Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Richmond to Kew

Shady Towpath at Kew
Shady Towpath at Kew

Two days to go, and even the finger-boards alongside the river are showing the countdown to the finish. “Tower Bridge 19” proclaims the sign as I pass under Richmond Bridge.

A short walk takes me under Richmond Railway Bridge and then Twickenham Bridge almost immediately afterwards. Then it is out into open country again, at least on my chosen bank. The opposite bank is Isleworth, but that soon becomes obscured by the island known as “Isleworth Ait”, whose covering of trees provides the useful service of blocking out the concrete and brickwork on the land behind.

The open countryside to my right is Old Deer Park, which is mainly put down to playing fields and the fairways and greens of the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club. There is an obelisk alongside the pathway with no indication of what it is for. I later discovered that it is a marker point along the meridian line from Kew Observatory which is just visible through the trees. The observatory was built for George III to indulge his hobby of astronomy, and it was completed just in time for him to observe the transit of Venus in 1779. The obelisk I have seen is one of three in Old Deer Park situated north, east and west of the observatory and were used for correctly aligning the telescope. The observatory is used now as a weather station under the control of the Meteorological Office.

The pathway continues with its tree shaded causeway between river and parkland almost all of the way to Kew Bridge.

On the opposite bank there are signs of better days gone by. I am opposite the junction with the Grand Union Canal at Brentford. Once this area was a bustling dockland area, where river barges would exchange cargoes with canal barges that in their turn would make their way up to Birmingham. Now the area just looks neglected, three boats moored against the entranceway to the lock gate being all that remains.

Junction with the Grand Union Canal at Brentford
Junction with the Grand Union Canal at Brentford

The area on my right is the famous Royal Botanical Gardens, more commonly referred to simply as Kew Gardens.

Kew hosts the world’s largest collection of living plants. There are over 30,000 different species kept here and the site extends to 300 acres.

Main Entrance to Kew Gardens
Main Entrance to Kew Gardens

The gardens are not only for the entertainment of the two million visitors that come here every year, they are also an important botanical research centre with approximately 700 scientists. Kew is considered so important for botanical heritage that it was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003.

Kew had its origins in the garden at Kew Park that was formed by Lord Capel during the later part of the sixteenth century. Capel was an enthusiastic gardener and was renowned for his fruit trees and exotic plants.

Frederick, Prince of Wales, leased the house from 1731. Together with his wife, Augusta and their friend the Earl of Bute they set about enlarging and landscaping the gardens. Frederick died from pleurisy in 1751 and Augusta was determined to complete his plans for the gardens. In 1757 she employed Thomas Chambers to take charge of the developments. The first records of the “Physic and Exotic Garden” date from 1759 and this is accepted as the foundation of the Botanical Gardens.

In 1760 George III came to the throne and continued with the development of the gardens. He employed Capability Brown to transform the landscape and plant many more trees.

The greatest advance for the gardens came in 1797 with the appointment of Sir Joseph Banks to take control. Banks was a celebrated natural historian and botanist who had accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to Australia. Banks sent out many botanists to search throughout the British Empire to bring back specimen plants for Kew.

The great glasshouses were the design of architect Decimus Burton. The Palm House was opened in 1848, and the Temperate House which is twice the size of the Palm House followed a few years later.

The most recent addition to the gardens is the Xstrata Treetop Walkway. This 200 metre walkway is sixty feet above the ground and provides the visitors with the exhilarating experience of viewing the trees from treetop height.

There is no time to linger in the gardens today, so I pass under Kew Bridge to continue on my way.

Kew Road Bridge
Kew Road Bridge

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