Idling along the Thames – Part III: London’s Inner Boroughs

In my mind, once the Thames leaves leafy Kew it enters urban London. The river has already passed through the London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond (see Idling along the Thames – Part II: Entering Greater London), but they sit within the Outer Boroughs and offer a sense of being outside the bounds of the city.

From Kew Bridge to Putney Bridge, the river curves like a sine wave, bottoming out just after Barnes Bridge and peaking near Hammersmith Bridge. Now the Thames moves into the Inner Boroughs – first, Hammersmith & Fulham on the north bank; then, 3km later, the Borough of Wandsworth borders the river to the south. Twenty-two bridges cross the river as it makes its way through nine of London’s 12 Inner Boroughs.

Five bridges across the Thames – London Bridge, Canon Street Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Millennium Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, view from Sky Garden

Putney Bridge

The first ‘true’ Inner Borough bridge for me is Putney Bridge because both north and south banks of the river intersect with an Inner Borough.

Putney Bridge is a ‘memory holder’ for me.

Putney Bridge

A few metres from the bridge, I once ate a leisurely, al fresco meal with my son at a now closed Carluccio’s restaurant on the final day of a UK holiday. My son’s home was only a few kilometres’ walking distance from the restaurant but, to accommodate a less mobile member of our party, we took a bus for the 3km journey. For some reason now lost to me, we caught the 39 bus – surely the longest possible transport option. The route did, however, have the advantage of passing by the All England Tennis and Croquet Club on a day when the Wimbledon Championships were in full swing. Patrons queued with typical English resignation awaiting admittance to the courts.

Battersea Bridge

On a subsequent visit, my London base was not far from Clapham Junction. On summer evenings, I would cross under the railway line near Wandsworth Station, weave through the always hectic Wandsworth Roundabout, and make my way to the Thames’s southern bank. With Wandsworth Bridge behind me and the heart of London ahead, I would meander past Plantation Wharf Pier and Oyster Pier, and head towards Battersea Bridge, enjoying the balm of a lengthy twilight en route.

Evening view towards Battersea Bridge

Albert Bridge

After Battersea Bridge comes Albert Bridge, possibly my favourite of all London’s bridges.

Why the favourite? I fell in love with London on my first visit. I generally avoid big cities and crowded places but London felt different. I loved the Tube (even on a rare sweltering day when descending underground felt like entering a blast furnace). I loved the beds of brightly coloured annuals threaded through the orderly royal parks. I loved the backstage tours of theatres in the afternoons, returning at night to see the stage light up.

Albert Bridge

When I returned home, I missed London. But I discovered a 24-hour web cam positioned on the roof of a building on Chelsea Embankment. It meant that, at any time of the day or night, I could watch live images of Albert Bridge and imagine myself there – following the morning traffic stalled on the bridge, enjoying the changing colours of the seasons, ensuring a cyclist avoided being crushed by the urgent advance of a double-decker bus.

Sadly, that web cam no longer operates. I’m holding out for a future visit when I can return to Albert Bridge in person and see it lit up at night – the first of the 14 bridges comprising the Illuminated River project.

Albert Bridge to Chelsea Bridge

Between Albert Bridge and Chelsea Bridge, the 80-hectare Battersea Park occupies the river’s entire southern bank. The park features a children’s zoo, a boating lake, a sub-tropical garden and a Peace Pagoda. The park is expansive and open to the river.

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park

But on the Thames’s northern bank, nestled discreetly behind brick walls and wrought iron fences, is the Chelsea Physic Garden. Founded in 1673 by The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London to enable its apprentices ‘to study medicinal plants and their uses’, the garden boasts an extraordinary array of plants. Some have healing properties, some are known for domestic uses, some (like deadly nightshade, monkshood and mandrake) taught the apothecaries’ apprentices about poisons.

Equisetum hyemale var. robustum, commonly known as horsetail, caught my attention. Once employed for polishing pots and pans, the stems can also be used to make reeds for clarinets and saxophones. And apparently it’s possible to ‘produce a drink used as a diuretic and to treat venereal disease’ (Wikipedia). I have no personal knowledge of the veracity of any of these claims.

Horsetail, useful for polishing pots and pans, and for treating venereal disease

Westminster Bridge

As the Thames draws closer to the heart of London, significant public buildings and structures crowd its banks. From the 11th century Tower of London and the 19th century Palace of Westminster (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) to the more recent Millennium Wheel, many are internationally recognisable.

The Tower of London and the London Eye (aka Millennium Wheel)

Westminster Bridge, which abuts the House of Commons end of the Palace of Westminster, was painted green in 1970. The bridge now matches the colour of the seats in the Commons. Further upstream, Lambeth Bridge is painted red to match the seats in the House of Lords. (Lambeth Bridge sits alongside Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop is a member of the House of Lords, one of 26 Church of England bishops who together form the ‘Lords Spiritual’.)

Palace of Westminster

I’ve spent many days investigating this stretch of the Thames, taking London Walks around the riverbank or heading indoors to explore the buildings that line the riverbank – the National Theatre, the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum on the south bank; Somerset House, Temple Gardens and the Brunel Museum to the north. But sometimes it’s the accidental discoveries that are the most captivating.

London Bridge and Borough Market

Take, for instance, Borough Market.

Borough Market with the Shard behind

Adjacent to the current London Bridge (the 1st century bridge being long since gone and the 19th century one sold to a misguided American), sits Southwark Cathedral. The cathedral is just visible from the river, although probably missed by many tourists whose eyes are drawn to the more imposing Shard behind it. Tucked between these two structures, and shadowed at street level by overhead rail lines, lies Borough Market.

There has been a fresh food market on the south bank of the Thames for centuries but the market that stands there now was established in 1756.

Paella making, Borough Market

Today, much like yesteryear, vendors and buyers shout for attention, people jostle in the aisles between stalls, and the air is filled with the heady smells of fish, fruit, cheese, breads and pastries.

The market is big and lively and noisy. Until a local told me about it, I’d never heard of it. Left to my own devices, I may have missed this delight for the senses.

Waterloo Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge

Sometimes it’s worth ignoring the public buildings and grand designs and leaving the hustle and bustle behind.

One Sunday morning, I left my Lambeth accommodation and made my way through Waterloo to the Thames’s bank. Unlike a weekday, when it is estimated that about one million people travel into London (Department for Transport), the streets and the embankment were quiet. I was fortunate to strike the river when the tide was low. (The Thames is tidal from Teddington Lock to the North Sea. The Port of London Authority provides tide times.)

Between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge, I descended a set of stairs and stepped blithely across silt and sludge and stones to the water’s edge. At the time, I hadn’t heard the term ‘mudlarking’ in connection with the Thames and I certainly didn’t know about the Port of London Authority (PLA) requirement that foragers must obtain a foreshore permit. The PLA’s website warns allcomers of the foreshore’s ‘potentially hazardous environment’ and the ‘dangers that may not always be immediately apparent’ – the rapid rise and fall of the tide, ‘raw sewage, broken glass, hypodermic needles and wash from vessels’.

River Thames, towards Blackfriars Bridge, low tide

Fortunately, I exercised care and did not remove anything from the foreshore during my wanderings. That said, I’ll know better if there’s a next time.

Despite not spying anything of archaeological significance (just as well given my lack of a permit), I liked being close to the lapping edge of the river. Not travelling across its surface by boat, not crossing it via a bridge, not surveying it from the lofty heights of the Sky Garden, not even walking under it as I had done at Greenwich. Simply being alongside it, in that liminal space between solid and liquid.

Beyond Greenwich

Thames Barrier

I have not yet ventured beyond the Thames Barrier. But the river continues on, past Erith and Greenhithe to Tilbury Docks, before flowing into the North Sea between the Isle of Sheppey (in Kent) to the south and Southend-on-Sea (in Essex) to the north.

The water that occasionally surfaces in a nondescript Gloucestershire field descends a mere 110m to sea level while travelling through nine English counties and one of the world’s major cities. During its 340km journey, it is joined by dozens of tributaries, passes through 45 locks, is crossed more than 200 times by bridges, ferries, tunnels and a cable car, and morphs from freshwater to tidal.

There is still much to discover as I idle along the Thames.

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View from Sky Garden, looking towards Tower Bridge

Photo credits

All photos by the author. This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.

Idling along the Thames – Part II: Entering Greater London

After meandering through six counties in rural and regional England (see ‘Idling along the Thames – Part I: Gloucestershire to Berkshire’), the River Thames reaches the sprawling metropolis of London. At this point, it is about two-thirds of the way along its serpentine route, and just under 8km from Teddington Lock where it will become a tidal river for the remainder of its passage to the North Sea.

As the Thames travels through Greater London and the city’s Inner Boroughs, it is joined by over two dozen tributaries most of which now flow underground. These smaller rivers have wonderful names. As well as the better-known Fleet and Tyburn, they include the Effra, the Walbrook, the Black Ditch, the Neckinger, the Wandle and the Quaggy. (Visit the Museum of London (Docklands) website for a detailed map.) You can discover more about these rivers in Peter Ackroyd’s London Under or, for a more fanciful encounter, dip into Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

The Thames meets its first Greater London borough – Richmond upon Thames – just to the west of Hampton Court Palace.

Watercraft on the River Thames approaching Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

Standing on the northern, Greater London side, of the river is Hampton Court Palace, once owned by Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey made the residence so desirable the comfort-seeking Henry VIII snaffled it from him. (In reality, there was a bit more to this property ‘exchange’ than that: Wolsey had failed to secure the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. It was all downhill for the cardinal after that.)

When the second Tudor king was in residence at Hampton Court, he could have up to 800 courtiers in attendance. Little wonder the kitchens, along with Henry’s girth, expanded.

Henry VIII kitchens, Hampton Court Palace

Additions to the palace buildings and gardens continued over the centuries. Charles II commissioned the Long Water, and during the reign of William III and Mary II new State Apartments were added. (You can read more about these additions on the Historic Palaces website, ‘The Story of Hampton Court Palace’.)

The Long Water, Hampton Court Palace

Tapestries cover many of the walls in the William and Mary apartments. I’m sure they raised the room temperature by a degree or two in the dead of winter. I wonder if they also blocked curious eyes from spying on royal lives. (I’m sure Matthew Shardlake, one of my literary heroes, would have found a way to circumvent these woven impediments.)

Kingston upon Thames

Next stop along the river for me is in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames. It is less than 3km from Hampton Court to Kingston ‘as the crow flies’ but, typically, the Thames takes a less direct route and travels twice as far.

Kingston Bridge (not to be confused with the Kingston Railway Bridge)

I travelled to Kingston one morning to map my route from the town’s railway station to All Saints Church where I was due to attend a service a few days later. In truth, it’s a very short distance from the station to the church but I do like to be prepared. After a Thames-like meander through the church, I set out in search of lunch, preferably in a pub overlooking the river. On my way, and entirely by accident, I happened upon the Coronation Stone – a block of sarsen stone (silicified sandstone), the same composition as that used in the construction of Stonehenge.

Coronation Stone, Kingston-upon-Thames

According to tradition, the Coronation Stone was used during the coronation of the seven Saxon kings of England who were crowned at Kingston, from Edward the Elder (son of Alfred ‘The Great’) in 900 to Ethelred the Unready in 979. (All Saints’ website provides more background and there are thumbnail sketches of all the Saxon kings on the official website of the British Royal Family.)

Continuing my quest for lunch, I passed a barge moored beside the river. It was flying the flag of the Fremantle Dockers football team. Although I support a team on the east coast of Australia (some 3,000km from Fremantle), the flag felt like a touch of home. Introvert that I am, I still struck up a conversation with the barge owner. ‘Aussie Rules’ is a universal language for most Australians.

Barge, flying Fremantle Dockers flag, moored on the River Thames, Kingston

I did find lunch eventually – complete with river view.

Pub (the Gazebo?) overlooking River Thames, Kingston


Lunch with a view of the Thames is an easily fulfilled indulgence in Richmond. I have acquainted myself with the menus of several pubs here followed by postprandial strolls along the riverside.

Thames Path, Richmond

I did once gather sufficient post-lunch energy to climb to the Terrace Gardens and then to the top of Richmond Hill. (At just over 1km, this is hardly an onerous walk.) The view from Richmond Hill is protected, being covered by a parliamentary preservation order – the Richmond Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act 1902. It was ‘the first landscape in England to have [such an order] applied to it’ (Petersham Village website).

In my photo, the Thames can just be glimpsed through the trees.

View from Richmond Hill looking towards the Thames

I haven’t yet been energetic enough to reach the site of another protected outlook – from King Henry VIII’s Mound in Richmond Park. It is one of 13 locations required to preserve a line-of-sight view of St Paul’s Cathedral. (If you’re keen on details, you’ll find plenty about the London View Management Framework on the City of London website.)

Kew Gardens

After passing through Richmond, the Thames skirts around Isleworth Ait, a 4-hectare Nature Conservation site. It then divides Syon Park in the north-west from Kew Gardens to the east. My first visit to the gardens was the morning after a night-time terrorist attack in London. Leaving the inner city to spend the day in a tranquil environment with 50,000 living plants seemed like a good idea. I wandered in the shade of the arboretum, watched children somersault on the grass, and ambled along the riverside walk. It was not a day for taking photos.


Leaving the Greater London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond behind, the Thames takes a sine wave-shaped swish, travelling under Barnes Bridge and on to Hammersmith Bridge. It has now reached London’s Inner Boroughs. My journey with the river will re-start at Putney Bridge in ‘Idling along the Thames – Part III: London’s Inner Boroughs’.

The River Thames at Putney Bridge

Links and sources

Photo credits

All photos by the author. This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.