On most days since the March coronavirus lockdown, Rohan and I have gone for walks. There are now dozens that fan out from our home, each with its particular characteristics. The more ambitious amongst them last over two hours, some take an hour or so, only a few take less.
This blog is about a favourite short walk through Petersham Common Woods which takes us down a steep slope from the top of Richmond Hill to the Thames flood plain below. Not only do we get pleasure from picking our way between the giant trees that abut the paths but there are also some trimmings – at the start there are two dramatic buildings, later, a quirky international affair of state. And there is yet a third trimming; on this walk there is calm – we rarely see anyone.
The entrance to the wood is inauspicious – just a wide, ill-defined gap with, on one side a tree, on the other, metal railings at the corner of the now abandoned home of the 18th century portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.
From the front, the house is solid and imposing; from the back it is falling apart. Setting aside its grand history, it is the dire state of the building’s structure that brings drama to the walk. Its side wall is split from top to bottom by a jagged crack that gets wider as it goes up – near the gutter it could easily take a builder’s fist. With this in mind, as we start our walk I check first to see if the building is still in one piece and then if the crack has widened. Reassured that nothing has changed, we scurry past just in case the back of the house starts to fall away leaving us engulfed in flying masonry and clouds of dust.
That drama over, after a few minutes comes another as the path bends to go around the base of a building that is ugly and more. Here, as though out of nowhere, an immense 1920s Stalinesque building comes out of the ground to go up eight stories and puncture the skyline. The building is also broad with its 70 metres of stone cladding and red bricks interspersed with pretentious pillars and rows of identical windows. Like Sir Joshua Reynolds’ house, this former Star and Garter Home for Disabled Sailors and Soldiers, which now contains almost a hundred luxury apartments, is listed by Historic England as a building of ‘Special Interest’ – Grade II. This I find grotesque!
Soon the monstrosity is forgotten as we wander down through a wood that has been left to its own devices since at least the sixteenth century. It is here that the walk is so exceptional. First there is the path that can be seen down its length to the bottom of the slope. All along it gently veers left and right to steer around the base of first one oak and then another. In addition to loving how it meanders, pleasure comes in the winter from walking along a path that is covered in golden oak leaves and, in the spring one that is bordered by carpets of bluebells.
And these are not ordinary oaks that the path circumnavigates. It is said that the tallest oak in England is 200 years old, over 40 metres high and grows in Wiltshire. Amongst the oaks in Petersham Common Woods, there must be a good hand-full that are older and taller – the trouble is that measuring tree heights is notoriously difficult.
Next to the bottom of the hill and the international incident. In the past, the undergrowth here was thick with wild garlic with smells to match. Now, that garlic-rich ground is bare. The only evidence of yesteryear’s garlic are notices in plastic envelopes stapled to a fence in which the Secretary of State warns pickers that harvesting garlic is forbidden. The warning is elaborate, is written in both English and Chinese (albeit in a muddled version; see illustration) and refers to a bye-law in a 1900 Statute telling how – ‘A person shall not on the common remove or displace any soil, turf, tree, shrub or plant’.
While the effects of the buildings at the start of the walk are immediate, each time I come across the posters warning off would-be garlic rustlers, it makes me ponder. How is it that the Secretary of State became involved in such a very parochial issue? How could he have known that the perpetrators were Chinese and that they had no grasp of written English? Why would anyone want to steal the garlic anyway?
Still mulling over these questions, next it is off along the Thames towpath and the two kilometres home. It has been difficult to convey why this walk is such a favourite but be assured, this self-same feeling is also felt by most of our walking friends.
The illustration shows a photo of the notice prohibiting the harvesting of wild garlic written in English and a muddled version of Chinese and stapled to a fence in Petersham Common Woods.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Jennie, Isabel, Rohan and Vivien.