Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
'A place where Nature's choicest gifts adorn,
Where Thames' kind streams in gentle current turn,
The name of Hampton hath for ages borne.'
When permission was granted to allow building development on the Hurst, the planning authorities at least insisted that a wide strip of open grassland was to be left between the blocks of houses and Father Thames, creating a recreation area which is much appreciated by the hundreds who on any warm weekend may be seen picnicking, watching the craft on the river, or just lying on the grass sunning themselves. It is along this green expanse that our ramble now leads us.
This is one stretch of our walk which has definitely improved over the years, most particularly by the eradication of the old fence which formerly encircled Hurst Park, an infernal rampart which had been the target of remonstration ever since the day it was first erected.
In 1930 a town planning survey commissioned by the Middlesex and Surrey County Councils described the towpath here as uninteresting, 'owing to the high and ugly fence erected to withhold from the public the view of races taking place on Hurst Park Racecourse which occupies the river frontage for some considerable distance. The fence is substantially built in wood and keeps a uniformly ugly and undeviating line for over a mile. It is a graceless and forbidding protection of vested interests'. The report suggested that: 'The planting of tall growing poplars along the boundary of the fence would mitigate the sense of bareness and make a fine line of green'.
The surveyors did state, however, that the fence was 'innocent of any form of advertisements', something they could not have said even a few years before this, for it had been the custom on every race day to nail placards upon the fence all the way along the towpath and round Hurst Road as well. So many and so tightly packed together were they that barely a square foot of the original fence could be seen. Nobody ever took the trouble to remove them, the consequence of which, when time, rain and weather had all taken their toll, was a tattered and sorry mess all round.
At one time an even greater threat to the scenery here was mooted which, had it been carried out, would have been nothing short of an environmental disaster.
In 1858 plans were deposited with the clerk of the peace to seek Parliamentary sanction for the construction of a railway line to run from Twickenham, through Teddington, Hampton, West Molesey and East Molesey, to connect with the existing branch line at Hampton Court Station. This railway would have spanned the Thames on a massive, hideous bridge where we now stand, which would undoubtedly have ruined the riverscape for all time. Luckily for us the monstrosity was never erected, which may have been due to the tremendous capital outlay that such a viaduct would have entailed, plus the pressure which was exerted by the residents of Sunbury and Shepperton, who wanted the line to run to their district. Their wish was granted. Shepperton got the line instead. For such mercy we ought to be eternally grateful.
At this point the Thames broadens out to almost lake-like proportions and the water becomes alive, at week-ends, with white and blue sails, as the yachts tack and veer across the stream in a seemingly aimless saraband. And above all Hampton Church lords it over the scene like the chairman at a meeting.
Hampton's parish church, St Mary's, is a handsome structure in the Perpendicular style, dating from 1830, when it replaced the ancient temple which had stood here from medieval times, but had then become too small for the growing village. The main attraction of the present building lies in a number of historically interesting memorials and gravestones. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat were enjoined by Harris to stay a while here to 'go and see Mrs. Thomas's tomb'. He did not quite know who Mrs Thomas was, but 'She's a lady thats got a funny tomb, and I want to see it'.
During the winter of 1962/3, when the frost started on Boxing Day and hung around virtually continuously until the end of February, the river was frozen to a depth of a foot or more. Even the efforts of an ice-breaker failed to keep a navigation channel open.
'Famed Thames with shiv'ring winter dresses,
Although no fair was held on the ice, as it was in the seventeenth century when the lines above were penned, a well wrapped-up humanity was scattered over the river, skating, snowballing or (like the present writer) just strolling, so that they could recount to generations not then born that they had walked across the Thames from West Molesey to Hampton in the great freeze-up of '63. Some foolhardy youths even managed to get a small motor car onto the ice, and drove it where normally the only conveyance was the public ferry.
And so, looking back at the frozen river of 1963, and recalling Pepys' words of three centuries before: '. . .a bitter cold frosty day, the frost being now grown old and the Thames covered with ice' we needs must leave the towpath, while looking forward to returning in the spring with William Morris: 'The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green,' and, in the knowledge that, as another year passes, we too become a small part of this splendid river's 'liquid 'istory'.
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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