Day 14 – Kew to Vauxhall (South Bank)

Today’s stretch was almost 12 miles, from Kew Bridge to Vauxhall Bridge, passing seven other bridges en route (Chiswick, Barnes, Hammersmith, Putney, Wandsworth, Battersea and Chelsea) filled with interesting asides and awe inspiring engineering projects. The section between Chiswick and Putney constitutes the route of the University Boat Race. After Putney, it becomes more the hectic, busy urban sprawl that is London.

A video of all photos of this stretch is here:

Taking the pathway down to the right of Kew Bridge from Kew Green, the path first passes Kew Pier, from where passengers can travel upstream to Hampton Court, and downstream to Westminster. After passing the pier there is a magnificent view of Strand on the Green over the river which I return to on Day 18. The path here is very rural as I reach the Grade II listed Kew Railway Bridge, unusually designed with Corinthian columns. Behind the bridge to the right, and rather obscured by the bridge itself is a small woodland nature reserve established to protect, apparently, the two-lipped door snail, or Thames door snail. The bridge makes an appearance in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, a 1964 serial from the BBC’s Doctor Who. The TARDIS materialises under the bridge and it is trapped when the bridge collapses (Wikipedia).

The first bridge of the day is Chiswick Bridge, constructed of Portland stone in 1933 the bridge which carries the A316 road between Chiswick on the north bank and Mortlake on the south. The Thames path goes under the bridge and joins a road – Thames Bank – past some attractive houses with well tended gardens. We are now in Mortlake.

Just over 100m downstream from the bridge is a stone milepost bearing the letters “UBR” – University Boat Race. On the other bank is a marker designating the end point. Established here in 1829, after moving from Henley, it runs for 4 miles 374 yards, usually on the last Saturday in March.

At the end of Thames Bank is the first pub of the day – The Ship. A very attractive building, next door to a less attractive brewery – The Stag Brewery, This is London’s largest brewery and was originally Watney’s, then Courage, but is now Budweiser. The path is a little dingy here. However, Stag Brewery was acquired by Reselton Properties which is now developing plans for a mixed-use scheme for the Stag Brewery site which proposes a range of uses across the site including residential, retail, office, community, recreational and educational, as well as many new active open and green public spaces. Following a consultation process, a proposal for the redevelopment of the site was submitted to the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames in February 2018 which were still under discussion in 2020.

As we pass the brewery complex the view across the river looks particularly attractive – Dukes Meadows – which we will pass on Day 18. The river bends left here toward the Grade II listed Barnes Railway Bridge, passing the second pub – the White Hart. We are now in Barnes. Passing the bridge brings us to The Terrace, an attractive parade of Georgian houses overlooking the river. Gustav Holst lived at No 10 between 1908 and 1913 and Ninette de Valois lived at No 14 between 1963 and 1982. There are two pubs, the rather attractive Watermans Arms, and The Bulls Head (website here) which is one of London’s internationally famous jazz venues. Barnes feels a little like a village with a centre around a pond. It has the dubious honour of being where Marc Bolan, of T. Rex died in a car crash in 1977.

As the Thames makes a sharp turn right, across the river is Chiswick Mall and on its right The Black Lion pub, which we pass on day 18. The striking view of Hammersmith Bridge now appears in the distance, as we pass the impressive independent St Paul’s School – one of the most elite boys’ schools in the country (website here). Set in 43 acres of grounds it was in 2001,

the leading boys’ school in the country academically, on the merit of its position in the national GCSE and A level examination performance tables combined with one of the highest Oxford and Cambridge acceptance rates of any secondary school or college.

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Founded in 1512 it moved from St Paul’s in 1884, and to its current site in 1968. It now has its first female High Master – Sally-Anne Huang – appointed in 2020. St Paul’s has nine staff members paid salaries exceeding £100,000 and the highest individual earner in any school, with one staff member earning between £330,000 – £339,000 in August 2020, who we can reasonably assume is the High Master. However, St Paul’s was investigated by the Metropolitan Police for historic crimes of paedophilia in Operation Winthorpe.

“A major independent report published in January 2020, revealed 80 complaints against 32 members of staff over a period of six decades, mainly from the 1960s to the 1990s. There were 28 recommendations on how current practice could be improved.”

Wikipedia

The Grade II* listed Hammersmith Bridge is quite simply stunning. a spectacular green suspension bridge, built by Joseph Bazalgette in 1887.

The original suspension bridge was designed by  William Tierney Clark (who also designed Marlow bridge we saw upriver) and completed around 1828 as a toll bridge – the toll being removed in 1880. The first bridge was bedevilled by safety concerns and in 1870 this was exacerbated when 11,000 people crammed on to watch the boat race. However in 1882 a boat collided with one of the pillars and its destiny was decided. “The current Hammersmith Bridge was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and rests on the same pier foundations constructed for Tierney Clark’s original structure. The new bridge was opened by the Prince of Wales on 11 June 1887” (Wikipedia).

The IRA attempted several times to blow up the bridge in 1939, 1996 and 2000 – the 1996 bomb being the largest Semtex bomb ever found in Britain. However, the current bridge has also had its structural difficulties being closed in 1997, 2014 and in 2019 after cracks were found in the pedestals, it was closed to all traffic, and had only recently opened for pedestrians in August 2021.

On the north bank just before the bridge are two pubs, The Rutland Arms, and The Blue Anchor, and perfectly situated bewtween, Auriol Kensington Rowing Club (which we pass again on Day 18). A little further on the path beyond the bridge, the path passes some flats and then the surprisingly huge Grade II listed Harrods Furniture Depository, built in 1894 to house furniture that was too big for the main store. The building is stunning, with cupolas at both ends, No longer owned by Harrods, this has now, of course, been turned into luxury apartments.

The obelisk just beyond Harrods is dedicated to Steve Fairbairn (1862–1938) who was the rowing coach of Jesus College Cambridge and established the Head of the River Race in 1925. We are now one mile from the start of the University Boat Race.

The path is now alongside the London Wetlands Centre, (website here) though it cannot be seen from the path itself. The centre first opened in 2000 and occupies more than 100 acres of land formerly occupied by several small reservoirs. These were converted into a wide range of wetland features and habitats before the centre opened in May 2000.https://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/london/

On the far side now is Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham Football Club, now having a new stand built.

As we pass Fulham, we join a quiet road, The Embankment, and go past numerous boat clubs with their own slipways. Many independent schools and established rowing clubs are situated here.

Soon Putney Bridge comes into view. Putney is the only bridge on the Thames with a church on each end. All Saints in Fulham (we pass on day 18) and St Mary’s Putney.

The first bridge here was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1729 replacing a ferry.

The story runs that in 1720 Sir Robert Walpole (the following year considered the first Prime Minister) was returning from seeing George I at Kingston on Thames and being in a hurry to get to the House of Commons rode together with his servant to Putney to take the ferry across to Fulham. The ferry boat was on the opposite side, however and the waterman, who was drinking in The Swan, ignored the calls of Sir Robert and his servant and they were obliged to take another route. Walpole vowed that a bridge would replace the ferry.

Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putney_Bridge

In 1795, Mary Wollstonecraft, an advocate of woman’s rights, threw herself off the bridge after her lover left her for another woman. She was saved by a passing boatman and went on to marry William Godwin and had two daughters, the youngest of whom went on to be Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft died 11 days after the birth of Mary on 10 September 1797. That first bridge was replaced with the present one in 1886.

In March 1953, British serial killer and necrophiliac John Christie was arrested on Putney Bridge. More recently, on 5 May 2017 a jogger on the bridge pushed a woman, knocking her into the pathway of an approaching bus. CCTV of the incident went viral.

In 1647, during the English Civil War, the St Mary’s was the site of the Putney Debates on the English constitution and was where soldiers and officers of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army met between 28th October and 9th November 1647. These discussions led to the principle of “one man one vote” and went on to influence the US Constitution. There is a small Lottery funded exhibition inside the church. It has been Grade II* listed since 1955. The church suffered a serious fire in 1982 but has been fabulously restored.

This historic event saw ordinary soldiers take on their generals to argue for greater democracy and provided a platform for ‘common people’ to make their voices heard. These debates, forced by the Levellers, paved the way for many of the civil liberties we value today. 

The Putney Debates 1647

All Saints on the other hand featured in the film The Omen, when the flagpole mysteriously fell impaling a priest.

After Putney Bridge the path passes the Boathouse Pub, and before reaching Fulham Railway Bridge, diverts away from the river at a sculpture by Alan Thornhill titled Motherfigure, turning right and then left along Deodar Road which has the only riverside houses in Putney. The author Edna O’Brien lived at 87, and Roy Plumley, creator of Desert Island Discs, lived at 91. Go under the blue railway bridge which carries the London Underground’s District Line and through two archways toward Wandsworth Gardens which opened in 1903, where it rejoins the riverside walk.

At the end of the park is Lighterman’s Walk where a number of barges are permanently moored. These have been on sale for around £1,750,000. The area to the right is being transformed with high rise apartments and a Riverside Quarter, and as you wend your way through (in order to crossed thre River Wandle) you pass Prospect Cottages. These might look cosy, but one was recently on the market for over £1 million

Ahead is a footbridge over the River Wandle – after which Wandsworth is named, across the small island in the middle and past a plaque put up by the Wandsworth Society in 1997 explaining the history of the site.once the path return’s to the river, it passes The Ship pub, a well known local pub. Opened in 1786 it all but closed in 1881, but went on to became Evening Standard Pub of the Year in 1981.

Beyond the Ship is Wandsworth Bridge, currently undergoing restoration work,

The present bridge, an unadorned steel cantilever bridge designed by Sir Thomas Peirson Frank, was opened in 1940. At the time of its opening it was painted in dull shades of blue as camouflage against air raids, a colour scheme it retains. Although Wandsworth Bridge is one of the busiest bridges in London, carrying over 50,000 vehicles daily, it has been described as “probably the least noteworthy bridge in London”.

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Carrying along the riverside terrace we see a host of new housing developments. Street names off to the right show signs of the old connection to the spice trade as we arrive at Plantation Wharf before reaching the Grade II* listed Battersea Railway Bridge which opened in 1863, originally known as Cremorne Bridge. The path is particularity nice here as it passes around the churchyard of St Mary’s Battersea (Website here), also called Battersea Old Church. Built in 1775, William Blake, the artist, and the author of Jerusalem, was married at St Mary’s in 1782 to Catherine Boucher, J. M. W. Turner was a regular painter from the grounds of the church. His 1796 drawing Battersea Church and Bridge with Chelsea Beyond gives a clear view of the present church shortly after its opening. Both Turner and Blake are remembered in stained glass windows in the church. Turner would apparently row over from Cheyne Walk on the north bank and sit in the church vestry and sketch the Thames. The chair in which he sat is still there.

Rather poignantly, just beyond St Marys is a plaque to Sir Roy Watts, who was the Chair of Thames Water, and whose body was found in the Thames on 27 April 1993.

 [Sir Roy] had been diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was last seen by his chauffeur who left him outside his luxury riverside flat in Battersea, south-west London, on Tuesday of last week.”

London Remembers

Shortly after is Battersea Bridge, designed (as was Hammersmith Bridge) by Joseph Balzagette. Built in 1885 it is stunning with gold spandrels on each arch. The first Battersea Bridge was a toll bridge commissioned to replace a ferry and was initially opened in November 1771. The bridge was dangerous both to its users and shipping, and boats often collided with it. However the bridge was the subject of paintings by many artists such as J. M. W. Turner, and James McNeill Whistler, a statue of whom is to be found on the north bank and which I pass on day 17. Such paintings include Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, and his controversial Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket.

In 1879 the bridge was taken into public ownership, and in 1885 demolished and replaced with the existing bridge, designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette. It is the narrowest road bridge over the Thames in London, and one of the least busy . The location on a bend in the river makes the bridge a hazard to shipping, and it has been closed many times due to collisions.

The bridge briefly attained national prominence on 20 January 2006 when a 19-foot (5.8 m) long female bottlenose whale became stranded at Battersea Bridge. A rescue operation was mounted, and large crowds flocked to the bridge. The whale was successfully transferred to a barge, but died while being transported back to the sea to be released. A year after the whale’s death, its skeleton was put on public display in the offices of The Guardian newspaper.[46] Today it resides at the Natural History Museum.[47]

Wikipedia

To get past Battersea Bridge, go up the steps, cross Battersea Bridge Road, and down the steps past a statue of two swans by Catherine Marr-Johnson (1984).

Very close the Battersea Bridge is Albert Bridge.

Designed and built by Rowland Mason Ordish in 1873, it proved to be structurally unsound, so between 1884 and 1887 Sir Joseph Bazalgette incorporated some of the design elements of a suspension bridge. In 1973 the Greater London Council added two concrete piers, which transformed the central span into a simple beam bridge. As a result, today the bridge is an unusual hybrid of three different design styles. It is an English Heritage Grade II* listed building. Incorporating a roadway only 27 feet (8.2 m) wide, and with serious structural weaknesses, the bridge was ill-equipped to cope with the advent of the motor vehicle during the 20th century. Despite many calls for its demolition or pedestrianisation, Albert Bridge has remained open to vehicles throughout its existence, other than for brief spells during repairs. It is one of only two Thames road bridges in central London never to have been replaced (the other is Tower Bridge). The strengthening work carried out by Bazalgette and the Greater London Council did not prevent further deterioration of the bridge’s structure. A series of increasingly strict traffic control measures have been introduced to limit its use and thus prolong its life. As a result, it is the second-least busy Thames road bridge in London.

Wikipedia

There was a a call to demolish the bridge in the 1950s and a campaign led by John Betjeman successfully led to its conservation by building two cylindrical piers under the middle span. The problems with the bridge are still evident in the sign telling troops to break step. In 1992, Albert Bridge was painted in an unusual colour scheme designed to make it more conspicuous in poor visibility, and avoid being damaged by ships. At night it is illuminated by 4,000 LEDs adding to its status as a landmark.

The stretch after Albert Bridge goes along the north edge of the 200 acre Grade II listed Battersea Park. Built on reclaimed marsh land, it was here in 1864 that the first football game was played under the new rules of the recently formed Football Association.

The park hosted the first exhibition football game played under the rules of the recently formed Football Association on 9 January 1864. The members of the teams were chosen by the President of the FA (A. Pember) and the Secretary (E.C. Morley) and included many well-known footballers of the day. From the 1860s, the park was home to the leading amateur football team Wanderers F.C., winners of the first FA Cup, in 1872. The Park also hosted the historic London v Sheffield football match in March 1866.

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Battersea Park consists of a boating lake, small zoo, and a Peace Pagoda built in 1985 by the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order to commemorate trhe dropping of trhe HG Bomb on Hiroshima. A similar Peace Pagoda was built by them in Milton Keynes. A Buddhist monk looks after the pagoda on a daily basis.

The first asparagus grown in Britain was grown here.

At the end of the park is Chelsea Bridge.

The first Chelsea Bridge was proposed in the 1840s as part of a major development of marshlands on the south bank of the Thames into the new Battersea Park. It was a suspension bridge intended to provide convenient access from the densely populated north bank to the new park. Tolls were charged initially in an effort to recoup the cost of the bridge. It was acquired by the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1877, and the tolls were abolished in 1879. The bridge was narrow and structurally unsound. In 1926 it was proposed that the old bridge be rebuilt or replaced, due to the increased volume of users from population growth, and the introduction of the automobile. It was demolished during 1934–1937, and replaced by the current structure, which opened in 1937. The new bridge was the first self-anchored suspension bridge in Britain, and was built entirely with materials sourced from within the British Empire. During the early 1950s it became popular with motorcyclists, who staged regular races across the bridge. One such meeting in 1970 erupted into violence, resulting in the death of one man and the imprisonment of 20 others. Chelsea Bridge is floodlit from below during the hours of darkness, when the towers and cables are illuminated by 936 feet (285 m) of light-emitting diodes. In 2008 it achieved Grade II listed status. In 2004 a footbridge was opened beneath the southern span, carrying the Thames Path under the bridge.

Wikipedia

On reaching Chelsea Bridge, the path takes a necessary detour around the massive development of the decommissioned Battersea Power Station complex. The building is one of the world’s largest brick built buildings. The route here is confusing and constantly changing as work of the development continues. Sign-posting is virtually non-existent; I asked a builder.

The building comprises two power stations, built in two stages, in a single building. Battersea A Power Station was built between 1929 and 1935 and Battersea B Power Station, to its east, between 1937 and 1941, when construction was paused owing to the worsening effects of the Second World War. The building was completed in 1955. “Battersea B” was built to a design nearly identical to that of “Battersea A”, creating the iconic four-chimney structure.”Battersea A” was decommissioned in 1975. In 1980 the whole structure was given Grade II listed status; “Battersea B” shut three years later. In 2007 its listed status was upgraded to Grade II*. The building remained empty until 2014, during which time it fell into near ruin. Various plans were made to make use of the building, but none were successful. In 2012, administrators Ernst & Young entered into an exclusivity agreement with Malaysia’s SP Setia and Sime Darby to develop the site to include 253 residential units, bars, restaurants, office space (occupied by Apple and No. 18 business members club), shops and entertainment spaces. The plans were approved and redevelopment commenced a few years later. As of 2021, the building and the overall 42-acre site development is owned by a consortium of Malaysian investors.

Wikipedia

On 20th April 1964, the BBC was due to launch their new channel BBC2. However a fire in Battersea Power station caused a blackout across London and the launch had to be delayed for a day.

Once you get back to the river, turning off Nine Elms Lane, you come to a new riverside parade of apartments, offices and restaurants, a popular place to wander. In the distance is the Grade II* listed Vauxhall Bridge, London’s oldest bridge carrying the A202. Built in 1816 and originally called Regent Bridge, but was replaced with the present one in 1906.

In 1993, a remnant of the earliest known bridge-like structure in London was discovered alongside Vauxhall Bridge, when shifting currents washed away a layer of silt which had covered it. Dating to between 1550 BC and 300 BC, it consists of two rows of wooden posts, which it is believed would originally have carried a deck of some kind. It is believed that it did not cross the whole river, but instead connected the south bank to an island, possibly used for burial of the dead. As no mention of this or similar structures in the area is made in Julius Caesar’s account of crossing the Thames nor by any other Roman author, it is presumed that the structure had been dismantled or destroyed prior to Caesar’s expedition to Britain in 55 BC. The posts are still visible at extreme low tides

Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vauxhall_Bridge

The Vauxhall side of the Bridge is perhaps famous for the iconic SIS Building hosting MI6 – the offices of the UK Secret Services, Famously blown up in the Bond film Skyfall. The bridge offers panoramic views of the next stage of the path – Westminster.

I stayed a short distance from Vauxhall Station, in the Best Western Vauxhall, just past the Tia Maria Brazilian Bar – good for food and live music.