Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
As we come down from the bridge on the Surrey side, in front stands Tony Roma' s restaurant and bar, until recently the Ferryboat Inn, and, prior to 1969, the old Carnarvon Castle Hotel, which was opened about 1860. Between Tony Roma's and the river, where now cars drive around the roundabout, at one time stood the Castle Inn, an ancient hostelry with a history going back to the early part of the seventeenth century. It was one of the most famous inns on the river, with a frontage right on the water's edge, and a landing stage so that boating parties could moor right by its front door. It was part of the Manor of Molesey Prior, which from the time of Henry was owned by the Crown, and was sold in 1816 under a special Act of Parliament to raise capital to buy Claremont as a residence for Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent. In 1888 it was enlarged by the addition of an annex, to which the main building was connected by an ornamental covered bridge built over the road, and for which the owners paid a wayleave of one shilling per annum to the Molesey Council.
At the turn of the century its facilities were praised: 'Princes and their suites stay here, the famous cuisine and wines doubtless proving a great attraction. It is a prime favourite with the honourable and ancient fraternity of anglers. Racing men, who know a good thing when they see it, make the hotel a resting place, it being furthermore close to Hurst Park, Kempton, and Sandown'. The host, Mr Mayo, it says 'is known from John O 'Groats to the Lands End'.
Unfortunately the Castle was in the way of the present bridge. The last thirsty customer was served on 15 March 1930, and the demolisher's pickaxe started its devastating work almost immediately after.
Fixed on the river wall on the site of the Castle we can now see a cast-iron plaque. This tablet, together with three other identical ones, was originally fitted in the spandrels of the third bridge — the iron one. It is embellished with the coat of arms of Thomas Newland Allen, the owner when the bridge was built.
The footpath here is terminated by a castellated brick wall with stone cappings, one of the original approaches built in 1865, and preserved as a listed ancient monument. Alas, however, that such conservation forces pedestrians to have to step out and walk upon a dangerous road. It is safest, therefore, to retrace our steps and walk down the stairs by the side of the bridge to the landing stage and along the water's edge. Immediately in front, at the foot of the first flight of steps, can be seen a heavy wooden door, which leads into chambers within the bridge itself. These form the basement for one of the pavilions which Lutyen' s design intended for each corner of the bridge, the upper parts of which were deleted at the insistence of the Surrey County Council.
During Hitler's War this basement was used as a guard room by a piquet of Home Guards, whose duty it was to defend the bridge against all comers. How often the writer has stood outside this door at dead of night, complete with tin helmet, fixed bayonet, webbing pouches, and all the accoutrements of 'Dad's Army', doing his allotted two-hour stint, with only the insistent drone of the water rushing over the weir for company. But Oh! what a wonderful time for contemplation:
'From the twilight to the dawning,
Delightful Thames, Eliza F. Manning (1886)
And how pleasant to watch the sun slowly rising in the stillness of the morning. One felt, as surely Wordsworth must have felt, standing on yet another bridge over this self-same river:
'Ne'er saw I, ne'er felt a calm so deep!
The landscape between the bridge and Molesey Lock was considerably altered in the 1880s, firstly by the building of the Feltham Avenue, secondly by the construction of the Thames Hotel (now called The New Streets of London), and thirdly by the layout of the promenade. Feltham Avenue was so called from James Feltham, the former owner of the land, who was at one time the rentier of the tolls of the bridge. In 1835 Feltham complained to the Corporation of London because the lock-keeper was supplementing his income by keeping goats, and the animals were getting out and eating the hedges and plants on his land. 'I have no wish to deprive him of any pleasure (or profit if any) he may have in seeing these animals around him', he wrote, but still he hoped the Corporation would use its influence to prevent him from so doing. In 1889 the estate was called a 'row of genteel residences'.
The Thames Hotel was the brainchild of Mr Harry Tagg, member of a well-known waterside family, whose business acumen lifted them up from being the sons of a local waterman to the wealthy top rank of Thames entrepreneurs — helped, of course, by the circumstances of the day, by being in the right place at the right time, just when the exploitation of the river for pleasure was moving towards its zenith.
Mr Tagg had previously constructed a boat building works — the structure which still stands between the hotel and Feltham Avenue. He branched out from hiring small boats, to building boats, to hiring steam launches and culminating, in order to cater for all the needs of his patrons, in the refreshment business.
When the electric tramway, came, bringing cheap travel to the metropolitan masses, and Hampton Court within a half-day's excursion, Tagg seized the opportunity to turn the upper part of the boathouse into a restaurant capable of seating three hundred people. 'The approach', it was described, 'is by a wide staircase from the road onto a balcony, and so into the room, the interior of which is painted white and beautifully adorned with flowers, palms, etc, and the view across the river is most pleasant. Mr. Tagg is nothing if not original, and in furnishing the place he has been fortunate in securing some of the handsome fittings from the Royal Aquarium and from 'Simpsons'. On the spacious balcony, teas can be supplied in the open air if required in full view of the river'.
One Thames guide says of the enterprise: 'It was a happy idea of his to have the whole place built for the express purpose of meeting the ever increasing needs of the boating public, who can thus have their aquatic and physical requirements catered for practically under one roof. For here we have an excellent hotel and restaurant, with commodious and adequate boat houses and premises adjoining and communicating — the whole built from the design of an eminent architect, aided by the practical knowledge of the essentials, the outcome of Mr. Harry Tagg himself. No expense or trouble has been spared to make the place comfortable and convenient to a high degree'.
The whole facade of hotel, boathouse and restaurant was covered by dozens of hanging baskets with flowers of every variety, a truly colourful sight. Even the land on the river side of the road down to the water's edge was laid out as a garden. The Surrey Comet of 2 May 1891 carried the announcement that: 'Mr. Harry Tagg of the Thames Hotel and boat building works, has made arrangements with the Molesey Band' (Yes! Molesey had its own band in those days) 'to play a selection of music this Saturday afternoon from 5 to 6.30 on the lawn of the hotel'. How pleasant it must have been then to have the musicians playing by the river without their melody being drowned by the eternal roar of motorised traffic.
Surely it was not for nothing that Mr Charles Dickens, the son of the novelist, wrote that Molesey 'is chiefly interesting to excursionists from the point of view of refreshments'.
The Thames Hotel was always known as 'Taggs Thames Hotel'; in fact, signs to this effect were displayed on the front, and today, although Mr Tagg has been dead for almost half a century, one may even yet hear it referred to by a local as 'Tagg's Hotel'.
At one time, when the river was considerably more used than it is today, it was almost impossible to walk along the slope down to the water in front of the boathouse, for row boats, skiffs, punts, and dinghies, all brightly varnished, padded with velvet cushions, and ready to be slipped straight into the water as soon as a customer appeared on the scene — usually a swain in flannels and straw boater, trying to impress his girl friend by his boating prowess.
The river has not always been as wide here as now. There was previously, close to the Middlesex bank, a tree-covered islet known as Wren's Island (not from the little bird, but because the famous architect lived in a house whose garden backed on to it). Between this island and the mainland was a narrow channel, described by Martin Cobbett, awakening from his sleep in the adjacent Mitre Hotel: 'First of all you become aware of a paddling, scuttering sort of noise — ducks busy in the shallow waters of a little creeklet under Hampton Court Bridge and then a good deal of quacking and wing flapping. You don't need to get out of bed to see what is going on amongst this industrious family party'.
Wren's Island was dredged away in 1931. Unfortunately this meant the felling of a row of lofty trees — whose beauty was commented on as early as 1794 and which were described just before they were uprooted as 'as fine a growth of timber as is to be found anywhere on the river'.
The promenade between the bridge and the lock was constructed by the Thames Conservancy in 1887, after reaching an agreement with the old East Molesey Local Board, and the freeholders of the Feltham estate. This laid down that the Conservancy would build a road forty feet wide and edge the slope with stone. The Local Board would lay down a footpath eight feet wide and plant an avenue of trees, consisting alternately of planes and limes. Unfortunately these trees have now all disappeared.
Along the promenade in the summer time there is often a number of craft tied up — motor cruisers, steamers, or barges, although fewer barges and more motor boats than there used to be. Lovers of T.S. Eliot will remember that it was whilst his barge was moored here, when 'The tender moon was shining bright', that Growltiger, the Bravo Cat, the Terror of the Thames, made his famous last stand when the barge was surrounded by his desperate enemies the Siamese, in their sampans and junks — as excitingly narrated in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.
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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