In the spring of 2009, I decided to take a day off from the computer screen and return to the Thames Path which I had ridden the previous summer with a friend. I was out of work and underfoot and so it seemed a good idea to get out of the house and make something tangible of a day that promised sunshine, rain, blue skies and scudding clouds.
The Thames Path is a walk that meanders from the East End of London through the City and along the Embankment to Wandsworth, Putney, Barnes, Kew, Richmond, and beyond. The full walk can take you all the way to Oxford but I chose just 8 miles for my outing; from Putney Bridge through to the patrician town of Richmond.
I packed a simple lunch of sandwiches, made from last night???s roast chicken, a couple of apples, a thermos of coffee and a bottle of water. I also took some music and a German biography of Nietzsche???s thinking which I had been listening to out of curiosity and a desire to refresh my knowledge of the language. Nietzsche loved music and is quoted as saying that ???without music life would be an error???. A camera and anorak completed my supplies; the one to capture images, the other to catch the rain that might bless my outing.
I travelled by train from Balham to Clapham Junction and from thence to Putney. The joy of ???bunking off??? to wander free as a cloud was tinged with a touch of Puritan guilt at the sight of my fellow passengers going about their business. But I found consolation in the knowledge that instead of moping at home I was making the most of my lot. How sad to have been given this precious time and not to have used it wisely.
The great beauty of taking the Thames Path from Putney is that within minutes of passing the rowing sheds, one enters a tunnel of green and any vestige of City life is gradually obscured by trees. The constant murmur of traffic subsides beneath the shush of wind on leaves. To the left, the way is lined with trees, allotments, gardens, and about 20 minutes into the walk, a hidden nature reserve.?? Follow me said the little bird, through a small gate on to the raised lips of a large lake with tethered rafts for the waterfowl. To the right, the park in Fulham and then a mixture of boat houses and riverfronts are glimpsed through breaks in the trees.
Being the middle of the week, I had the path to myself; just the occasional crunch of a passing bicycle or acknowledgement of another walker broke my reverie. It felt good to be out and about on a day when the wind was so busy; moving clouds this way and trees the other; and all the while, sunlight dancing on the path I trod, so beautiful that I soon reached for the camera. But the battery was dead and so I had only these few words with which to capture and share the experience!
It wasn???t long before I climbed down from the towpath on to the shingle shore of the river, which was low but flowing fast some 20 metres from the bank. I sat for a moment beneath a tree whose gnarled roots extended out into the river bed, and scanned upstream and then down to where the river spread and curved back towards the city. Like Robinson Crusoe, I saw no sign of human habitation, just the reach of the river and the gulls wheeling in the breeze.
I???ve often seen the River Thames drained to a muddy m??lange of stones and detritus but here the shingle was small and silver grey with a few large rocks ??embedded artlessly in its midst.
Raked by the river,
Rocks and shingle have settled
Into a Zen garden.
Clouds file by
The tree-lined river bank,
Waving and bowing
Back on the path I settled into my walk and switched on my music to provide a quiet accompaniment to the journey. I listened to Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments and Lux Aeterna by the composer Gy??rgy Ligeti. It???s not like everyday music that is strong on melody, harmony and rhythm. Instead of moving forward the colour and texture of the sound has a stillness that rises and falls. This polyphony of sounds harmonised with the rhythm of the walk, the rustle of the wind and the fleeting birdsong.
Catching the gull???s wing
And the dappled path.
Beyond the green, wrought-iron bridge at Hammersmith, the way grew empty and calm until a line of cottages heralded my arrival in the village of Barnes. Here the path opened up on to a riverfront of small terraced houses protected from the flooding river by an elevated concrete walkway up to Barnes Bridge. I walked down it and then crossed over the road to pass the bridge before plunging back down to an uneven path that led eventually took me beneath the massive walls of the old brewery and out to The Ship Tavern with its cream walls and faded turquoise window-shutters.
Sitting on the causeway in front of the pub, I munched away at my chicken sandwiches, washed down with water. On the shoreline, a woman walked her dog and a mallard with her young slipped into the water and paddled out to safety. I wondered if the dog would give chase but all was peaceful and in harmony. It was good time to be in the world with new growth underway. And as I sat quietly, the world came out to play.
Quietly tipping stones,
Where the river lays bare the mud,
The tidy black rook.
Fortified by my lunch and pleased that I still had some way to go; I set off with a Mozart aria. Strange to gild this lily of a day with singing but it seemed to harmonise so beautifully with the world around. By now my body was pleasantly worn in and the rhythm of the walk settled me into that trance-like state that unties knots, dissolves blocks and allows the mind to flow once more.
I kept up a good pace, and over the course of an hour or so, I passed by the simple curve of Chiswick Bridge and its waterfront of expensive houses, and then on to Kew, passing the Pink House and Brentford Marina on the other side. At Kew Gardens I looked down into the moat and then up over the fence to see the perfectly laid lawns where people were strolling or sitting on benches in the warm spring sunshine, I was reminded of the nature reserve I had passed earlier. Here was a quiet spot where people could find sanctuary and unravel from the hurly burly.
Further on, where the river was once more expansive, I stopped to drink the rest of my coffee and eat the last chicken sandwich. I remember thinking how much I envied the old bench for its view across the river to Ham House: Great balls of white and grey ploughed the blue sky while the squally wind combed the long grass towards the rumpled river. And all the while the seagulls twitching slowly but effortlessly into the wind and then wheeling around to ride its turmoil back downstream.
Diving for fish,
An eager black cormorant
Empties the river.
My journey was almost over. I walked on down the towpath and settled back into a steady gait that quickened as the town of Richmond drew closer. Joggers and families passed by more frequently now and the path gave up its rugged gravel surface to the smooth slick of black tarmac. The river shone in the sun and the boats and riverfront dwellings filled the opposing bank. To my left however, nature still staked its claim with dark pools dappled in sunlight that passed through the canopy and lit up vivid green algae.
Now with summer gone and me once more ensconced in front of the computer, I think back to that walk and a second journey on bicycles with the family. After the ride we chained our bikes to a railing fence beneath a riverfront pub and when we returned they were submerged in the soft muddy water of a leap tide and an open lock.
Out in the river
A man is catching sun beams
Sitting on a bench.
All these visceral pleasures are lost in the computer screen and that is why I walked the river. I love to see and feel the ebb and flow that fills the cup half full and leaves the rest quite empty.
These summer leaves
??Pressed in Windows.