Walk 19: GUNNERSBURY walk to RICHMOND
2 1/2 hours
The train line opened in 1869 as a link between the main line from Southwest England and the main lines from the Midlands via Willesden Junction. It was therefore primarily a freight line. The train company did see some passenger potential and offered connections between Richmond and the Hammersmith area. This was to become later the District Line of London Underground.
Routing note: This route connects in Gunnersbury with Overground walk 18 and will also connect there with London Underground District line walk 3. It connects in Richmond with Waterloo network walks 5 and 6.
The route follows the Thames Path or a comparable riverside walkway over a long distance. Most of the walkway is paved, but sturdy shoes remain advisable.
The time indication does not include a visit of Kew Gardens, partly because this is such a huge area and well-known attraction that you are likely to spend a full day there on an other occasion anyway. I nonetheless included comments on the gardens within this route as it is the most logical walk where to do so.
This route does not visit Richmond itself as I have chosen to do this on Waterloo network walk 6.
The station opened in 1869 on a train line that was built with two spurs, one joining the present District line and one continuing to Acton. A third spur enabled connections towards Brentford via Kew Bridge. The first spur became a branch of the Underground District line in 1877, the second spur is the present Overground line although passenger services did not start before 1905 and the third spur closed in 1932. The station was called “Brentford Road” at the start but the name changed to Gunnersbury already in 1871.
Gunnersbury is one the very few stations in London where suburban trains and Underground carriages use the same platform. This is normally not very sensible because Underground trains have different power and braking requirements; in addition, they run much more frequently and this makes train services difficult to include without causing delays.
The original station building looked much like the one in Acton Central but was demolished in the 1960s in order to build the ugly office building that towers above the gloomy entrance of the present station, a plain block of concrete hidden behind the office building.
The letters BSI on a corner of the building remind you that the building houses (together with numerous commercial companies) the British Standard Institution, a public body responsible for establishing national standards in areas like technology and quality management. The institution is now called usually BSI Group because it operates as the profitable monopoly provider of numerous compliance certificates (it is a “distributing non-profit corporation”, in other words a company that has to pay all its profits to the government as its owner).
Exit the station on the E side (marked “Grange Road”)
R on the public footpath along the train line
At the end of the road, you might see a blue dome with golden stars peeking over the trees. This is the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile for London, built in 1999. It is officially the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs, which tells you that this church is catering to Russians exiled at the end of the Tsarist regime in 1917 and that it did not recognise the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate during the communist era.
R across the train line on the road bridge (Wellesley Road)
Directly L on the public footpath along the train line marked “Chiswick Village”
The path crosses under a major highway
At the end L into Chiswick Village, the road turns later R
The “village” is actually a road, which is a strange way of naming things. It passes along a large estate also called Chiswick Village. The estate was a commercial development catering to the middle class, not a council estate, but flats are reasonably affordable due to the traffic noise. The small green in the middle of the estate was planned as a playground for children, but most flats in this part of London are buy-to-let properties and many tenants are young professionals.
L across a train line using a footbridge
Ahead Brooks Lane (a paved lane rather than a real road)
L Thames Road
very soon R Ship Alley (a narrow footpath passing under a house)
R on the riverside walkway called Strand-on-the-Green
This is a delightful path along the river passing a row of stately 18th century houses (numbers 56 and 70 are listed monuments). They were built by people who wished to be near the royal palace of Kew, such as suppliers to the Court or artists, and the houses are still popular with university professors, journalists and creative professions. The path passes the one or other pub with a terrace overlooking the river, definitely a popular place to go in summer.
Strand on the Green was actually a village with many residents working on the river as fishermen or ferry operators. You still see the one or other boat. As you can see on the picture, the Thames goes out a lot at low tide. You should be aware that it can rise quite high and flood the walkway, in which case there is a parallel road on higher ground behind the riverside houses.
The riverside walkway ends at Kew Bridge, built in 1903. It is one the busiest bridges in the suburbs because it is part of a Circular Road linking the suburbs. The original bridge was a private bridge charging toll, opened in 1759 to give easier access to the royal palace at Kew. The bridge was first built in wood, which proved cumbersome to maintain, and replaced after 30 years by a stone bridge.
The public authorities bought it in 1873 for two reasons: the toll booths made traffic slow and the owners objected understandably to new Thames bridges being built even when this made otherwise perfect sense in terms of town planning. The 1903 reconstruction is considered one of the handsomest road bridges in London and is a listed monument.
Cross the Thames at the next opportunity using Kew Bridge
L Kew Green (the road along the open space)
The green itself is bysected by the main road from the bridge. Both parts have lovely houses of moderate height hidden in greenery and this is correspondingly a very expensive neighbourhood. The pond at the eastern corner of the green was used to water horses.
Ahead Wattcombe Cottages (the narrower, left fork at the end of Kew Green road)
At the end L on the footpath to the riverside walkway
R (downstream) along the riverside
Just after passing under the train bridge R on the public footpath along the tracks
The footpath runs between the train line and a well protected complex of buildings. When you arrive at the end of the footpath, you can detour left to the flashy, modern entrance of the building. This houses the National Archives, relocated here in 1977. There is a small exhibition gallery in the building and entrance is free but the exhibits will appeal primarily to specialists. The only items I found really interesting were the late 11th century census documents called the Domesday Book.
Otherwise, at the end of the footpath R crossing under the train line on Mortlake Road
L Leyborne Park
L Station Approach
The station opened together with the train line in 1869.
The station building is a listed monument as it is the original Victorian structure. The train company obviously expected heavy traffic from visitors of the Botanical Gardens considering the size of the station in what was a very rural area. As the arches are in the same somewhat drab grey than the walls, the overall effect is not very exciting, particularly compared to contemporary stations like Acton Central. The awnings are quite nice and the platform is very well maintained with planting reminding you of the Gardens.
The station is one of the very few trains stations in London where London Underground and suburban trains use the same platform. This is cumbersome for engineers due to the different power supply systems and carriage size.
With the station to your back, walk towards the main road following the signs for the Botanical Gardens. You are initially on Station Parade
Ahead Lichfield Road
The road ends opposite the main entrance to the botanical gardens. As mentioned in the routing notes, the gardens are a major attraction worth a full day. Like many London attractions, the entrance fee is very high (15£ for one visit, 72£ for one year), but you could argue that this is reasonable considering the very large number of attractions within the grounds. Look at http://www.kew.org for details. If you include a visit of the gardens in the walk, I suggest you leave the gardens after your tour at the Elizabeth Gate, located at the northern end of the gardens, rather than at the main gate.
The gardens took over from a pleasure garden and a collection of exotic plants started in the 1770s around the royal palaces of Richmond and Kew. When the royal family moved away from these palaces, the gardens were transformed into a publicly-owned botanical garden. Such gardens are known to have already existed in medieval Italy, usually in connection with university hospitals, but Kew can be considered nowadays to be the most highly regarded institution of its kind in the world. This is due both to the legacy of an Empire spanning the world and to the well-known love of Englishmen for gardening.
Taking advantage of the fact that I have many pictures of the botanical gardens, I am able to show you a selection of the attractions contained within. The virtual tour starts at the main gate and runs more or less clockwise. I am aware that some sections are not covered.
The “Temple of Bellona” is one of a number of park follies built for the royal park around 1760 and relocated later on in convenient spots. Garden follies were very often built in the neo-classical style at the time.
The “King William Temple” is another neo-classical garden folly, but it was built much later for Queen Victoria who wanted in 1837 to commemorate King William IV. The planting around the temple includes palm trees and lavender as this is the Mediterranean section.
The Pagoda was built in 1762 when anything Chinese was seen as wonderfully exotic and an absolute must. The King logically had a particularly tall pagoda built. It was so tall that many visitors declined climbing inside, feeling the structure might topple.
The Japanese landscape is made of three gardens inspired by traditional Japanese gardening with some typical elements like a river of pebbles and higher gray stones symbolising the paradise.
The structure in the middle of the garden was salvaged from a world exhibition in 1910 and is a smaller copy of a temple gate in Japan.
Queen Charlotte’s cottage was originally a pavilion in the Richmond Palace zoo but was later converted to a retreat for the Queen in the 1770s. It was only given to the botanical gardens in 1898. Royals very often wished a quiet cottage to escape on occasion from the constraints of court life and very well-known examples include Marie-Antoinette’s “Hameau de la Reine” in Versailles and Queen Astrid’s atelier on the grounds of Laeken palace in Brussels.
The woodland around the cottage was to be kept a wilderness according to the wishes of Queen Victoria and the somewhat remote location within the park enables one of the best bluebell shows in London in the appropriate season.
Rhododendrons were a Chinese plant according to popular opinion in the 1770s and were therefore as fashionable as pagodas and tea pavilions. A new craze for rhododendrons started in the 1850s when plant collectors could travel more safely to Nepal, their main motivation being to multiply the collected plants and sell them at a very high price to people who tried to impress their neighbours with novelties. The display at Kew is nice in season but cannot compete with Dulwich Park.
Minka House is an authentic Japanese farm house built without nails on stone slabs in order to withstand earthquakes. It was donated by a Japanese heritage association in 2001 and is now used as the centrepiece of a bamboo garden started in 1891. Bamboos are something of a problem in parks because they grow very quickly and crowd out neighbouring plants if not kept in check.
The Queen’s Garden was developed in the 1960s as a logical backdrop to Kew Palace which is from the 17th century. It shows the kind of garden that was fashionable at the time with wrought iron gazebos and sculptures, both stone and bronze. The planting includes only flowers grown at the time and it is very striking to realise the very limited choice of colours. The first large family of colourful plants to be imported was tulips coming from Turkey, but this did not really start before the 1700s.
The “secluded garden” was created in 1995 as a sensory garden to show that plants are also interesting to smell, feel and hear. There is a rather funny sculpture in the middle that looks from afar like undone washing-up. It is actually a fountain made of an incredible number of intricately planned slates of different shapes.
The Princess of Wales Conservatory is possibly the attraction in Kew that is most similar to more modest botanical gardens like those in Paris and Frankfurt. It is a set of low glasshouses dedicated each to plants from a specific climate. This is always very interesting to visit as you tend to forget until your next visit how exotic they are.
The Waterlily House is a small glasshouse built in 1852 in order to recreate the climate of the Amazon rainforest because this was necessary in order to display the giant waterlily that was the pride of the garden at the time. In the end, the glasshouse was used for other plants as the Victoria Amazonica did not thrive as intended.
The Palmhouse is considered the most impressive Victorian glasshouse still standing. Numerous magnificent glasshouses exist in Europe, but they were often built a little later. Don’t miss the very striking perspective from the end of the structure. As the name says, the building shelters palm trees as well as a number of typical food plants like cocoa and coffee. This arrangement is similar in most botanical gardens.
At the back of the Palmhouse, there is a small lake with a very formal balustrade, clearly a reminder of the royal garden in the 18th century. An elegant statue adorns the lake as was customary at the time. There is a similar arrangement at Hampton Court.
The Georgian house at the other end of the lake is one of several exhibition galleries in the gardens (all included in the overall price, which is better than in Paris). The first idea to include a museum in the grounds dates back to a suggestion by King George IV in 1820. In this particular building, the managers show how plants have been used in other civilisations for music instruments, sculptures and even medical devices.
Now that you have toured the gardens, I give you a few other pictures just for the fun of the nice shapes and colours
Assuming you do not visit the gardens, you can still admire the entrance gate. The imposing structure dates back to 1868 and shows that the managers expected a large number of visitors. The gate stood originally elsewhere but had to be relocated when the train company decided unexpectedly to locate the train station at a different place, closer to the existing hamlet of Kew. There are several other gates nowadays, two of which you will pass later.
R Kew Road walking along the Kew Gardens wall
There is a nice building at number 288 in the road. It looks like a traditional pub but is actually a tea and cake shop with the delightful name “The original maids of honour”. I read later that maids of honour are traditional small pastries served with afternoon tea and named after the ladies-in-waiting to Queen Anne Boleyn, who supposedly like them (the pastries, not necessarily the ladies).
L Kew Green, the road turns R at the end of the green
The church dominating the centre of the green is St Anne’s, built on land donated by Queen Anne in order to cater for the court staff. The original 1714 building was much extended in 1770 and in the late 19th century. The most interesting part from outside is the entrance portico, a late Georgian neo-classical structure from 1822 with the typical columns and balustrade. The nave of the church inside is also neo-classical and is worth a short look if the building is open.
Number 37 Kew Green is a substantial house with a neo-classical portico that should remind you of royal porticos such as the one giving access to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. This is not surprising as the house was the residence of the Duke of Cambridge, the seventh son of King George III. He had it rebuilt in 1840 and it is now the art gallery of Kew Gardens. The entrance on Kew Green is used when people hire the building for a grand wedding.
At the back of the green, you find a second set of grand gates for the Botanical Gardens. The pillars are particularly ornate and the somewhat excessive display of scrolls, flowers and faces on the urns points correctly to a neo-baroque structure from 1846. The gate was commissioned when the gardens became a public park in order to offer a more conspicuous entrance as most visitors used boat services and arrived on the river Thames at the time. The name Elizabeth refers to Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee.
Number 57 Kew Green is a large complex of buildings that I do not find very attractive to look at. The central part was the residence of the Duke of Cumberland, fifth son of King George III and future King of Hanover, for a short period in 1830. It is now used for the offices of the Kew Herbarium, one of the largest collections in the world of plant material used for scientific studies. The word herbarium sounded to me a little like an activity intended for children to do “something sensible” during summer holidays, but the wording “collection of plants” would be confusing in English.
L Ferry Lane, an access road towards the riverside
Ferry Lane passes the back of the Herbarium and the storage facilities towering above the road are quite impressive. The collections are extremely sensitive to humidity and light, so that the climate control facilities are even more exacting than in historic libraries. The north front of the buildings is made of wood, which is an appropriate gesture for a herbarium. It is a material I have not seen used much in London because construction timber is scarce in Britain unless it is imported, a big difference to southern Germany, eastern France or Scandinavia.
L on the riverside walkway for about 1 3/4 mile until you reach Richmond Lock
At the start of the walkway, you get a good view of the garden front of Kew Palace, also called the Dutch House. It is one of the oldest royal palaces as the building dates back to 1631, but only became a royal property in 1728 when the Prince of Wales, who had been left in Hanover since age 7 and knew his family little, wished an independent residence near enough to Richmond Palace.
It remained a subsidiary building of the other palace until the early 19th century and was given to Kew Gardens in 1898, but it is managed independently. This means that you have to pay twice to visit, once to the Botanical Gardens for access and once to the Royal Palace administration for the house itself. There is not much to see inside as the building has been empty for a very long time.
Walking on the Thames Path is a very good way of seeing buildings on the other side of the river. The first conspicuous set is a recent development with the kind of glassy penthouse apartments familiar from the Docklands. The river Thames is particularly wide here because it corresponds to the mouth of the Grand Union Canal. It was an extremely busy junction in the early 19th century until Regent’s Canal enabled an easier access to factories in North London and to the Docks.
A bit later on, the bank opposite becomes wooded until you see a sizeable palace. Syon House strikes me as being a particularly forbidding mansion. The outer appearance dates back to construction in 1547 and is therefore interesting to compare to Hampton Court palace which is from about the same period. I have never visited the mansion because I did not expect it to be very different from properties I could visit cheaper as a member of the National Trust. The mansion is particularly well known for a number of rooms decorated by leading architect Robert Adam, for whom it was the first major commission.
On your own bank of the Thames, you can have a look to a section of Kew Gardens not protected by a wall. It is still protected against trespassers by a ditch. The banks on my picture are usually empty because this part of the botanical gardens is far from the main attractions and primarily interesting for the collection of trees.
The section after the viewpoint is the wildest on this route, partly because it is very far from any access by car. After heavy rains, it is also the main section where you might get mud on your shoes. The path runs for about a mile between the river and a golf course. There is a small risk that the path might be flooded, which happens a few times a year due to spring tides.
The elegant neo-classical pavilion you see at one point on the opposite bank of the river marks the limit of Syon Park. I am not sure whether it was a pavilion used for intimate high tea afternoons, but this would be the most logical use. It looks like it was built around 1800.
The neo-classical pavilion gives way to the village of Isleworth, which is included on one of my Waterloo network walks. The church is All Saints Church, a rare riverside church as this implies it was not in the centre of the village. The original church was burnt down by schoolboys in 1943 (who also committed arson in nearby Hounslow and were possibly inspired by reports on big fires in the City of London after bombings). The tower is the original 14th century section while the nave was rebuilt in 1970 in a modern style.
You are now reaching the end of the wilder section when you see Richmond Lock. The lock was built in 1894 to ensure sufficient depth in the river Thames above Richmond. Because of the way the embankments were built in central London from the 1830s on, the tide moved much faster and much more forcefully than before, so that the river nearly dried up above Richmond at low tide and flooded at high tide. The residents petitioned for more than 50 years before Parliament decided to build the lock.
As it is not a weir with a lock but a set of sluice gates (needed to let water through upstream as well as downstream), it was necessary to built a walkway giving access from above. Parliament sensibly decided to make a full footbridge out of the walkway but you will notice that the design is really unusual in that there are two parallel and independent footbridges. There was a toll for crossing the footbridge as it was seen as a sort of sightseeing excursion.
You are entering here Old Deer Park, a large open space kept empty because it is used as a flooding plain in case of particularly high tide. It was a hunting ground close to Richmond Palace from the 1600s onwards. When the court moved away, it was left empty until a large part of it was turned into a golf course. The remaining part was used for funfairs. Because the open space is located between a highway, a golf course and the Thames with only one little car park, it tends to be a quiet area.
You might notice several obelisks in the park, one nearer to the Thames and two nearer to the highway. They were used by the King’s Observatory, located close nearby in the middle of the present golf course, and enabled precise alignment of instruments when watching planets and stars.
Ahead across Old Deer Park Recreation Ground, the path nears a major highway and leads along it to a footbridge across the road
R on the footbridge
Ahead on the narrow access road, merges into Park Lane
Ahead on a narrow footpath between taller brick buildings
Cross the road for
The station opened in 1846 as the terminal for a new train line from Clapham Junction. The line was extended as early as 1848 towards Staines. A junction opened in 1869 offering services towards Gunnersbury.
The Gunnersbury line tracks work normally as a terminal so that the platforms for the 1846 and the 1869 lines are fully separated. Changing trains in Richmond on an Oyster pay-as-you-go card can therefore cause unexpected charges because of the unclear touching instructions and intransparent software.
The station building is sizeable, as befits an important town like Richmond. It was built in 1937 in a moderate Art Deco style. The many large windows meant to give much light into the concourse are typical of the style. You will be a little surprised to note that you go down stairs into the concourse when entering the station from the road. It is usually more convenient to have stairs only for platform access.