Thursday, 29 December 2011

Tales of Everyday Madness: Why Noone Walks Along The Thames

At 4pm on the 14th May 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition set out from Camp Dubois, into the mysterious interior of the North American continent.  The previous year, Thomas Jefferson had purchased the gigantic Louisiana territory from Napoleon for tuppence ha’penny and was keen to see what plants, animals and mineral wealth lay in this new land.  Like the adventurers who had gone before them, Lewis and Clark navigated their way using rivers; nature’s greatest landmarks and reference points for cartographers.

This Christmas holiday, I wanted to walk from my parents’ house in Richmond to Central London.  Both districts are on the Thames and so, like the explorers of yore, it made sense to navigate using this most obvious of guides.  Starting on the south bank in Richmond, I trekked first along paved paths which gave way to concrete and eventually compacted mud.  The next few miles were strangely rural, though I was deep in the city.  Might this have been a similar experience to Lewis and Clark as they travelled to the outer edges of the diminutive United States, following well worn fur trackers’ trails? 

Between Hammersmith and Putney Bridges

I took the photograph above between Hammersmith and Putney bridges and the old man in the pictured approached me after I took it.  I was a little worried that he might be a native of this riparian region, angry that I had imprisoned his soul in the CCD of my mobile phone, but it was soon clear that he didn’t consider himself autochthonous.

"If you like photography, then you'll want to take a picture of this." He pointed to a tree-stump a little way down the path.  My confusion must have been evident so he continued "Look, let me show you."  I obliged and began following him.  "Where are you from?" he asked.

"London," I replied, "though I live in Bristol now.  I'm visiting family for Christmas."  

"It's a shame more people from here don’t talk.  They’re too busy to listen to me.  I’m from Montenegro,  and even though I have lived here 50 years I still prefer outsiders.”

We arrived at the tree-stump and watched a pair of electric-green parakeets with ruby-red beaks flitting in and about its rotten knot-holes and dead branches, squawking loudly and ruffling their feathers.  These striking birds are relatively new to London, released from captivity some time in the 90’s, they have prospered far from their homeland in the Himalayan foothills.

“There used to be three,” the old man continued, “but I think one must have died.”

We exchanged good wishes for the new year and I thanked him for his time before setting my sights on Putney Bridge.  

Soon the path transitioned from mud and gravel to paving.

I followed the signs, crossing the road at the bridge and ended up at the bottom of some steps on the Thames’ foreshore.  I spotted a slip-way a little further up and, so, brimming with too much confidence, I decided to walk to it.  No sooner had I had that thought than I slipped in mud and landed arse-first in river-crud.  Struggling to my feet, I walked back up to the bridge and thought about what I should do next.  I couldn’t get public transport home, coated in sludge, but neither could I walk home, for that would be to admit defeat.  I decided to press on and let my clothes dry out - Lewis and Clark wouldn’t have let a minor mishap stop them!

Putney Bridge and the accursed steps which had caused me to slip so

The path diverted from the Thames along a rather grand suburban street whose houses hoarded all views of the river.

Emerging into Wandsworth Park, this sight was restored, a stunning vista bordered by trees.

However, as if by some Karmic twist, Wandsworth is also home to one of the ugliest points on the river - The Smuggler’s Way Solid Waste Transfer Station.  Entry to this facility, the gateway to this hell, is grudgingly given with terms and conditions outlined in large, functional letters.  

Around the corner an almost complete au courant apartment block sits awkwardly alongside the tip as a barge is loaded with London’s feculence.

An angry domain of metal fencing and barbed wire

 The only organic matter is a gnarled and truncated tree suspended on spikes like some bizarre totem, warning its arboreal cousins.


This dirty province was soon replaced by a sterile one with a wide, river-side path below identikit flats.  I was surprised that I didn’t meet a single soul in this ghost complex, but my senses were grabbed by a familiar odour instead.  I bent down to examine the carefully cultivated plants to find it was, indeed, rosemary. Remember this if you live nearby and save yourself from buying it ;-).

My next obstacle was The London Heliport Vertical Gateway.

 Sprawling across the shoreline and spilling out onto a pier, I was a little disappointed that the helipads weren’t on the top of the hotel itself.

Diverting round the front, large Barclays Wealth adverts expounded other benefits of wealth just in case those travelling by ostentation aeronautical transport weren't already aware.

Travel along the river was smooth for the next mile or so, punctuated by dashes across multi-lane gauntlets at bridges where pedestrians had been long forgotten. 

Battersea Park was a joy and I enjoyed a serene spot of lunch next to the Peace Pagoda.  

Not long after the park, this giant red sign confronts me.  It is clear that they mean it and that there are no clever ways to avoid this obstruction by virtue of the sheer size of the letters.  This isn’t just private property, it’s 1ft high lettering really really private property.  And the background is stern no-entry red.  The signs I’d encountered so far would be withered to mere guidelines in the presence of this whopping warning.  The delicate strands of barbed-wire seem almost rude, a raised finger sitting neatly above.

A scene of industry at Battersea Power Station

It is clear that I have a long detour to make around Battersea Power Station.  A little further up the path I stop outside the goods entrance of Battersea Dogs Home to check my map whilst a security guard idly eyes me up.  Eventually I arrive on the Nine Elms Lane where I trudge for a while with the grey urban motorway on one side and lurid industrial lot signage on the other.

Spotting a sign for the riverside walk and the enigmatically named “Battersea Barge” I eagerly leave the highway, weaving my way down narrow alleyways until I end up at the waterside.

The Nine Elms Tideway is a small, hidden community of eccentric houseboats, every available surface stuffed with pot plants and every railing secured with chained bicycles.
At last I reached the elusive Battersea Barge to be confronted with a dead-end.

Then a pair of dogs attacked me. One nipped me on the hand before they ran away.  To top it all off, I had to head back to Nine Elms Lane to plod alongside the cars and lorries for a bit longer.  

A helpful sign warned me about the route closure a good distance away from the entrance itself.

The path began to improve as I neared Vauxhall, with some excellent signs outside MI6.

The pavement became busier and busier, a pleasant improvement on the earlier isolation and I swiftly arrived outside The Palace of Westminster.

The final trial was a sprint across 4 lanes of traffic at Westminster Bridge, some braver folk joining me in a gasp between the vehicles.  Beyond, the South Bank was heaving and it was clear that my journey was at an end.

Tired, happy and blessedly dry I collapsed onto a seat in a train at Waterloo.  I reflected on the balkanised nature of London’s riverside and how Lewis and Clark would have coped with it.  They had to deal with many hindrances over years, rather than hours, including indigenous tribes who demanded tribute before allowing their party to pass.  Where these demands were unreasonable, they demonstrated the effectiveness of their gunpowder weapons as a warning.  I strongly doubt whether that would be a good idea in London . . .


  1. I thought you were going to fall into the river?!

  2. Wonder how feasible it is to come in from the other side and where would be the optimum starting point. Because it might be fun for me to do that next time I am at my grandma's for an extended length of time. I'd probably want to walk in from the east on the south of the river too, if for no other reason than taking in Greenwich (I do like the Royal Observatory quite a lot).

  3. Yes, I'd definitely like to explore some other routes. I've still got the North Bank and Eastern approaches to do. If you (or anyone else) would like to join me for these, please let me know!

  4. Very intrepid indeed! Have you tried following the Thames the other way?

  5. No, Dichohecho. Do you mean across-ways?

  6. This looks great, I'd definitely be up for that!