The view from Richmond Hill

Arcadia In The City

11th June 2010

Just ten miles from the centre of London, the view from Richmond Hill has been long celebrated as an English approximation of Virgil’s Arcadia – a vision of rural bliss. Jack Watkins goes to get a closer look…

London’s cityscape is not renowned for magnificent vistas. Stand on the banks of the Thames and the soul does not soar in the way it does in Paris, for instance, by the River Seine. Instead, you may just feel you are looking at a very busy working town. If there’s one spot, however, that garners near unanimous approval of its beauty, it is the view from Richmond Hill, a prospect so spellbinding that it has inspired writers, poets and painters since at least as far back as the 16th century.

The prospect afforded has been celebrated as the English equivalent of Arcadia, the idealised pastoral landscape of the classical poet Virgil, with the Thames sweetly meandering between grazing meadows and clumps of trees and woodland from Kew towards the parkland of Hampton Court. In times past, it caught the attention of such connoisseurs of countryside beauty as Daniel Defoe (the first to see the glory of the setting here as a total entity), Sir Walter Scott and JMW Turner. Additionally, it was the cradle of the English garden movement, with several instigators of the Picturesque – William Kent, Alexander Pope and William Gilpin among them – coming here to record the view as they hatched their ideas. Over two hundred and fifty years later, people still come to gaze and dream.

The ‘official’ vantage point is the area above the Richmond Hill Terrace Gardens, just over the road from Wick House, the former residence of Sir Joshua Reynolds. What you see below – and remember you are just ten miles from London’s centre – is, in fact, the only view in the country to be preserved by an Act of Parliament. Placed on the statute book in 1902, it was a reaction to concerns that, as the city sprawled ever outwards, pockets of land along this stretch of river were likely to be sold off for development. The campaign orchestrated by local and national bodies to ‘save the view’ might be deemed one of the earliest and most successful conservation battles in history.

Most visitors today probably roll up, take it all in, and then saunter off to Richmond Park or perhaps head back into town for one of the many riverside cafes or pubs, beyond the bridge. But for a more intimate glimpse of this Arcadian paradise you must take the path on its descent towards Petersham Meadows and beyond. Here, as you approach the towpath, cattle graze the fields as they have done for centuries. That willow-fringed island to the right is Glover’s Island, one of a series of attractive islets that dot the Thames. It was the plan by a local boatman to sell it for advertisement hoardings in the 1890s that was instrumental in galvanising the conservationists.

A few paces on, the view opens up across on the opposite bank to Marble Hill house, the Palladian villa built for George II’s mistress Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, between 1724 and 1729. English aristocrats – and the merely wealthy – wished to emulate the villas of the Italian Veneto, of which Palladio was the greatest architect, and Marble Hill is a fine example of the trend: doll’s house pretty and perched above lawns running down to the river. The Countess kept the company of the brightest wits and creative intellects of the day, and while the villa itself was designed by Roger Morris, Alexander Pope’s advice was sought for the gardens created by Charles Bridgeman.

Marble Hill is now in the care of English Heritage, and if you want to visit it, you can cross the river here via boat (look out for the Hammerton Ferry sign) which runs daily from March to October, and at weekends during the winter. But, continuing along the Richmond side towpath, eventually you will spot the tall chimneys of Ham House, now a National Trust property of fabled mystery and atmosphere, an angular Jacobean red-brick pile and a contrast to the coolly stylish Marble Hill.

Ham is one of the best preserved Jacobean houses in Europe, with extensive formal and informal gardens. There are niches in the outer walls bearing the sculpted heads of Roman emperors and Stuart kings and, as you look beyond the gate, that splendid figure reclining figure in the courtyard is a statue of a river god, made from Coade stone.

The property is remarkably unchanged from the 17th century, and echoes on a smaller scale the style and tastes of the royal Stuart palaces. The Trust acquired it in 1948, and has restored the beautiful gardens, which include a lavender parterre, a maze and a cherry garden. Many of the ingredients of the lunches and snacks available in the restaurant are supplied from the House’s kitchen gardens.

Across the river to the west of the grounds of Marble Hill, in Orleans Park, the octagonal-shaped building is all that remains of Orleans House. Philistines demolished the House in 1926, but the Octagon, designed by James Gibbs – another great and gifted architect of the 18th century – was spared as a public art gallery, and hosts changing exhibitions. There is also a display that provides a pictorial record of the surrounding countryside from the 1700s down present times, the topographical views extending as far along the river as Chiswick and Hammersmith.

From here you can walk into the peaceful streets of Twickenham. Montpelier Row is a good example of an early Georgian terrace, and has had some distinguished residents in its time, including Lord Tennyson, Walter de la Mare and, of more recent vintage, The Who’s Pete Townshend. Overlooking the river, the White Swan inn has been part of the riverbank scene since 1690, and actually affords a rare chance to see the Thames through this stretch, for much of it is frustratingly hidden by high walled gardens.

One location here of a peculiar and, perhaps for some, nostalgic interest, is Eel Pie Island. Accessed by a small bridge, this was a favourite resort for Victorian East Enders, hence the eel pies. However, it later enjoyed a short period of youth-hangout modishness, first hosting concerts by British jazz bands like Ken Colyer’s All Stars, in all their back-to-roots New Orleans style glory, in the 1950s, and then as American-influenced R&B replaced jazz as the new craze, the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Who. Sadly, the hotel that staged the gigs is no more, and the whole island now seems smothered in bungalows.

Coming back onto the mainland, you can retrace your steps back through Twickenham and return to Richmond via Richmond Bridge, or continue on to the crossing at Teddington Lock, and head back via the leafy Ham riverside walk.

Recently, Arcadia in the City, a Heritage Lottery-funded plan involving such bodies as the local councils, English Heritage and the Environment Agency has sought to preserve and enhance this hallowed riverscape, whose vistas have at times been in danger of being obscured by self-sown trees. But even if the terrain is no longer ‘tenanted by numberless flocks and herds, which seemed to wander unrestrained and unbounded through the rich pastures’, as described in one of Sir Walter Scott’s most effective novels, The Heart of Midlothian, the view from Richmond Hill still stirs the receptive mind as no other within such close reach of the heart of London.

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