Hooray! Walking shoes back on to pick up my round-London trip on the Capital Ring once again, after a break for holidays, a couple of weeks where I didn’t have many evenings free, and a few other issues. It was good to be out and about again, and this stretch was completely new territory for me – a reminder that in London, there is always somewhere you’ve never visited before, and always something to surprise you. This was my shortest stretch yet – a diversion to meet a pal at Brentford bought cheer, but meant this stretch was (officially) less than four miles long. But there was still plenty to see here.
I picked up where I left off at Richmond, passing the green and the site of Richmond Palace; no sign of the roads flooding around here as the Thames was just picking up again from a very low tide. Under Richmond railway bridge and Twickenham Bridge, passing the Old Deer Park – and the meridian line that isn’t near Kew Observatory – the walk had a Sunday afternoon feel about it; even though this was a Monday and people walking to and from work mingled with the families with small children.
Crossing the Thames at Richmond Weir, things start to change. Looking up through St Margarets and Isleworth, you can see the boatyards ahead, and the roar of the planes heading into and out of Heathrow gets louder. But there was one last sign of genteel Richmond to enjoy – a group of older people sketching the scene at the weir.
A bridge over the little River Crane – with a stern warning from Middlesex County Council about posting bills – took me into Isleworth, a place I’d always assumed was rather grim and lifeless; having previously associated the place with the M4 and Sky TV. Wrong!
Old Isleworth, by the Thames, is a pretty well-kept riverside village – although further back from the Thames, Hounslow Council has done its best to ruin the ambience by cluttering the place with street signs. With Isleworth Ait (island) in the middle of the river at this point, the Thames flows slowly and it feels like life in Isleworth should do the same. Boatyards, pretty old houses, a mighty riverside pub – the London Apprentice – and a 14th-century church tower indicate that this should be somewhere peaceful.
But it isn’t. The planes – Heathrow’s flightpath is almost directly overhead here – make a racket, but constant traffic down the narrow main street shatters the relaxing feel. If something could be done to take cars out of Isleworth, the place would be transformed.
Then it’s through Syon Park, flat and open except for the ha-ha surrounding the London home of the Duke of Northumberland, where the walk leads to a clutch of garden shops in the grounds. After that, it’s Brentford Lock, only very recently redeveloped, which marks the start of the Grand Union Canal and is now a swish residential quarter.
Here, though, I took a diversion to an earlier waterside redevelopment – Brentford Dock, to meet an old colleague. A late-70s version of what’s appeared at the lock, it sits on an peaceful corner of the river, opposite Kew Gardens and on the site of an old railway goods yard – signs of the old line greet you on the way there, and some of the old industrial land remains. It actually reminded me of some of the earlier developments in Rotherhithe – right down to the closed-down pub in the development, the equivalent of SE16’s Downtown.
Back up the canal again, underneath the A4 and past the gleaming headquarters complex of drugs giant Glaxo SmithKline. Near here used to be the old Lucozade factory with its “replaces lost energy” slogan, always a welcoming sign on a return to London. But that went five years ago has been hiddden in a museum since then – and it won’t be coming back. Last month, councillors in Hounslow turned down a plan to re-erect it. One of GSK’s replacements is a striking yellow sculpture, called Athlete which sits by the canal.
Beyond GSK, the canal takes on a rural feel. Ducks fed ducklings, a swan hunted for food. Water seeps through the locks. Cyclists say hello as they pass by. The Grand Union Canal walk continues for another 136 miles to Birmingham from here, making my 78-mile circuit feel a little weedy.
The roar of the adjacent M4 gives the game away, though – and it is hard to believe that anyone thought it was a good idea to build the motorway here. Traffic noise aside, it’s a quiet stroll towards the end of this section of walk, as the path comes into Hanwell. Walking towards Boston Manor Tube station, I passed a disused sports ground, where even the cars in the car park were derelict.
After this short and sweet stretch through Brentford, it was a sign of some of the neglect to come…