The weather can make or break a walk, and in this case it completely beat the crap out of it. The photographs don't do it justice, as they don't show the fierce gusts that blew rain into my eyes in Gunnersbury Park, and took my umbrella and smashed it into little pieces along the river in Hammersmith. On a nice day, this would be a very enjoyable walk, but August is proving to be a pathetic month for weather, and I'm afraid this section joins a small but growing list of tubewalks that the weather has rather spoiled.
It wasn't helped by me completely forgetting to bring an umbrella or waterproof jacket with me. I've been away from the tubewalking scene for six days, four of which Peta and I spent in the Lake District, and I clearly left half my brain in Elterwater, because heading off into forecast rain without any kind of protection is idiotic. I only discovered my mistake when the heavens opened in Gunnersbury Park and I reached for my trusty umbrella, only to find that I'd left it up in the Lakes (where, incidentally, it rained continuously throughout our entire visit). I picked up a new umbrella in Turnham Green, by which time I was nicely soaked, but the wind was so strong and so gusty along the river in Hammersmith that my new purchase died an early death and had completely fallen apart by the time I reached Hammersmith Bridge. Thankfully I've been to this part of the world many times before so I already know how beautiful it can be, but on a day like today, tubewalking is not just a bad idea, it's bordering on the insane.
Oh, and I'm currently having to put antibiotic eye drops in both eyes every two hours, following a visit yesterday to the eye hospital. Have you ever tried putting in eye drops in the lashing rain? Talk about challenging...
Boston Manor to Northfields
It's hardly any distance from Boston Manor to Northfields, and I took the most direct route along the northern edge of the Tube line. There is probably a more interesting route available, and the park to the south of the line is one option that might be more worthy, but I chose to stick to the backstreets as I wanted to know what kind of houses people live in round here. The answer is that the suburbs are rather charming; OK, there are plenty of standard two-up-two-down terraces from between the wars, and there is occasional evidence of pebbledash, but as you approach Northfields the housing is really rather lovely, and the resulting terraced cottages are very pleasant indeed.
A short distance right along Northfield Avenue, Northfields station is a striking 1932 Charles Holden building in the by-now familiar style he applied to his 1930s Tube stations. There's a tall brick block rising above the ticket hall, with slatted windows on the sides of the tower emblazoned with the London Underground roundel, all capped off with a flat concrete roof. The station building below the tower is a fairly flat affair that's not dissimilar to the station in Osterley, and the globular streetlights out the front provide the final touches, offsetting the rectangular station building nicely. Take a moment to stick your head into the ticket hall; you won't be disappointed.
Northfields to South Ealing
It's an even shorter walk to South Ealing – indeed, Northfields and South Ealing are the closest open-air stations on the whole network, with just a quarter of a mile between them – but this time there's an obvious detour that's worth taking, namely through Lammas Park. In the sun this is a pleasant park with some enjoyable landscaping in the northeastern half, but it started clouding over as I reached the southern, more open section of the park, and I didn't hang around in case things kicked off; this is my local park, after all, and I know it all too well.
The suburbs on the way to the station are charming, with plenty of Edwardian terraces and semi-detached houses along leafy backstreets. South Ealing station – my local Tube station and one of only two stations whose names contain all five vowels (the other being Mansion House) – is out on South Ealing Road, and although the original Metropolitan District station opened in 1883, the current station building is a more modern affair, dating (as far as I can find out) from 1988, when the temporary wooden ticket hall was replaced by a modest building in the light yellow-brown of London stock brick. There's a small brick chimney on the left-hand end, which gives the station the air of a suburban house, but it's a modest affair compared to Holden's creations further down the line.
South Ealing to Acton Town
The big event between South Ealing and Acton Town is Gunnersbury Park, which lies on the other side of some pleasant suburbia, a little way along Pope's Lane. The western half of the park is a wide open grassy space, big enough to accommodate 36 football pitches in the winter, and as I walked through they were still clearing up the remains of the London Mela, the annual celebration of Indian and Asian culture that was celebrated here last Sunday. The clouds were building up into a serious threat as I crossed the exposed grassland, the wind whipping my hair into my eyes, but the eastern half of the park is much more sheltered, with a small boating lake (complete with a folly dating from 1760), a pitch-and-putt golf course, tennis courts, and the grand buildings of two 19th-century mansions, the Large Mansion (now the Gunnersbury Park Museum) and the adjacent Small Mansion. The gardens are lovely to walk through in the sunshine, and we should be grateful that the original owners, the Rothschilds, sold the park to the local council on the condition that it be used only for leisure and not for building yet more suburban housing.
What a shame that the worst of the weather hit me as I strolled through the park, soaking me to the skin and completely ruining that part of the walk. I've explored Gunnersbury Park a couple of times before, so it's not the end of the world, and I wasn't the only walker caught without waterproofs; the number of dog-walkers huddling under the yew trees was impressive. As a nation I don't think we're allowing ourselves to believe that yet again, August is proving to be a complete let-down; I guess the price to pay for this non-belief is a good drubbing at the hands of the rain clouds.
I didn't waste much time getting to Acton Town station, stopping only to inquire in the local corner shop whether they sold umbrellas (they didn't). I first visited Acton Town back on the District line when walking from Richmond to Ealing Broadway, and although it's a Charles Holden station, its large rectangular tower is perhaps a little too wide for my taste, making it look a little more like a factory than a Tube station. Still, it's distinctive, and that's what matters.
Acton Town to Turnham Green
The walk to Turnham Green is a tale of two cities, separated from each other by the London Overground railway line. Just to the east of Acton Town station is the South Acton Estate, which is West London's biggest housing estate with over 2000 homes. I'm aware that judging a housing estate when it's raining is a little risky, as even the loveliest part of town can look pretty drab when the wind is howling and the rain is pouring down, but the tower blocks of the South Action Estate would still look pretty depressing in the sunshine, with their flaking paint, dreary 1960s colour schemes and complete lack of warmth. It's no surprise that crime is rife in this area, with drug problems, gun and knife crime, burglaries and anti-social behaviour all on the menu.
There is some good news, however, as there is a £130 million regeneration programme in the pipeline that should change things for the better, with the addition of mixed (private and public) housing, non-residential commercial development and community facilities. Existing tower blocks are being refurbished and the police are trying to crack down on the crack dens, and given the handy location next to a major District and Piccadilly line Tube station, one can only hope it changes into a more desirable residence, one more in keeping with the delights of west, north and east Acton.
Talking of which, cross over the London Overground line, and suddenly you're in a different world. The backstreets are lined with late Victorian and Edwardian terraces, and you're hard pushed to find anything modern at all. To the south of Fielding Road is the Bedford Park Garden Suburb, the earliest garden suburb in London, which stretches east to Abinger Road and south to the Tube line. The area was developed from 1875, when the developer Jonathan Carr bought 24 acres of land to the north of Turnham Green station, which had opened just six years earlier. In 1877, Carr hired the leading architect of the day, Richard Norman Shaw, and Shaw's house designs in the Queen Anne style proved popular and successful. Bedford Park was terribly fashionable in the 1880s, but it fell on harder times in the 20th century and the twitchy finger of Acton Council hovering over the button marked 'demolition' led to the formation of the Bedford Park Society, and now Bedford Park is a conservation area and has become quite the desirable residence. It's certainly a lovely place to walk through, in stark contrast to the South Acton Estate, which feels half a world away.
Turnham Green station is south along The Avenue, which is lined with sumptuous houses and ends in what is effectively a small village square, complete with pub, Mock Tudor shops and a park. The station is not that thrilling, as it's tucked under the eaves of the bridge carrying the District and Piccadilly lines, but as trains only stop here on the Piccadilly line in the early morning and late evening, I won't be too critical...
Turnham Green to Hammersmith
The most direct route from Turnham Green to Hammersmith is along the A315, but there's not a lot of pleasure to be found along the busy main road into Hammersmith, so I thought I'd head south and join the Thames for a while. It turned out to be an excellent idea, as this stretch has to be one of the most attractive river walks in the whole of London, even on a day when the wind drove the rain sideways under my umbrella and up my nose. I'd been looking for an umbrella since Gunnersbury without success, but I finally tracked down a shop selling them on Turnham Green Terrace, and fully armed once again, I set off towards the river.
Crossing Chiswick High Road, wandering past the statue of William Hogarth, and turning into Devonshire Road, you come across some lovely Victorian and Edwardian terraces, and even the modern housing that pops up every now and then is sympathetic to the surrounding architecture, being built of brick rather than concrete. The pleasant suburbia continues along Fraser Street and all the way to the A4, where an underpass takes you under the constant traffic of the Great West Road. Check out the graffiti in the underpass, which is signed 'Banksy' but is probably by someone else; it's also signed by the 'Corrupt Government Crew', and shows prisoners with balls and chains, with CCTV cameras instead of balls. There's another section where a man with a bow and arrow is fighting off a flock of pterodactyls whose heads are more CCTV cameras, and above the sign to Hogarth's House near the southern exit is a Tyrannosaurus rex with a CCTV instead of a head, lumbering towards a man mowing his lawn. It isn't as classy as a real Banksy would be, but I liked it anyway.
The underpass leads to the northern entrance to the grounds of Chiswick House, and Hogarth's House, the country residence of the satirical 18th-century artist, is just on the right as you enter the grounds. Unfortunately, when I visited the whole area was closed off for landscaping, so all I got to see was the long drive along the eastern edge of the park, but if you get a chance to visit the area when it's open, then it's well worth a bit of exploration; the grounds of Chiswick House are open to the public free of charge, and although there's a charge to visit Chiswick House, entrance to Hogarth's House is free.
On the other side of the park is the busy A316, but you can safely cross at the lights just to the left. There is a path that turns off the road and takes you on a more direct route to the river, but it's worth continuing along the road towards the roundabout, because just to the right is a contender for London's smallest square, Chiswick Square, with the fine Boston House behind it, dating from the 1680s. Boston House was extended in the 18th century and in the early 19th century it was a school for girls, before becoming a home for inebriate women at the turn of the 20th century. It's now split into four private residences, and rather lovely it is too, though its location right next to the Hogarth Flyover is a little unfortunate.
Straight ahead you can see the Griffin Brewery, where Fuller's brews its famous ales (London Pride, Discovery, ESB and Chiswick are favourites round this part of London), and the George and Devonshire pub is a good place to sample the brewery's wares. Turn right after the pub, though, and things just get better and better, as Church Street has to be one of the prettiest streets around, quite a surprise after the pounding of the A-road. There's an attractive black-and-white Tudor house on the left called Old Burlington, which dates from the 16th century and is the oldest building in Chiswick, and further on, past beautiful ivy-clad townhouses, is St Nicholas's Church, the parish church of Chiswick, and home to Hogarth's grave. Church Street used to be the main street of the original Chiswick village, but the name 'Chiswick' was later applied to an amalgamation of the villages of Chiswick, Turnham Green, Strand-on-the-Green and Little Sutton, leaving the original Chiswick rather out on a limb.
At the end of Church Street is Fisherman's Place, a modern housing development on the site of a row of fisherman's cottages that used to be known as Sluts' Hole, and heading east along the river towards Hammersmith is Chiswick Mall, a row of wonderful 17th- and 18th-century houses that is constantly delightful. The riverside gardens for these houses are on the other side of the road from the houses themselves, so you get a real feeling for the architecture as you wander between the two, avoiding cyclists and joggers and trying not to slip in the mud from the high tide, which reaches the road when it's particularly high. The river is just beyond the gardens, but you can't walk alongside it quite yet (that comes later). The finest house on the Mall is Walpole House, which dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and is named after its former occupant, Thomas Walpole, the nephew of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first Prime Minister. In 1817, Walpole House was a school for young gentlemen, one of whose pupils was William Makepeace Thackeray; it is thought that Thackeray used Walpole House as the setting for Miss Pinkerton's Seminary for Young Ladies in his novel Vanity Fair.
The amazing architecture continues all the way to the Black Lion pub, when the path opens out into a small park and you can finally walk alongside the river. On the other side of the park is the ultra-trendy Old Ship pub, followed by some modern flats that lead through to Linden House, an 18th-century merchant's house that is now home to the London Corinthian Sailing Club and the Sons of the Thames Rowing Club. A little further along the road is Kelmscott House, where Sir Francis Ronalds created the first telegraph in 1816; he ran eight miles of cable, encased in a glass tube, around a wooden lattice in his back garden, and managed to transmit a signal along the length of the wire, but the Admiralty weren't interested in such technology at the time. Even so, Ronalds was later knighted for his contributions to the invention of the telegraph, and he did live to see the technology spread across the globe. The house was also the London home of William Morris from 1879 to 1896, and he gave it its current name, after the Oxford village of Kelmscott where Morris had lived since 1871.
The impressive terraces continue all the way to one of the most delightful pubs on the river, the Dove, which claims to have the smallest bar in England, and which has a lovely balcony overlooking the river where I've supped far too many pints to be proud of myself. It was at this point that the weather turned from nasty to utterly unbelievable, the winds gusting first this way then that, driving the heavy rain sideways and completely destroying the cheap umbrella I'd bought in Turnham Green. There are more pubs along here (though they're pretty uninspiring compared to those mentioned above) and Hammersmith Bridge spans the Thames in all its green-painted glory, but I didn't waste any time in heading towards Hammersmith proper, only stopping to take the odd photograph, each one followed by a frantic cleaning of the lens and a long sigh.
Hammersmith station is buried deep in the shopping centre in the middle of the Hammersmith roundabout, on the other side of the road from the Hammersmith Apollo (which I first visited when walking the District line from Turnham Green to Victoria). And so ends a great little walk that takes in both the old and the new, and even though I came home clutching a wreck of an umbrella and stood there feeling very sorry for myself, a puddle of water forming around my feet, I can still recommend this part of the world as a great place to walk... though perhaps not in the hurricane season.