Far from the maddening crowd

THROUGHOUT THE ‘LOCKDOWN’, our wise leader, Mr Johnson, has encouraged us to take exercise, to get out and breathe some fresh air. And, we have been following that sound advice, walking in our neighbourhood anything from two to five miles every day. Since the ‘lockdown’ has been eased recently, we have been driving out of London far enough to escape from the hurly-burly of the city.  Our latest excursion took us out westwards to a village on the River Thames called Hurley, which is upstream from the small town of Marlow. We chose our destination, the starting point for a riverside walk, almost randomly and had no idea what to expect when we arrived.

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Temple Lock

Hurley is a gem of a village. A ford across the River Thames might well have existed at Hurley before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Many of the older buildings near the river and including the heavily restored Norman church formed part of a Benedictine priory that was established by Geoffrey de Mandeville, who died in about 1100 and was one of the richest men during the reign of William the Conqueror. His pious action at Hurley was strongly influenced by his second wife, Lescelina. The monastery was ‘dissolved’ during the great Dissolution of religious institutions carried out by Henry VIII, Some of the buildings including the priory’s cloisters have been picturesquely incorporated into newer buildings, most of which are used as dwellings.

A wooden bridge crosses a stream of the river to reach an island where Hurley Lock is located. We watched pleasure boats being lowered in the lock that allows ships to avoid the weir nearby. At the end of the island, another wooden bridge crosses back onto the right bank of the Thames. We walked beside the river, enjoying glimpses of it between trees whose branches dipped down towards the water. In addition to boats of all sizes from canoes to large cruisers and barges, the water is populated by ducks, andgeese. We also spotted plenty of insects that rest on the water’s surface and flit about hither and thither: water boatmen and pond skaters. Much of the path was flanked by deciduous woodland, mostly private property.

Another bridge, a long sweeping wooden structure took us to the left bank of the river. A short distance downstream from it, we reached Temple Lock. The river was so busy that boats had to queue up to wait for admission to the lock. With the river on our right and fields on our left, some with grazing cattle and sheep, we headed towards Marlow. The path was flanked by a profusion of wildflowers, many of them being ‘serviced’ by a rich variety of different kinds of insects. Before reaching Marlow, we had good views of Bisham Abbey across the river. The former Abbey was built in about 1260 as a manor house for the Knights Templar. Now, much of it remains, and is used as one of the UK’s National Sports Centres.  Close by, the reflection of the tower of All Saints Church, Bisham, shimmers in the water of the river that flows close to its western end. The tower was built in the 12th century, and, later, in the 16th century other parts were added to the original church.

Soon after seeing Bisham’s church, the elegant suspension bridge across the Thames at Marlow came into view. The present bridge was built between 1829 and 1832 and designed by William Tierney Clark (1783-1852), who also designed Hammersmith Bridge. The famous Chain Bridge in Budapest (Széchenyi lánchíd), which is a larger version of Marlow Bridge, opened in 1849 was also designed by WT Clark. It was built by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark (1811-1866).

A slightly sensuous statue of a naked woman, apparently a nymph, can be seen near the Marlow Bridge. This early 20th century sculpture (1924) commemorates Charles Frohman (1856-1915), an American who was a famous theatrical manager who was drowned in the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. According to a notice next to the statue, it was erected on the spot from which Frohman used to enjoy watching the Thames.  Apart from the bridge and the statue, there was little in Marlow’s High Street that attracted us, and we walked back to Hurley the way we came. On the way back, we caught good views of Harleyford Manor, a handsome Georgian home on a grassy rise overlooking the Thames. Designed by Robert Taylor (1714-1788) for its owner William Clayton (1718-1783), a Member of Parliament for Bletchingley and then Great Marlow, it remained in the Clayton family until 1950. Currently, this protected building houses offices.

We returned to Hurley, having had a hugely enjoyable stroll along the river and plenty of fresh air. We met numerous people along the way, all of them greeting us friendlily. Many of them had dogs, and almost all of them took care to maintain ‘social distancing’. We drove away from Hurley and about half an hour later we were caught up in the hurly burly of London traffic, which was moving at barely snail’s pace around the Hammersmith one-way system. Annoying as it was, it was worth enduring after having had such a wonderful day by the river, so far from the maddening crowds.

 

A place of greater safety

RICHMOND-UPON-THAMES WAS NOT a place that I would have associated with refugees until we went for a walk with some friends along the Thames footpath on the right bank of the river. We started at Richmond Bridge and headed towards Twickenham. Richmond Bridge is a handsome stone structure built by 1777. It was the eighth bridge to be built across the Thames and is now the oldest surviving bridge crossing the river.

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Octagonal Room at Orleans House

A leafy footpath runs alongside the river in which pleasure boats and waterfowl can be seen. Soon we arrived at a carved stone monument, a twisted polygonal structure on which words have been carved in three languages: English, French, and Flemish. The base of the elegant but simple monument has the words “The Belgian Village on the Thames” and above them, the dates “1914-18”. Nearby, there are a couple of information panels describing the history of a Belgian settlement on the river between Richmond and Twickenham during WW1. A Belgian village? You might well wonder; I did.

On the 7th of October 1914, Charles Pelabon, a French engineer who had been working in Belgium arrived in Britain with some of his workers. By the start of 1915, he had set up a munition factory in a disused roller-skating rink in East Twickenham. The factory soon employed as many as 6000 workers, mostly recruited from the vast numbers of Belgian refugees who had fled their country after war had broken out. This led to the establishment of a sizeable Belgian community, with shops and Belgian schooling, between Twickenham and Richmond. Sadly, almost all physical traces of the community have disappeared. Where the factory once stood is now covered by blocks of privately owned apartments. Standing next to the elegantly designed monument, it is hard to imagine that this almost rustic stretch of the river was a hive of industrial activity and filled with people speaking in French and Flemish.

Currently, our government is holding out the offer of homes in the UK for up to many residents of Hong Kong. I wonder whether we will see the establishment of ‘Hong Kong Village(s)’ to accommodate ‘refugees’ from a part of China that is undergoing potentially serious changes to its hitherto special status.

Further along our walk, we reached the park surrounding Marble Hill House. This neat looking Palladian villa set back from the river was constructed between 1724 and 1729 and designed by the architect Roger Morris (1695 -1749). It was built for Henrietta Howard (1689-1767), who had been the mistress of the then future King George II. When she ceased to be the mistress of King George II, Henrietta bought land beside the river and built Marble Hill House, using the substantial financial settlement she received from the King.

Crossing a small lane, one leaves the grounds of Marble Hill and enters the smaller grounds of Orleans House, or, at least what, remains of it. The house was a fine Palladian villa built for the politician and diplomat James Johnston (1635-1737) in 1710 to the designs of the architect John James (c1673-1746). In 1720, an octagonal room in the baroque style, designed by James Gibbs, was added. This was used to entertain George II’s Queen Consort, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1683-1737). She regarded Johnston with ‘great favour’.

Between 1813 and 1815, Johnston’s house was home to another royal visitor, a refugee from France, Louis Philippe I (1773 -1850), the Duc d’Orléans. Soon after the execution of his father in 1893, he left France. Later, he returned to France where he reigned as King Louis-Philippe I, the last king of France, between 1830 and the year of revolutions all over Europe, 1848. A print by the French artist Pingret shows the King and Queen Victoria visiting Louis Philippe’s former home at Orleans House some years after his coronation. It was the first time that a British and French monarch had been together on British soil for 500 years (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryofthe…/…/NrKCqDE8Q-arYJHipxLXDQ). Although most of the house was demolished in 1926, the octagonal room was saved. I noticed a fragment of masonry in the grounds close to the remains of the house. It bears a crest on which there are two fleur-de-lys symbols. In the 21st century, a new arts centre, including an art gallery, was built that incorporates the octagonal room, which has been restored to its former glory.

Further along the river near a disused ferry landing stage, we came across the home of yet another refugee, the composer and conductor (Sir) Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991). Born in Warsaw, Panufnik, a leading light in the Polish classical music community, ‘defected’ to the West in 1954 having become uncomfortable with the politically dominated cultural environment in Poland. He settled in Britain, becoming a British citizen in 1961. After marrying Camilla Jessel in late 1963, the couple bought the house near Twickenham that overlooks the Thames and now bears a light blue circular commemorative plaque with a red Polish eagle on it.

We returned to Richmond Bridge following the riverside path. We watched a plucky little dog rush into the water only to make a hasty retreat when swans hissed at him. Despite the birds’ unwelcoming threats, he dashed into the water several more times. We arrived back at Richmond Bridge after having enjoyed a pleasant stroll and seeing three places that have provided people from Europe with ‘a place of greater safety’, these being the words used by Hilary Mantel as the title of one of her novels.

Drama by the river: the Bridge Theatre

On Saturday the 29th September 2018, we had a wonderful evening at London’s recently opened Bridge Theatre. It is located on the south bank of the River Thames, a stone’s throw from the world famous ‘icon’ of London, Tower Bridge. From the glass front of the theatre’s foyer, there are superb views of: the new high-rise buildings in the City (including the ‘Gherkin’); the White Tower and the walls of the Tower of London; and Tower Bridge, which is beautifully illuminated at night.

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The Bridge Theatre opened for its first show in October 2017. The theatre is the brainchild of Nick Starr, of the former National Theatre, and the renowned theatre director Nicholas Hytner. Both of these two Nicks have been long involved with London’s National Theatre. Their creation, the Bridge, is an improved version of the facilities offered by the now ageing National Theatre on the Southbank. Excellent as the National Theatre is, the Bridge seems to have been designed to avoid some of the defects of the former. The newer theatre, which can seat 900 audience members, was designed by S Tompkins and R Watts of Haworth Tompkins Architects.

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Doorways in the wide glass façade give access to a vast foyer, well-illuminated by a myriad of lamps with curious shades that look like large translucent handkerchiefs. Ample tables and chairs are available for people to sit in the foyer, enjoying excellent food and drinks from the counters lining one side of the space.

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When you order food, you are handed a small flat, square receiver that looks like a drinks mat. When your food is ready, lights on the receiver flash alarmingly. The flashing object must be taken to a counter where your freshly prepared food is waiting for you. Despite the size of the foyer and its large capacity, it never felt crowded or noisy. It is a well-designed space.

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The cloakroom and toilet facilities are easily accessible, not hidden in odd places as they are in the National Theatre.

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The auditorium is large, but not too large to be without intimacy. No seat is excessively far from the very wide stage. Sightlines are either excellent or more than satisfactory. We had ‘restricted view’ seats, which we bought at the last moment. They were as good as many ‘full view’ seats in older theatres. The acoustics are excellent. We were seated quite far from the stage, but had no difficulty hearing every word. The play we saw, “Allelujah” by Alan Bennett, was well-staged, well-acted, and well-written. In short, it was highly enjoyable. Set in an ageing National Health Service (‘NHS’) hospital facing imminent closure, most of the actors play either the roles of geriatric patients or those of hospital staff and management. The plot is about the plight of the aged and the plight of the ageing NHS system in today’s profit-oriented, economically declining Britain.

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Our visit to the Bridge Theatre was enjoyable and uplifting. I cannot wait to see another performance there.

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