In the previous episode of this story, the story of the Thames’ journey from source to estuary, we ended at Hammersmith Bridge, just as it had re-opened to pedestrians and cyclists. I published that piece last September – where have the last ten months gone? But onwards we go, from Hammersmith Bridge – still closed to road traffic – to Westminster Bridge in the heart of London.
On this part of the river’s journey it drops to the south-east, past Putney, to Wandsworth on the south side, before it begins to snake its way north-eastwards to Westminster. The length of the journey varies according to which side you travel on; on the south side it’s around ten miles; on the north side, just under nine. You can walk both; but after Putney it’s better to walk on the south side, where there is a footpath path along the riverbank much of the way. On the north side you find yourself circumnavigating private property – notably the Hurlingham Club – or walking alongside roads. Either way there is plenty to see and do – this is London.
The journey from Hammersmith Bridge to Putney Bridge is a couple of miles. When I used to cycle this length of the river, I’d usually head towards Putney on the south side, which is largely straightforward towpath, and then come back on the Fulham side. Now I prefer to walk, I mostly take the Fulham/Hammersmith option, as I’m less likely to be doing both on the same walk. It’s more varied – and has plenty of pubs if you fancy stopping for a refreshment. If your preference is for a peaceful stroll, with trees along the bank and the gentle rippling of the river against the shore, then the south side is for you.
Setting off from Hammersmith Bridge you pass the Riverside Studios, a centre for the arts, which reopened in 2018 after a major rebuild. Nearby there is a statue of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the 18th century landscape architect, who lived in the area. We are now in Fulham Reach and its new apartment blocks. I wouldn’t mind one of those flats overlooking the river, as I love the views on this stretch, particularly at twilight. On the south side it’s wilderness of sorts – the London Wetland Centre and then just downstream, behind the trees, the Barn Elms playing fields, which hosted, amongst others, the London Oratory school. My son Kieran and all his friends used to love the annual 5-a-side football tournaments there – the one time they were allowed to play football rather than rugby.
As you head towards Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham FC (newly promoted – once more – to the Premier League) you pass the River Café, one of London’s most popular restaurants. I’ve been there once, and yes, the food and everything else was outstanding. I tried not to think about the impact on my bank balance! There’s nothing flash about the place – it’s just really good.
In June last year, as we were coming out of covid restrictions, I had a stroll from Hammersmith to Putney, and was surprised to see a flotilla of boats on the river near the football ground. Maybe it’s a regular occurrence in summer, but it was the first time I’d seen it here. There’s usually more activity down by Putney Bridge. It felt good to see them, a symbol of our release.
Oddly I have never been to see a football match at Craven Cottage. Brentford, QPR, Chelsea, in West London, many times. West Ham, Arsenal, Tottenham many, many times. But not Fulham, one of the nearest. No reason, really, just never happened. The ground has had a major rebuild, which is still going on. The photos below are from last year and were taken from the other side of the river, the best way to get the full picture.
After you’ve walked around Craven Cottage you come to Bishop’s Park, which extends all the way to Putney Bridge. It’s a multi-purpose park: first, as you walk towards the bridge, there’s an open space where people play football, cricket, have picnics or just lie in the sun, when there is sun. In the middle is a large children’s play area, facilities for tennis and bowls and a pond; and then the more manicured gardens take over. Adjacent to the park is Fulham Palace, which has its own gardens, and is open to visitors. It was the home of the Bishop of London until the 1970s. And right at the end of the park lies All Saints Church (see below). Alternatively, you can walk alongside the river on a path mostly separated from the rest of the park by trees and bushes. This is my preferred route, looking across to the Putney boathouses and then towards the bridge. As with Fulham Reach, some of my favourite views are at twilight, which, in winter, is happening in mid-afternoon.
Bishop’s Park was opened in 1893 by London County Council, on land provided by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, now the Church Commissioners. Wikipedia tells me that scenes for The Omen were filmed here! Something I only discovered last year, because I usually walk along the river path, is a memorial to members of the International Brigade, who died fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s.
Fulham and Putney are regarded as twin towns either side of the bridge. Putney Bridge tube station is on the Fulham side. There are churches on both sides; the aforementioned All Saints in Fulham, St Mary’s in Putney. St Mary’s now opens up to a café called the Putney Pantry. You can get a nice breakfast there. There’s a farmers’ market there on Saturdays.
Peter Ackroyd retells a story of how both places got their names. Two giant sisters, building the two churches, only had one hammer. They would throw it across the river to each other, crying, Put it nigh! and Heave it full home! More prosaically, the names may derive from landing place of Putta and the place of fowls or foul home, a muddy settlement.
The first bridge at Putney was opened in 1729, although during the English Civil War, a temporary bridge of boats had been improvised. Prior to the construction of the bridge, there had been a ferry between Fulham and Putney. Legend has it that in 1720 Sir Robert Walpole, soon to be Prime Minister for over twenty years, was hurrying back from Kingston, where he had been to meet King George I. The ferry was on the Fulham side at the time, and the waterman, who was drinking in the Swan pub, ignored Walpole’s calls. Walpole vowed then that a bridge would replace the ferry. According to Peter Ackroyd, a London MP denounced the bridge, claiming, “The erection of a bridge over the Thames at Putney will not only injure the great and important city which I have the honour to represent, not only destroy its correspondence and commerce, but actually annihilate it altogether.” MPs talking utter nonsense is nothing new.
The current stone bridge dates from 1886, though it has had a few repairs along the way. It’s not the most beautiful, and walking across it with all the traffic is not the greatest of pleasures. But the views up river both from the bridge and the boathouse shore are great. there’s one spot when you can see the Wembley arch lurking behind the trees, most unexpectedly. This where the Boat Race has started most years since 1845, something I wrote about in the previous piece.
Putney can lay claim to being a home of democracy and individual rights in England, and, indeed, around the world. In 1647 what became known as the Putney Debates took place in St Mary’s Church, chaired by Oliver Cromwell, soon to be victorious over the Royalists in the English Civil War. The discussion centred on a manifesto proposed by the Levellers, who had gained support in Cromwell’s New Model Army. An Agreement of the People argued for a range of parliamentary and voting reforms, religious freedom, equality before the law, and the abolition of conscription, amongst other things. The Levellers were ahead of their time – Cromwell eventually executed most of the leaders. But their manifesto was an inspiration for the United States’ declaration of independence 150 years later.
On a somewhat different note, Putney was the second place I lived in London. I was in a five bedroom flat at the top of Putney Hill for a year, mostly in 1981. The local pub was called the Green Man, on Putney Common. It’s still there. Apart from the flat and the Green Man, the place I probably spent most time in was the Our Price record shop on the High Street, not far from the bridge. I was earning reasonable money for the first time in my life, and a lot of it was spent completing my collection of the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder, as well as devouring the new music of the time.
But back to the river! it’s best to stay on the south side at this point, although you do have to walk along a residential road for a bit, until you reach Wandsworth Park. You can walk along the river briefly on the north side, crossing over at Putney Railway bridge, which has a walkway. Absurdly, I only realised this last year, after so many years walking or cycling past it.
After the railway bridge the north side is blocked for a while by the grounds of the Hurlingham Club, one of London’s posher institutions. I don’t think it should be allowed to prevent access to the riverbank: there should be a public pathway, separated from the club’s grounds by all means. But the river is for the people! The Thames path doesn’t really get going along the river again until after Wandsworth Bridge. It then takes you past a number of new housing developments, with all the usual accompanying infrastructure, until you get to Chelsea Creek and the site of the old Lots Road power station and the pumping station. The new London super sewer is also being built underground round here. I’ve only ever walked this stretch once, preferring the south side. Once you reach Cheyne Walk though, it becomes very familiar. You do have a road alongside you at this point, but there’s an interesting walk up to Battersea Bridge, past the huge houseboats on the shore and the plush houses on the other side of Cheyne Walk – home to the rich and famous.
Wandsworth Park, on the south side, isn’t particularly glamorous, but it’s well used, and I do like the views of the river, especially at low tide.
After the park, there’s a new apartment block development called, imaginatively, the Riverside Quarter. I can recommend a pub on the edge of the development, near the park, called the Cat’s Back. It serves Harvey’s Sussex ales, one of the few London pubs to do so. On the other side of the development we come to where the River Wandle joins the Thames, known by some as the Wandle Delta! I’m rather a fan of the river, having walked the length of it a couple of times. It rises in the Croydon area, in two places, and winds its way through south-west London to Wandsworth, which takes its name from the river. If you visit both sources, the length is about 14 miles, one of the longest in the capital. You can read my blog about the Wandle here. The mouth of the river used to be the site of the Youngs Brewery. That has now moved out of London, to be replaced by residential developments in what is still known as the Ram Quarter; but the smaller Sambrooks brewery remains in the area. It brews some very fine beers, including its Wandle best bitter. There’s a pub near the Wandle in Earlsfield called the Wandle. It serves Sambrooks beers, so you can be drinking Wandle in the Wandle by the Wandle!
On the other side of the Wandle you have to walk off river, on Smugglers Way for a short stretch, before returning to the riverside. There’s an old and popular pub called the Ship just before you come to Wandsworth Bridge. It’s a very functional bridge, which apparently was painted blue in its most recent incarnation in 1940 to disguise it from German bombers. You can’t even see that at the moment as it is being refurbished, while remaining open to traffic. The next stretch, on the way to Battersea Park, is mostly apartment blocks, but has a few interesting sights, including Battersea Railway Bridge, London Heliport and a lovely church called St Mary’s, Battersea. There’s a lot of birdlife along the shore too.
These photos of the birds are from 2018. Wandsworth Bridge, blue in the background.
Low and high tide contrasts in the next two.
Just before Battersea Park there are two road (and foot) bridges: first Battersea Bridge and then the more photogenic Albert Bridge. Battersea Bridge was opened in the 1770s, like Wandsworth Bridge, and was an equally unsuccessful toll bridge. For a while it was known as Chelsea as well as Battersea Bridge, until Chelsea Bridge was opened in the 1850s. It was neglected and became quite dangerous to cross. It was the last London Bridge to remain built of wood. Perhaps because of its position, connecting Battersea with prosperous Chelsea, and at a sharp bend in the Thames, it has been painted by a number of notable artists, including Turner, Whistler and Pissarro. On the Chelsea side there’s a statue of Whistler nearby.
Competition between bridges intensified in this part of London in the 19th century, with Vauxhall Bridge opening in 1816, Chelsea Bridge in 1858 and Albert Bridge in 1873. The Vauxhall Bridge owners had to pay Battersea Bridge compensation for loss of income and the Albert Bridge company had to purchase Battersea Bridge to keep it going. Eventually this was all resolved by a good bit of state intervention: in 1877 the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act was passed, which allowed the Metropolitan Board of Works to buy all the London bridges between Hammersmith and Waterloo and end all the tolls.
Battersea Bridge was rebuilt in the late 1880s and reopened in 1890. Trams operated on it until 1950. Its position on a bend in the river has made it a hazard to shipping, and there have been collisions throughout its history. In 1950 a coal barge hit the bridge, causing significant damage. The tram held the bridge together, but it was removed during the reconstruction. Another large barge called the James Prior collided with the bridge in 2005, causing structural damage, and a closure to all but buses until January 2006. I must admit I have no recollection of this, despite being a London resident since 1980. But I do vaguely recall the incident of the bottlenose whale, which made its way up the Thames to Battersea Bridge in January 2006. Sadly it didn’t survive, and its skeleton is now in the Natural History museum.
The original Albert Bridge has never been replaced – a rarity in London – but it has been significantly modified, with suspension added to its “cable-stay” design ten years after it was opened, and supporting concrete piers added in 1973. It was known as “The Trembling Lady” in its early days, on account of its tendency to vibrate, particularly when used by the nearby troops from Chelsea Barracks. (A similar wobbliness afflicted the Millennium Bridge when it first opened in 2000.) Because of its position on the bend in the river, it has been lit at night for some time. It was painted green between 1905 and 1981, changing to yellow at that point. In 1992 it acquired its pink blue and green hue, and new low-voltage lighting. Because of its structural weaknesses there are restrictions on the traffic that can use it, which include the “Chelsea Tractor” four wheel drive vehicles popular with the denizens of Chelsea and Battersea. In the early 70s there were proposals to turn it into a “garden bridge” for pedestrians only, but the motorists won the ensuing debate. So the short-lived (and expensive) Boris Johnson/ Joanna Lumley proposal from a few years ago wasn’t the first of its kind!
Battersea Park is a large and varied space, with sports facilities, a lovely garden area and large pond, a bandstand, children’s play area and a nice spacious path along the river, where you can’t miss the Peace Pagoda, built in 1985. From the riverside you get some interesting perspectives as you look east. The Shard lurks in the background, but looks like it’s in completely the wrong place, on the wrong side of the river. It’s those bends – it is actually further north than Battersea.
Interesting fact: Battersea Park hosted the first ever football match played under Football association rules, in 1864. And Wanderers FC, the first winners of the FA Cup in 1872, were based there.
Bordering Battersea Park on its east side is Chelsea Bridge. This was first opened in 1858, and like Battersea Bridge, was soon deemed structurally unsound. Initially it was called Victoria Bridge, but was renamed to avoid the royal family being associated with its potential collapse! The bridge was demolished in the 1930s and replaced in 1937 with the current suspension bridge. It was popular with motorcyclists who staged races across the bridge. In 1970 one such meeting erupted into violence and one man was killed. Whether that signalled the end of the races, I’m not sure. On the south side the Thames path goes under the bridge and you come out to a stretch of modern apartments, which I think look quite interesting, especially when you set them against the background of Battersea Power Station, which now comes into view.
Battersea Power Station is now free of scaffolding and other works and looks every inch one of London’s most iconic buildings. Music fans will remember it adorning the cover of Pink Floyd’s 70s album Animals – complete with floating pig! I wrote about the power station and the new tube station last September. You can read the blog here . It began life as power station in the 1930s and was finally decommissioned in 1973. From then on its fate hung in the balance as a variety of proposals came and went. Finally it was acquired by a Malaysian consortium, which has restored its structure, including the four chimneys, and installed a range of apartments, offices and shops. Around it, a variety of other blocks have risen up – some are still being built – primarily for residential purposes. These and other developments in nearby Nine Elms have attracted quite a lot of criticism for ruining the character of the area, but I think it was pretty desolate beforehand. My main objection is that many of the apartments lie empty for the most part, being investments by foreign owners, rather than somewhere to live. In a city where there is an acute housing shortage, and young people in particular struggle to afford exorbitant rents, this is a scandalous waste of valuable resources – a classic example of where a market is so dysfunctional that state intervention is needed. Just like when all the bridges were bought up in the 19th century. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d like to see rules whereby any apartment that is unoccupied for more than, say, six months every year has to be rented out at an affordable rate. No doubt people would try find ways around the rules, but something needs to be done to address the problem.
On the positive side, not only does Battersea Power Station look splendid, but an infrastructure of bars, restaurants and entertainment has sprung up around it. I’m a fan of Battersea Brewery, under the railway arches, where you can get a very nice unfiltered lager.
This next shot goes back to 2014, I think. It’s taken from Ebury Bridge in Pimlico. The Thames is somewhere in between. The train is heading for Victoria station.
After the power station you do, unfortunately, have to walk up to the main road, Nine Elms Lane and walk along that for a while; though you do get to see the new US Embassy, which opened in 2018. It’s a distinctive building, some would say ugly. Donald Trump hated it – the previous embassy was in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair – describing it as “off location”, “a bad deal”, “horrible” and “lousy”. Not a man for understatement, as we know.
Back on the riverside, you come to St George’s Wharf, another relatively new development. Again, a lot of people dislike this, but I think it’s pretty striking when viewed from a distance – there’s something a bit sci-fi about it. On the other side of nearby Vauxhall Bridge sits the MI6 building, decked out in a similar colour scheme. For a secretive agency it’s quite an ostentatious home – much featured (and bombed) in recent James Bond films. The MI5 headquarters, situated on the north side of the river by Lambeth Bridge, is much more discreet.
Vauxhall Bridge must be one of the busiest in London, connecting the Vauxhall gyratory system (a driver’s nightmare) with Vauxhall Bridge Road on the north side, leading up to Victoria. The bridge was built in the early 19th century. It took five years, as different designs were considered. Opening in 1816, it was London’s first iron bridge, and was briefly known as the Regent’s Bridge. As I mentioned earlier, compensation had to be paid to Battersea Bridge, as well as the local ferry service, which became obsolete. As with many of the bridges it fell into poor condition, and was replaced by the current concrete structure in 1906.
The name Vauxhall derives from the manor of an Anglo-French noble Faulkes de Breaute, built around 1200. He eventually fell out with King Henry III and was exiled to France, but Faulkes Hall remained. It later became Foxhall and then Vauxhall. Vauxhall was mostly marshland, but from the late 17th century became the site of the Spring and later Pleasure Gardens. These were a major attraction for Londoners for a couple of centuries, until they closed in 1859. The land was redeveloped; but after slum clearance in the late 20th, a new public park was opened, and remains to this day.
I have probably walked over Vauxhall Bridge more than any other in London, as for many years I walked from Vauxhall station over to Millbank on the north side of the river, just down from Tate Britain. And then back again in the evening. In the mornings I’d sometimes stop in the small park on the north side by the bridge and eat some breakfast from Little Waitrose or Pret a Manger on the Vauxhall side. Anything to delay going into the office! There’s a sculpture in the park by Henry Moore called Locking Piece. One morning, with the sun glistening in the water, I took a few photos of the heron on the shore. Almost looks like a black and white photo.
I worked at 30 Millbank, next to Millbank Tower, for about four years until I retired in 2018. In that time, I got to know the local pubs pretty well, mainly those in Vauxhall. Favourites included the Riverside on St George’s Wharf (modern, but nice to sit outside on a balmy evening – or on a sunny afternoon in retirement), Zeitgeist (a German bar on the splendidly named Black Prince Road), Mother Kelly’s on Albert Embankment (great range of craft ales under the railway arches) and The Rose, further along on Albert Embankment (the scene of my retirement party!). A special mention too for the Morpeth Arms on the north side, next to Chelsea Art College, where the world was put to rights with colleagues on many an evening after work.
I worked for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority – IPSA – which was set up to regulate MPs’ expenses and pay after the expenses scandal in 2008-9. I was the policy director there from 2010 until I retired in September 2018. It wasn’t always pleasant, but we achieved what we were set up for – to make MPs’ funding transparent and clean. People still disagree with what MPs get paid and what they can claim for; but they have an important job to do, even if some of them do it pretty badly. I’ll say no more!
Both sides of the river provide enjoyable walks between Vauxhall Bridge and Westminster Bridge – with Lambeth Bridge in between. On the south side you have to divert around MI6 at the moment, but then join the riverbank, with Albert Embankment gardens on your right for a while. Along the way there’s a yellow boat, permanently moored, called Tamesis Dock. If you can get a seat on the outdoor deck, it’s a nice place to have a drink. Downstairs it’s often party time. By Lambeth Bridge, you pass Lambeth Palace, tucked away behind the trees in summer. It has been the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury since around 1200. Not sure why, but I’ve never visited. One to rectify. The wall separating the palace, Archbishop’s Park and St Thomas’ Hospital from the Thames Path has taken on a new role since March 2021 as the National Covid Memorial Wall. It is decorated with 150,000 pink and red hearts to represent those who have died. It was started by families of the bereaved and attracted support through social media. People visit and write tributes to loved ones in the hearts. It’s an affecting sight as you walk the length of the wall.
As you walk up to Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament on the other side of the river loom larger. Big Ben has now been restored to its full glory, and I wandered along the river and then over to Westminster to take some up-to-date photos for this blog. I’ll end with those; but first let’s cross over to the north side for the walk up to the Palace of Westminster (its formal name). I mentioned Chelsea Art College earlier. Something of a misnomer, given that it is in Millbank. When I wasn’t walking to work from Vauxhall station, I’d be coming from Pimlico and liked to stroll across the square which the college surrounded on three sides. In the summer I’d see the students sitting on the grass and rather envy them, spending their time studying the creative arts. Often there would be exhibitions in the square, mostly the work of the students; one time there were non-melting blocks of ice lined up; another time a fascinating wooden structure called The Smile. It was designed to show new techniques for building with wood and you could look inside. It underwent a spectacular destruction when its time was up.
The open side of the square leads over to Tate Britain, one of the great art galleries we are blessed with in London. It is the home of British art, with a large permanent collection, including the largest collection of works of JMW Turner, which has its own special gallery. It’s a wonderful space, rarely busy, where you can marvel at the genius of Turner and travel serenely through his creative journey. Additionally, there are always one or two fascinating exhibitions. The most popular of recent years must have been the David Hockney retrospective in 2017; earlier this year I was very taken by Life Between Islands, an exhibition of Caribbean-British art and culture since the 1950s.
Heading past Millbank Tower and MI5, you come to Lambeth Bridge. Its red hue is said to reflect the colour of the benches in the House of Lords, whereas the green of Westminster Bridge represents those of the Commons. The bridge opened in 1862 and was rebuilt in 1932. It replaced a horse ferry, which operated between the palace of Westminster and Lambeth Palace. Hence the name of Horseferry Road which leads from Lambeth Bridge up to Victoria.
From our kitchen in IPSA you could look out at Lambeth Bridge with the towers of the City of London in the distance, Lambeth Palace in the foreground. It was an ever-changing scene, depending on the light. I even painted a picture of it – from a different photo!
Back in 2017 London caught the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia. It sucked in air from the Sahara, so that London was suffused in an eerie red-purple light. I took some time out from the office to try to capture the light on my iPhone. It didn’t quite record the intensity of the colour, but still made for some captivating scenes from Lambeth Bridge.
On the other side of the bridge you can approach the Palace of Westminster through the Victoria Tower Gardens. Victoria Tower is the first part of the building that you encounter as you approach from the south, with the river now flowing northwards. Today’s neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament, which provide such a distinctive landmark, are a fairly recent construct, having been completed in 1870, following a devastating fire in 1834. There have been palaces and seats of government at Westminster since the time of King Cnut in the 11th century. At this time the site was known as Thorney Island, an eyot surrounded by offshoots of the River Tyburn, which is now underground. In the same century Edward the Confessor constructed a royal palace on the site, around the same time as he constructed Westminster Abbey, which continues to this day to sit opposite the Houses of Parliament. The oldest remaining part of the Palace is Westminster Hall, which was built during the reign of King William II in the late 11th century. It is open to the public, who can wander around this part of the palace freely. It’s an awe-inspiring place, the scene of so many important moments in British history. For centuries it was the centre of the English legal system, the home of its highest courts. It was Westminster Hall where King Charles I was ordered to be executed in 1649.
For many years I had a pass for the Houses of Parliament, first as a senior civil servant, advising the Lord Chancellor/Justice Secretary on various policy issues. I have sat in those cramped officials’ boxes in both Houses, desperately hoping that no-one asks a question that we can’t answer when the minister needs help! At IPSA we were frequently “invited” to attend parliamentary committees so MPs could vent their frustrations. All part of the job, and if you prepared properly they were pretty straightforward, if unpleasant. But I have to say that I never lost the sense of privilege of being in that place, our home of democracy, for all its defects. You could feel the history.
The visual star of the show these days is of course Big Ben. The tower was designed by Augustus Pugin and was completed in 1859. In recent years it was surrounded by scaffolding as renovation work was undertaken, but in April this year the work was completed and Big Ben is now back in full effect, reclaiming its position as the symbol of London. The only problem is, the rest of the palace is falling apart. Major repairs are needed throughout the building, but for this to happen the MPs and peers will need to move out. For years now they have prevaricated – fearful perhaps that the cost of renovation will attract public opprobrium and they will forever be separated from their home of centuries.
And so we come to Westminster Bridge, now the oldest surviving road bridge in London. It first opened in 1750, after years of resistance and even sabotage by local ferrymen. Over time it began to subside, and it was replaced by a new bridge in 1862, around the same time as the new Palace of Westminster was emerging. It seems only right to end this journey with a photo of the two together, looking great in the August sunshine.
Next time we will be heading from Westminster to Greenwich, through the heart of old London, with lashings of the new. Here’s a hint of what is to come, taken from Westminster Bridge.