Between Richmond and Hampton Court is a storied stretch of the River Thames, whose banks are lined with grand houses, royal parks and Henry VIII’s favourite palace
Words by Edward Aves
The picturesque stretch of the Thames between Richmond and Hampton Court has provided refuge from the bustle of London life for centuries. After attracting the patronage of the Tudor royals – their legacy is preserved in the jaw-dropping magnificence of Hampton Court Palace – the area became a fashionable retreat for the city’s nobility, who built grand houses along its riverbanks.
By the mid-18th century, poets and artists were likening it to Arcadia, the pastoral Utopia of ancient Greece. In the 19th century, the riverside was opened up for all to enjoy, and today a stroll through this verdant slice of the city ranks high on any Londoner’s list of soul-quenching urban escapes.
Just 15 miles upstream from central London (15 minutes by train), well-to-do Richmond owes its name to Henry VII, who erected a sumptuous royal palace on the river and christened it after his Yorkshire earldom. Richmond Palace was a favourite winter residence of Elizabeth I, who died here in 1603 – her body was carried downriver to Westminster Abbey by barge – and though mostly demolished, its turreted gatehouse still survives, tucked into a corner of Richmond Green. This expansive open square, lined with Georgian terraces, was once a jousting ground, and the sporting tradition lives on today – cricket has been played on the green since at least 1730.
It’s a short stroll down pretty Old Palace Lane to Richmond’s bustling riverside, where all manner of boating expeditions – from paddle steamer cruises to rowing boat rental – are on offer. Yet, even on the busiest weekend, the scene doesn’t compare with the heyday of the late-Victorian boating craze, when up to 3000 river vessels crammed the stretch downstream to Teddington, catering to the crowds of boater-hatted young men and women who would rush down from the city to meet and mingle on the water.
It’s a gentle saunter from the riverside into Richmond Park, a vast expanse of undulating grasslands spotted with dense woods, where herds of fallow and red deer – at current count over 600 – have roamed freely since the time of Charles I. First-time visitors are often amazed to find such untamed wilderness so close to London.
The Arcadian riverscape of yesteryear is best preserved a mile and a half south of Richmond in a pair of fine mansions, set in verdant meadows, on opposite sides of the Thames. Grandest is the red-brick, Jacobean Ham House, famous for the extravagant interiors created by the resourceful Elizabeth Dysart, Duchess of Lauderdale – said to have been simultaneously Oliver Cromwell’s lover and a financial donor to King Charles II – and virtually unchanged in 350 years.
From Ham House, the quaint Hammerton’s Ferry will whisk you across the river to Marble Hill House, a graceful Palladian villa newly reopened after a stunning restoration. Marble Hill was designed for Henrietta Howard, a former mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George II), who captivated society with her intelligence and wit. Henrietta cultivated a circle that included Alexander Pope – who helped create the gardens – and Jonathan Swift; her parties were said to rival those at court for their lavishness.
Restoration has returned the house’s interior to its original lustre – a highlight is the sumptuously gilded Great Room – and reinstated the gardens to their 18th-century prime, complete with grotto and nine-pin bowling alley.
Beyond the bustle of central Twickenham lies the most idiosyncratic of the area’s mansions. A whitewashed fantasy of fairytale towers, pinnacles and battlements, Strawberry Hill was the summer residence of 18th-century man of letters Horace Walpole, youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister. Walpole eschewed the Palladianism of the day in favour of a new “Gothick” style – in so doing pioneering Gothic Revival, a movement that would dominate architecture for the next 150 years.
Strawberry Hill was built to entertain, and even today a visit is a theatrical experience. The rooms feature elaborate tracery and colourful stained glass; as the sun moves around the house, each has its moment to shine – what Walpole called his “moving pictures”. After dinner in the Great Parlour, the host would lead his guests upstairs to the show-stopping Gallery – a visual feast of crimson damask wallpaper and gilded fan-vaulting – to gossip about court, as music drifted up from the cloister (now a delightful café) below.
The scene is easy to picture, never more so than during the house’s occasional candlelit evenings, when staff dress up as characters from The Castle of Otranto, Walpole’s Gothic romance that inspired a new literary genre.
This is an extract of an article printed in the July/August 2022 issue of BRITAIN.
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