A late summer morning was the perfect time for a ramble along one of the most beautiful sections of the Thames, from Richmond to Teddington. We started from the station, with its decorative platforms, but quickly left the busy high street for the historic Richmond Green, once the site of medieval jousting tournaments and described by Nicholas Pevsner as "one of the most beautiful urban greens surviving anywhere in England".
It covers roughly 12 acres, and behind its fringe of majestic trees are period townhouses and historic buildings, including the Richmond Theatre, which dates from Queen Victoria's reign. The land between the Green and the river was once the site of a royal palace built by Henry VII. This superseded an earlier palace, known as Sheen, but the king named it after his North Yorkshire earldom, Richmond. Later it became a favourite retreat for Henry VIII and then Elizabeth I, who died there.
Little remains of its glory days, apart from this archway and some brickwork, but with a little imagination you could conjure up the image of royal barges, resplendent in red and gold, bringing the rulers from the noise and stink of central London to the rural tranquillity of the riverside. (In fact, back in 2012, such a barge, the Gloriana, was actually built in Richmond to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I was lucky enough to spot her there (below) before she took part in the river pageant.)
Richmond's popularity with the gentry is reflected in the many elegant villas that still line this stretch of the river. As we emerged from the palace grounds and made our way down to the water’s edge via Old Palace Lane, we had a glimpse of Asgill House, built in Palladian style as a summer and weekend retreat for Sir Charles Asgill, Lord Mayor of London in 1761 – 62.
The meandering path took us south along the river, passing under the elegant Richmond Bridge, built in the 1770s to replace the ferry crossing that had been there for centuries.
Recently I discovered that a distant ancestor, William Hill Sargeant, was one of the last apprentices to work on that ferry. He was bound in 1766 to William Price of the Thames Watermen and Lightermen and later captained ships in the breakaway American colonies, so it must have been good training.
Today there are several restaurants along this stretch of the river. One, Gaucho, is sheltered by a huge London Plane tree said to be the largest in the capital and thought to be more than 200 years old.
The Thames remains a hugely popular area for boating. It's amazing to see how many different kinds of vessels are moored here or just passing through.
At one point we came across the entrance to a tunnel beside the path. Intrigued, we followed it inland and immediately found ourselves among the colourful flower beds of Terrace Gardens (above). The area is a former quarry, but in the 18th century it became part of bordering estates, and was opened as a public park in 1887. A statue of a river god presides over it.
Overlooking us from a commanding position on Richmond Hill was the Star and Garter, once a home for injured servicemen, and now converted into luxury apartments. Further on, we were surprised at how rural the scenery had become, with cattle grazing peacefully on the Petersham meadows.
At this point, the opposite bank of the river has several notable villas, the first of which is Marble Hill House built in Palladian style between 1724 and 1729 for Henrietta Howard, mistress of King George II (below).
Next, hidden by trees, is Orleans House Gallery, the remaining part of another Palladian villa, which was built in 1710 but fell into disrepair and was mostly demolished in 1926. Later restoration work saved the baroque Octagon Room, which now displays many art works that reflect the area’s history. A third stately home, York House (below), was built in the 1630s and took its name not from a duke, but from the Yorke family, who owned farming land in the area. It currently serves as the town hall for Richmond on Thames.
By now we had reached Twickenham, and beside the Thames Path was Eel Pie Island, once accessible only by boat, but now with a single slender footbridge. It’s supposedly named after the pastries sold there when eels were plentiful in the surrounding water. Famous names to have performed in the island’s hotel include The Rolling Stones, The Who, David Bowie, the Kinks and Pink Floyd.
Continuing along the path, we stopped briefly to admire Teddington Lock (above), which is in fact a complex of a weir and three locks – big, middle-sized and small, so as to cater for everything from barges to skiffs. It was first constructed in 1810, but later rebuilt and enlarged.
Nearby is the Teddington Obelisk, which marks the Thames’s usual tidal limit. By now we’d covered around four miles, and were ready for lunch. We stopped at the riverside pub, The Anglers, and after a leisurely meal headed home via Teddington High St and the railway station. Our last glimpse of the Thames included, fittingly, an angler enjoying the sunshine.