#6 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames

ROYALTYIMG_1608You’ll just have to read on to find out. But just in case you’re worried, she didn’t die. They cut her down in time.

Windsor: a day of rest

IMG_1562We had a hugely expensive cup of tea on the Eton side of the river watching the tidal wave of tourists engulf the shops successfully designed to relieve them of their hard-earned.

It must be one of the few schools in the world to be a tourist attraction. It might be worth remembering that while Princes William and Harry, David Cameron and 18 other British Prime Ministers were educated there, so were George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Eddy Redmayne.

All boys; all boarders. Two conditions which would influence outcomes. Base fees of AUD70,000 per year. That’s another condition that may have already determined outcomes, although the school and its apologists are quick to emphasise that one-third of the boys receive some amount of financial assistance. But, of course, if you have to ask how much, it’s too expensive for you and yours. The chap at left is in school uniform. Must be a lot of work keeping that white bow tie clean.IMG_1557 

The day after we arrived in Windsor Prince Charles opened the school’s new £18million Bekynton Field development which includes a debating hall modelled on the House of Commons so that the kids will feel at home on graduation. And that’s great. A proper transition program. Education at its most considered.MK17792_Eton_College_Chapel At right, the school’s modest chapel.



Eton is on one side of the river and Windsor and its castle are on the other. It’s more homely on the right bank. We ambled up over the hill (yes a hill, that will be one of the reasons why the castle is there) and down bustling Peascod St to our destination. <These boys absolutely bopped. We found a Moroccan restaurant at the top of the street near our hotel. Meimo: ★★★★★. Have the lamb shank tagine, the chicken wings and green beans. At least.

That night I wrote in my journal that I was missing what I described as the previous simplicity of the walk: look at the map, read the notes, eat, walk, sleep, then do it again. Myrna and I have often talked about the meditative quality of long walks. There may be some empirical basis for a belief that such a great deal of repetitive motion (in this case about 300,000 steps) reduces anxiety, or as I prefer to think, clears the crap out of your head. That certainly happens for me. The entry might have been about the increasing proximity of London and its urban tentacles, although I was looking forward very much to seeing our friends there. It might just have been closing in on the end. I don’t know whether I’ve got this across, but this was all pretty good fun. Whatever, it was a twinge of sadness.

IMG_1569Was the castle enough to hold my interest? With the addition of a visit to a laundrette and some good coffee, for a time, certainly. It’s a big one, and a going concern. About [insert huge number] people visit it every year and each of them spends [insert huge number] pounds which enables the whole show to be in very good condition.

The Queen wasn’t there — she texted to say she was gearing up for her big day at Runnymede a couple of days later — but her presence, of course, was everywhere. We struggled personfully with ideas about lineage and succession but realised that we had no idea. How did a Greek and a German come to be regents of England again? Take me through it slowly.

The castle was a vision in grey and gold, and as mentioned was beautifully kept.IMG_1571 The chapel (below left) had all the celestial exuberance and elegance one expects from late Gothic architecture. Not as good as Ste. Chapelle, but this is just a bit of a castle, not a free-standing miracle.

IMG_1587The state rooms were stately: full of stuff. Lots of portraits — Van Eyk’s multiple views of Charles I, clearly a bad lot, being a standout —  lots of sumptuary, lots of muskets, lots of swords, lots of bayonets.

We were poking round in the book shop trying to work out who was who and why when the band struck up for the changing of the guard. I didn’t think I had to be interested but a band is a band and when you’re in the grounds of Windsor Castle with the opportunity to hear the theme from ‘Star Wars’ played by guys with either highly polished things or bits of animal coming down over their noses you go along.IMG_1573 When this is followed by the late M. Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ you stay. In both cases flawless and riveting renditions.

You could never fault the English on their capacity to put on a show, like Dr Brian May (CBE, musician (Queen), songwriter (‘We will Rock You’) and astrophysicist) playing his guitar on the ramparts of Buckingham Palace. Or to acknowledge those who can put on a show: like, for example, Sir Elton Hercules John, CBE.

It’s this capacity to be a good sport and to make use of everything you’ve got including your historical and cultural heritage that seems to be crucial in maintaining contact across the screamingly evident social divisions. The agreeable impact of this sort of entertainment seems to be smeared right across the population like a good spread of Vegemite on toast. [Finalist: Inapposite Metaphor of the Year Award]

That’s one thing. But as well it seems to generate widely-shared pride. It’s up to date and often effortlessly cool. Unknown-1(Footnote: It was not Angry Anderson in a Batmobile (at right, tragic. I was there that day) or an overcooked Meatloaf.) The Regimental band could have played ‘Colonel Bogey’ say, or a snatch of Pomp and Circumstance — that’s English — or even the Radetzky March; but they didn’t. The band master went for smart choices, guided by refined and very capable populism. Well-judged, intelligent, even artistic.

Whatever this style/ movement/ public choice and expectation is, it also understands precisely the vein it’s looking to tap into. Getting with it is, for now at least, not something you have to argue about. And certainly not when it might turn a quid. I remember this from the Olympics. Even if you don’t like the product you can be proud that someone else is putting on a show, a show in which you may claim a proprietorial stake.

And it’s not too distant, an odd combination of both c’est moi and c’est pour moi.

You know the Queen didn’t go skydiving with Daniel Craig, but she probably really was with him in the room when they were getting that shot in the Palace. She can, within limits, muck around. When I think of the Queen, well I don’t really. But if I did it is of this very remote and buffered figure, not someone whose humanity and ‘lovability’ is quite regularly on display. The reality of this accessibility might be nonsense but English celebrities seem to understand connectedness. You can have a picnic in the grounds of Hampton Court, if fact you’re encouraged to. Graham Norton is just so cute, and he is your friend.

This sort of stuff won’t make you any richer, but it might make you think twice about dynamiting the ramparts. In other times it might have been called the free distribution of cake perhaps.

images-1I suppose that’s what the Queen is for. Colour and movement. A living embodiment of post-modernism: a clutch of paradoxes stitched up into a pastel twin set by a string of pearls and crowned by England’s finest milliners. God bless her.

• • • • •

Got sick of the castle and its implications and went for a swim. I left a trail of blood but there were no sharks in the pool.

Windsor to Shepparton — 23 km

Is that all? It seemed a lot longer. Apart from anything else we crossed the M25 and returned to something more like ummm … other versions of the real world. 

We got up an hour early by mistake and saw Peascod St just about empty. That’s like getting a jump on the day, in this case a very worthwhile activity.IMG_1567

We hauled our way round ‘The Home Park’, encountering this genuinely regal site. Click the pic to see the relevance of the bathroom offerings.IMG_1590

IMG_1595Walkers get choofed across the Albert Bridge for security reasons a little further on. Conditions on our side were as illustrated. We had seen a lot of nettles but nothing like the acreage of this section. They were everywhere. These enormous rhubarby weedy things were everywhere too. On the other bank I’ll swear I saw one off the Princes in this trap racing along the Home Park’s tow path.


IMG_1600Two very elegant cottages designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, OM KCIE PRA FRIBA (we’re on regal honours just now) signalled our arrival at Runnymede. 

There are three memorials overlooking the Thames at Runnymede. The oldest is on the modest hill overlooking the meadow and is dedicated to the memory of the men and women of the Allied Air Forces who died during the Second World War.

A second is dedicated to the memory of JFK. The inscription reads: ‘This acre of ground was given to the United States of America by the people of Britain in memory of John F Kennedy, born 19th May 1917: President of the United States 1961-63: died by an assassin’s hand 22nd November 1963. “Let every Nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty”: from the inaugural address of President Kennedy, January 1961.’

IMG_1601Only the third relates to the Magna Carta and it’s not even British. The Magna Carta Memorial was built by the American Bar Association funded by donations from 9,000 American lawyers. IMG_1599

When we walked past it was exactly 800 years less six days since the Grand Charter had been signed there by King John and 25 Barons. Eminent historian Christopher Pyne and his acquaintance Dr Kevin Donnelly have announced this experience as the foundation of all aspects of Australian life deemed to be civilised. They may have been supported by the American Bar Association in this, but the workers appeared unmoved. They were getting ready for a big party. Headline act: Elizabeth Windsor.

A related blog post: ‘Meanwhile, half a mile up the hill, a gathering of musicians, speakers and gentle people looking to engage with the issues around democracy have their gathering surrounded by police and shut down, under the false allegation of it being an ‘illegal rave’. This is the truth of democracy. It doesn’t matter if the Queen or the government have sovereignty = the robber barons are still calling the shots, and democracy is just a game they play to keep things how they want. All the pageantry is a smokescreen, a comforting fop. We are surfs [sic], and always have been.’

Elsewhere Beer Day Britain ran a ‘Cheers to Magna Carta’ national event.

Just round the corner I decided to flout an explicit direction and pursue a shortcut across some public park — Runnymede Pleasure Ground now I look — where we encountered the events which provided the photo which began this blog: the installation of a new sculptural memorial to Her Maj.

Its installation was interesting. I’ve never seen a statue installed on its plinth before and these boys were good at it.

But we found ourselves standing next to a Royalophiliac, whose disease she made every effort to communicate. The statue and its installation was going to cost £756,000 of which at that time there was a £280,000 shortfall. (Grand Designs all over again!) She intended to increase her already substantial contribution. It would possibly be renowned British sculptor James Butler’s final work, he’s 83 now, but certainly his finest. The statue was derived from Pietro Annigoni’s 1969 portrait which we chased down later in the National Portrait Gallery. Annigoni also painted the Queen in 1956 to vast acclaim and probably got her about right and this is why Annigoni got another go.  Unknown-2<1956. 1969 below.

by Pietro Annigoni, oil on panel, 1969

But 1969? Way off. Slightly hircine (a polite way of saying ‘goat-like’), and what on earth is going on with the hair? She’s quite a good-looking gal — good bone structure, attractive figure — but if her stretched neck allows it, this one bleats. And James Butler had been quite faithful. The bronze was almost equally astray. If anything slightly worse. Is there a new dash of the equine in there as well? Anne rather than Elizabeth say? Scroll up and have a look.

Bad luck guys. Those are big bucks to pay for a dud. We did enjoy the installation though. Excellent. And a lovely plinth.

We could hear the M25 roaring about a kilometre away from where we were. My friends from Leigh-on-Sea defined that as the entry to London. Somewhere near here too is the outlier ‘coal post’ from 1831 warning merchants that as they were now entering London they are required to pay the coal levy. But what there really was there was, dah dah, Staines! or Staines-upon-Thames as it renamed itself in 2012.

Ah Staines. Staines Staines Staines Staines Staines.

The entry was not auspicious. I haven’t mentioned that all morning we had been walking under the main Heathrow flight path — the runway being as close as 3 or 4 km from where we were —  and every 45 seconds, someone said, a plane takes off or lands. That’s what it seemed like. Extraordinary. We padded down a long path next to the Egham sewage works, the Egham waterworks and the Egham gasworks followed by, from our vantage point, the slightly forbidding office buildings of Staines Business Park which appeared largely unoccupied.

We were hungry. I think because we still had a couple of maps to walk through we had ignored an offer of sustenance near Runnymede that looked quite promising. So the search was on for the cafe with the delicacies and the 40 year-old woman etc etc. We did the main street, and don’t make me laugh. Yes to Maccas. Yes to KFC and so on, but we were in lino land. This is Staines at its finest.IMG_1612

‘Roll out the Lino’ by David Annand. A terrific sculpture. Engraved on it:

    Roll out the lino from Staines to the world!
    Release every pattern from chessboard to twirl!
    In every hopeful kitchen let life unfurl,
    Bathrooms are artrooms from soapsuds to swirl!
    Roll out the lino from Staines to the world!

(Words by Richard Price and Leona Medlin, 2003. As far as I know not yet set to music.)

Sir Frederick Walton, a Staines native (as was Christine Keeler) invented linoleum and offered it to the world in 1864. It’s the empire again. What can I say?

We continued our search for edible food. It was fruitless in the main drag. You get impatient when you’re hungry, so we launched ourselves into the local mall resolving to take the first offering; and that was BHS Foods which offered classic British food at very cheap prices with plenty of room for wheelchairs.IMG_1613 imagesWhen Ali G (at left) says he comes from Staines, he doesn’t. He’s far too young. I believe he has now taken to saying he really comes from Egham, across the river. I also believe however, that the Staines FC has taken to describing themselves as Staines Massive which is excellent.

We fought our way out of Staines Central back to the river which we had somehow mislaid, and that had all changed too. The first houseboats appeared, although boats in name only. They weren’t going anywhere.IMG_1615My journal says: ‘A long stretch of slightly crap properties. The houses needed painting or the garden cleaning up or getting the rubbish out of the yard or the barge boards repairing.’ Even the boatbuilders’ yards were like that — just massive tumbles of junk. Unworkable you would think. I wondered if we were looking at backyards and shortly we were, on both sides of the river which had shrunk in width. The guidebook says: ‘Along riverside Staines, the little houses, in their infinite variety, still reflect the joy of simply living by the Thames.’ Maybe. Your choice.IMG_1627

By Laleham we had returned to more bourgeois offerings. The BMWs were back in the drives. In the naming stakes ‘The Willows’ had replaced ‘Iris’s Wet Dream’. We veered off the Path again to find some refreshments at the Feathers pub (high marks) returning to walk around Dumsey Meadow, the only meadow in Surrey left with its original vegetation. It was lovely, full of buttercups, red clover and the other plants with which we had become familiar. Which was why I was surprised, looking across, that it had been chosen to locate what looked like a dump for old caravans and vehicles next door. IMG_1629We got bit closer and realised that this congregation was actually in, on, the meadow. A very large man was holding a toddler by one leg behind his head and shaking him or her up and down. On the river bank three people in hi vis jackets were trying to hit swans with stones shot from shanghais (catapults you might say elsewhere). They and their dogs greeted us. The only word I really caught was ‘wankers’. Then we hit the area of the Path which they had been using for their lavatory. 

The rest of the day was spent walking through one of those strange nether lands that grow up around big cities, the transitional spaces, worked over for utilities, remnant green patches, perhaps sporting grounds, bits of farming life not far from apartment tower blocks, big fences and, here, complex water ways and reservoirs. We were quite tired by this stage — it had been big day, among other things we’d walked about 28km — and I found this disorienting and slightly surreal. As we walked the final kilometre along Ferry Lane with its huge mysterious hedges and then turned into a most unanticipated small village square set into all of this, I really wasn’t at all sure where we were.

Shepperton to Hampton Court — 10 km

When we arrived I had asked for a room on the ground floor with a bath, requests graciously granted, and we woke feeling better oriented. This was where we were.

 IMG_1636It still could have been anywhere. Shepparton Studios, source of a heap of very good British films, was nearby. Stanley Kubrick, for example, seems to have felt at home here (Dr Strangelove, 2001, Gosford Park and Eyes Wide Shut).

The day started slow and stayed that way. We only had 10 km to do, and we weren’t in any special hurry to finish. Because it would be the end.

Industrial Thames. We wandered round past the big brick wall of Las Palmas Estate and got back to the river at Walton Bridge (today’s version at right)IMG_1637 which might have been where Julius Caesar crossed the Thames. Except there is no evidence for this at all. As I have noted previously, this is very minor issue in historical terms.

Huge brick walls hid the water storages and treatment plants — think how much water London would require daily, and marvel. The only truly smelly encounter on the river was at an inlet from the river into one of these storages. The Path takes a long slow curve around the Queen Elizabeth and Bessborough reservoirs, the banks increasingly lined with house boats.IMG_1640

We seemed to arrive at East Molesey in no time, Molesey being to Hampton Court as Windsor was to Eton, a neighbour across the river where the humans live. At the East Molesey Cricket Ground we found exactly the sort of cafe required for lunch the name of which escapes me. No it doesn’t, I wrote it down: Thyme by the River. Who could have forgotten? Ha ho. We got the very best table on a mild and still English summer’s day,IMG_1641

and fell to talking to the Club President who was putting the caps back on the aluminium pickets visible in the photo. Kids pick them off and drop them in the garden on the other side of the fence. By the time he’d finished, post photo, he’d found most of them and got them back on. I asked about losing balls in the river not that far to the left of Myrna, and he told us a story about an Australian touring team which played here in mysterious circumstances in 1953. 

For years cricketers had been trying to hit a six over the trees on the bank to Tagg’s Island in the centre of the Thames just here. For this match the Molesey and Ditton News offered £50 to the first man to put a ball on the island without a splash during the course of the match. The paper invited further contributions and by match day the sum had risen to £1000, worth close to AUD50,000 today. This project had been driven partly by the presence of Keith Miller — 6’2″ of sexual allure, oh digressed, famous for his big hitting — in the Australian team. 

There are two endings for this story both with the same conclusion. One, the official account as checked, has Keith plopping them very close but in the drink a metre or two short of the island. The second, as parlayed by the President, has him hitting the island but the ball rolling back off the bank into the river — with a splash. And what do the rules say? Either way he didn’t get his money.

He probably made it up at the races the next day, along with the acquaintance of some of the finer flowers of English womanhood. When asked on return to Australia about the three most beautiful things in England, Miller said, ‘The hills of Derbyshire, the leg sweep of Denis Compton and Princess Margaret.’ Keith made the most of things.

From here it was 15 minutes to our hotel. Over this bridge, you can see it centre left in the backgroundIMG_1642

and in here.IMG_1648

A great hotel, directly opposite Hampton Court where we spent the next day, and as it turned out the next night at a fabulous Jools Holland concert. Just a whiff of luxury to finalise things. No more than a whiff. But there was a bath and some very nice real ale.

We had one of each of those, and then went for a walk.

• • • • • •

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
    Till we have built Jerusalem,
    In England’s green & pleasant Land.

It’s good, desirable even. But there’s plenty more to do.