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.

9 thoughts on “A Short Walk With Trimmings

  1. Dear Joe,
    As you can imagine, I enjoyed this walk-in-nature blog (with bonus architectural comments) immensely. Wild garlic leaves are of course truly scrumptious in the spring, as I am sure you know, and I suppose for that reason is has in the past been over-foraged in that small patch. But curious indeed the bi-lingual notice and the Secretary of State’s invocation of the ancient bye-law. I am so lucky that I have an un-threatened abundance of wild garlic around me in spring – now there’s something else to look forward to in 2021!
    And as for the oaks – the more I learn about them the more awesome they become to me. Supporting more biodiversity than any other native tree. And did you know they become shorter with age? The Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory website is fascinating.
    Happy daily walks! Keep on noticing those quirks.
    Love,
    JJFruitbat
    X

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    1. Dear JJ, Thank you for your comments. You will be pleased to hear that there are other secret corners in the wood where garlic grows and we will go and pick some as you suggest. Yes, oaks are wonderful. Love, Joe

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  2. Dear Joe,

    What a lovely walk! I loved the story of the garlic fine and the possible Mandarin-speaking poachers. I also wondered why the Joshua Reynold’s house is abandoned! I’m sure an enterprising person could buy it and renovate it to its former glory!

    Warm wishes

    Robin

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    1. Dear Robin, Thank you for your comments. Yes, allowing Sir Joshua Reynold’s house to be in such a sorry state is tarrible. With a local friend I am looking into ways of saving it. Love, Joe

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    2. Dear Robin, Yes, allowing Sir Joshua Reynolds house to fall apart in this way is a disgrace. With a friend. I am looking into ways of salvaging it. Love, Joe

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  3. Wonderful blog to read on a Sunday morning, your description of the buildings, path and trees makes it magical and mandarin message to garlic pinchers makes it mysterious!

    We look forward to sharing that walk with you and Rohan, and more so when the wild garlic is in bloom.

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  4. It was a pleasing, slow reveal to realise this is a walk Tina and I take regularly, but in the dark when there are even fewer people around. The route is one where car headlights are far away and unobtrusive. I have a thing about light pollution at the moment.

    We also walk through Richmond park in the dark but the light pollution from the cycles is horrendous. If you are 50 yards from a road the car headlights coming towards you are not too bad. But bicycles! (I am a cyclist). First the newer form of headlights most bikes now have are extremely powerful and night blinding unlike the ones of 10 years ago – what they must be doing to the wildlife I hate to think. Second, unlike cars whose beams focus rigidly on the road ahead, out of breath cyclists’ beams fan left and right and so sweep across the adjacent countryside in a 30 degree arc. A walkers night vision is is blinded out for five or ten seconds (depending on age!)

    Thanks for giving me a platform to rage Joe! And a plea to all cyclists to use less fierce lights for the sake of primarily owls and secondarily humans as we can stay away

    Ian

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