hidden europe 55

On a Bend in the River: History and Community along the Thames Path

by Duncan JD Smith

Picture above: Old Chiswick and the Thames at low tide with Chiswick Mall on the right and Chiswick Eyot on the left (photo © Duncan JD Smith).


Urban explorer Duncan JD Smith has a real knack for mapping the lesser-known parts of cities, discovering aspects of urban history which most visitors miss. In a special piece for hidden europe, Duncan explores one loop of the River Thames just upstream from London.

In 1777 Samuel Johnson declared that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” These days, however, even the gregarious doctor might despair at the capital’s overcrowded streets. Fortunately, the city’s suburbs are easily reached by Tube, offering just as much colour at a fraction of the pace.

Fine examples in the west are Hammersmith and Chiswick. Not their bustling high streets but rather their tidal riverbanks. Here they define one of the distinctive bends in the River Thames which are so much a feature of the map of London. Much of the riverbank area has been spared overdevelopment, thanks to the divisive Great West Road, keeping it a place apart. This controversial road effectively left parts of the river’s north bank isolated. Indeed, the riverbank in Chiswick is only accessible by underpass.

The streets in this area offer history and community in abundance, with intriguing homes and artists’ studios, houseboats and industrial relics, all set against a backdrop with surprising elements of rurality — not quite what one might expect just a few kilometres from central London.

Bridges and houseboats

The riverbank is accessible courtesy of the Thames Path, a 294-km-long National Trail following the river from its source in the Cotswolds to the sea. Just three kilometres of it cover the distance from Hammersmith Bridge, where this walk begins, upstream to Barnes Railway Bridge in Chiswick.

It is difficult not to admire Hammersmith Bridge. A monument to Victorian engineering, the bridge has connected Hammersmith with Barnes since 1887. Designed by noted civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who famously created the first comprehensive sewer system for London, it was not, however, the first bridge on the site. That was designed in 1827 by bridge-building supremo William Tierney Clark and was the first suspension bridge over the Thames.

Running westwards from the bridge is Lower Mall. A microcosm of comfortable Thames river life, it is lined with elegant 18th and 19th-century waterfront homes, venerable pubs such as the Blue Anchor (1722), and several rowing clubs. One of them, the Furnivall Sculling Club, was founded in 1896 by Frederick James Furnivall, a staunch advocate of women’s rights, and was the world’s first female rowing club.

There’s always a bit of a buzz hereabouts but on one day each year Lower Mall attracts thousands of people. They come to watch university rivals Oxford and Cambridge battle it out in the Boat Race, which they’ve done since 1845. As the course is on the tidal reaches of the Thames, the race is normally conducted on a flood tide between Putney and Mortlake.

This is just an excerpt. The full text of this article is not yet available to members with online access to hidden europe. Of course you can read the full article in the print edition of hidden europe 55.
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