Notes from West London

A walk along the river

Here in West London there is a pleasant walk you can take along the river, mostly avoiding road traffic. It includes Hammersmith Bridge, the towpath on the south side of the river, Barnes High Street, Barnes railway bridge, Dukes Meadows on the north side, Chiswick Mall, The Mall Hammersmith and the traffic-free route through Furnival Gardens and back to Hammersmith Bridge. You can join the route anywhere along this four-and-a-quarter-mile stretch. Hammersmith Bridge is where you will encounter most of the road traffic, though there have been times in the last 20 years when it has only been open to pedestrians.

It’s a route that I first followed over 40 years ago, at school, and walked or ran it many times during the 1970s. The last time my wife and I took it was over 15 years ago, before we were married, and today we walked it with our children (aged 9 and 11) for the first time. We joined the route at the end of Black Lion Lane Hammersmith, beside the Black Lion pub, and our walk there and back took the total distance travelled to well over 5 miles (8 kilometres). I have spent my entire life within a mile of this part of the Thames but even so the last time I completed this walk the Twin Towers were still standing and William Hague was leader of the Tory Party.

Starting your route at the Black Lion pub, as we did, and heading east towards Hammersmith Bridge, you pass four further pubs before you reach the bridge (The Old Ship, The Dove – children not welcome, ever, The Rutland and The Blue Anchor). Once you cross the bridge and land up on the Barnes side, you will not pass another pub or shop for nearly two miles if you take the towpath. The next buildings and cars that you see on this side of the river are as you approach Barnes High Street. The river on this stretch bends dramatically so by the time you emerge from this sometimes-overgrown path you are facing a different direction from where you began. The ground along the towpath is smoother than it was in the 1970s, less muddy too, but there are more cyclists and dogs to contend with than there were back then.

When you reach the High Street you pass your sixth pub on the journey, The Bull’s Head, famous for its jazz concerts and dozens of different whiskeys. There used to be another pub beside it, the Waterman’s Arms, which has more recently been a Strada restaurant, and it’s now closed down.

We broke our journey at this point, stopping at the Sun Inn by Barnes Pond. This meant taking a detour of a hundred yards or so away from the river. The last time we stopped for a drink in this neck of the woods we went to the Coach and Horses, halfway between the pond and the High Street (so these were the seventh and eighth pubs on our route). There’s a medical centre near the pond which hosts a Farmers Market on Saturday afternoons. You might see Stanely Tucci there some weekends.

As you continue along Barnes High Street you pass a house with a Blue Plaque, showing you that Gustav Holst (composer of “The Planets” Suite) lived here a hundred years ago. I hummed a little bit of his composition for Jupiter as we approached it; I only know the tune because Manfred Mann’s Earth Band used it in their1973 hit “Joybringer”. My wife sang “I vow to thee my country”, which also takes its tune from “The Planets” Suite. I had forgotten that.

You cross Barnes Railway Bridge to get back to the north side of the river, and if you look to the east you can see older features from the London skyline – Trellick Tower, Charing Cross Hospital, The Ark and the Empress State. From here there’s no sign of the Shard or any of the newer towers that have changed the view of The City. The stairs taking you down on the north side have metal runners to enable you to wheel, rather than carry, a bicycle up or down: they weren’t there last time we took this route.

On the north side (Chiswick) you have the bandstands and recreation grounds of Dukes Meadows. Although the children had walked about four miles by this stage they ran and played at the playground for over 40 minutes. There’s a zip-wire (not as good as the last one we saw, in Grimsby), tubular slide, big swings, and one of those rope structures for climbing – a rocket, or a witch’s hat – that seemed so much higher last time they played here. But that was over two years ago; they have grown and the rope structure is still the same size.

The next section of your journey is more pleasant than it was in the 1970s. Back then your route took you away from the river for a few hundred yards, in between Lep (warehouses and a packaging depot as I recall) and the wall running alongside the cemetery of St Nicholas Church. On a Sunday the place was deserted, the silence only punctuated by loud barking from the Alsatian dogs guarding Lep. They were the scariest dogs that I can recall. I would wonder if their chains were really strong enough to hold them back. Now there is a private housing development and a riverside walk. There was a restaurant and bar called Pissarro’s on the riverfront too, but that has closed since we last passed this way. The riverside walk ends at Chiswick Mall (which I have been reading about recently as I work my way through Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”). From here there’s the odd car, big old houses like Said House with its rounded front window, Chiswick Eyot and then a stretch of The Mall (where Chiswick becomes Hammersmith) where you can no longer see the river. When you arrive at the Black Lion pub the river is in view again.

We stopped at the Black Lion for a toilet break. I still believe that you have to buy a drink if you use the facilities in a pub or restaurant, so had a pint of London Pride that I didn’t need and realized that the last time that we had been to this pub – over four years ago – was for the wedding reception of some friends. The wife, Nicole, died last July. We think about her every day. There’s also a memorial to Harry, the Boatman from my old school. A few times, on a Sunday, when my daughter was still in nappies, I walked this way to get to her to sleep in her pushchair. It would be before or after lunch, depending on her sleeping patterns. I’d bring the Sunday paper (that’s how long ago it was – we haven’t bought Sunday papers for many years) and Harry would say hello and tell me she was gorgeous, and joke that if she was having trouble sleeping she could have a drop of what I was having.

The walk stirred up other memories, but having typed a thousand words already I will finish up with recollections of how far we could walk when I was a child. Aged 9 I did a sponsored walk around this same route, all four-and-a-quarter miles of it. I completed the circuit four times, a total of 17 miles. (I told the story and we did the maths while sat in the Sun Inn in Barnes this afternoon.) The following year, aged 10, I did it six times, a total of 25½ miles. I also had to walk at least another mile, to get to bus-stops and the buses taking me to and from school, so the distance walked that day was longer than a marathon. And when I got home that evening I played football in the garden for an hour, as usual. No blisters, nothing ached, the sun was shining.

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