Returning to the riverside we see a cormorant perched on a buoy spreading its wings to catch the dying rays of the sun. They’ve been back on the Thames for the last 10 years or so – a daily sight swooping low over the water and catching eels. In fact these days the river is a twitcher’s paradise. It reminds me of the RSPB’s excellent Letter to the Future campaign currently running – please give it a look and then sign the letter.
We finish most appropriately at the Riverside pub in Vauxhall. We started by going through a St Georges Homes riverside development and we end in a pub in a St Georges Homes riverside development. The 3 pints of Youngs London Gold was very welcome and provided a link to our start point. From 1832 to 2006 Youngs had been brewing their famous London beers at the Ram Brewery just down the river in Wandsworth. All our walking was done on the south bank this evening – I’m sure my friends will only feel they have completed the Thames Path when they walk both sides of the river. Visitors to Tower Bridge will have the chance to travel the full 215 miles of the River Thames in just 200 feet when they visit the new photographic exhibition River Thames: Source to Sea this summer.