…the riverbanks, avenues and playing fields, beat clubs and bars and clothes shops that were the architecture of my first twenty or so years; the first three in Manchester notwithstanding. An adolescence upon a stretch of Thames that winds south and west from gentrified Brentford to Teddington, the television studios and the limit of tidal Thames. Passing the London Apprentice at Isleworth and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Syon Park and on to the treeless expanse of Old Deer Park and another bend in the river. My father was fond of this stretch of the verdant towpath in the shadow of Twickenham Bridge, no more than a couple of hundred yards. No pubs or shops, just the kind of homes we aspired to and the five green iron arches of the lock and weir. It was nearly always dark when we arrived, passing brash clusters of evening newspaper billboards, dozens of them, tied to the garden fences on every corner fanning out from Twickenham Rugby Ground. We’d step out of our grey Austin Cambridge with its red leather upholstery into the chilly Thames air dimly lit by Gothic electric lanterns on the road bridge. In the far distance Richmond Athletic Club on the eastern edge of flat and mostly treeless park. Rebadged the Crawdaddy it’s where one misty winter night I caught a bus from Ealing to watch Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac at the height of the late sixties blues revival. Long hair, rugby shirts and leather jackets essential kit. An Easter fun fair still sets out its coconuts and dodgems and helter skelter on the strip of land between the A316 and the railway linking the south west with Waterloo. This strip of arterial road a blaze of pink and white cherry blossom every spring.
From here the still tidal river ebbs and flows beneath the 18th century Richmond Bridge where years ago, starboard side, there stood an ice rink popular with teenagers aiming to make out on Saturday night and the first place I was punched unconscious. On the bright side spinning hopelessly on the ice worked well as a babe(s) magnet. The Odeon cinema stands central atop the bridge on the Surrey high street side facing St.Margarets where The Beatles shot that memorable four front door scene at the start of Help. Next to the cinema the sixties hippie hang out L’Auberge and next to that the greatest menswear shop in London, J.Simons, a shrine to mod casual wear, presently ‘up west’ in Marylebone. I still wear the triple welt brogues owner John Simons sold me nearly over 30 years ago.
During my winter as a minicab driver I’d park my white Vauxhall Victor close to the house once lived in by Keith Richards, up Richmond Hill and along from The Star and Garter Hotel, once a war veterans retirement home a stone’s throw from a Poppy Factory today transformed in modern times into smart apartments. From up here you can watch airliners make their descent across Hounslow to Heathrow and follow the river between Ham Fields and Marble Hill Park to Eel Pie Island. Nearby is the entrance to Richmond Park that bucolic deer trodden manicured wilderness linking Richmond with Kingston, Roehampton and Barnes. Turn east through the gates and you can clearly see the capital some 15 miles away; the London Eye on Southbank and the BT Tower close to my former home at Mornington Crescent.
Neither London nor the countryside, this is the epicentre of the much maligned suburbs at its most verdant. An urban soundtrack of sirens, aircraft and airbrakes with a rural palette. Avenues of London 30s semi detached homes with leaded lights and manicured front gardens. Plane trees with blotchy trunks and parks of hawthorn, silver maple, oak, and horse chestnut. Bushy Park, Richmond Green, Barnes Common close to where Marc Bolan met his end (there are bunches of flowers left there to this day), Twickenham Green, Kew Green, Orleans Gardens, Crane Park, and Radnor Gardens,
Our journey passes the the Slug & Lettuce where drinkers dangle their feet above the water on the embankment near Richmond Bridge, although my choice of watering hole was The Waterman’s Arms a short ways up Water Lane towards the hight street. Gentrified and foodie now and no bigger than a front room it was the roughest pub in town then. There are rowing boats for hire close to the bridge and swans. Further on the river turns west where steel hawsers support a black walnut tree thought to be over 200 years old. Nearby The Crown, a Youngs pub and my local for three or four years where I was attacked for being Jewish; something to do with black hair and big hooter. Petersham Fields on our left and on the right, close to the ferry slipway, The White Swan, known to us as ‘the pig pub’ due to the sheer quantity of its porcine photographs. And finally ‘Twickers’ and Eel Pie Island the hotel that burned to the ground some years ago, once the location of another rock venue boasting a residency by The Rolling Stones. Manfred Mann, The Yardbirds, and Long John Baldrey with a young Rod Stewart on backing vocals trod those boards. My mate’s band PC Kent played the Eel Pie Island Hotel too less acclaim.
The open air Twickenham Baths is where I developed a appetite for pretty young things, hot Bovril and Wagon Wheels. Pete Townsend lived in a tall clapperboard house nearby and during summer lunchtime sessions at the Barmy Arms we’d listen to Keith Moon bashing the skins in the back garden. The Barmy Arms was originally named The Queens Head but renamed following a refit upon which the sign was put back upside down.
Through a gate and behind a tall wall and close to a small pedestrian bridge is York House Gardens and a water fountain of white horses and eight life size naked nymphs in various degrees of ecstasy. Oceanides from Greek mythology brought to Twickenham by a subsequently disgraced financier in 1904.
My mother lived a few yards away, just far enough to spare her stilettos from the tidal flood waters that wash these cobbled streets to this day. Her ashes spread upon the river from the slipway there. Her funeral was in the Mortlake Crematorium some miles away coincidentally where a service was held for Trevor Bayliss OBE who lived on Eel Pie Island and where I interviewed him for The Sunday Times about the wind-up radio he’d invented with isolated communities in remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa at the forefront of his mind. I liked him and liked him even more when he was awarded the title 2010 Pipe Smoker Of The Year. I often think about the island and the narrow footbridge connecting it with the town and The Balmy Arms where I throw back a large JD every February in remembrance of mum. She wasn’t much of a drinker and would probably prefer if I downed Danish pastries instead.
Stately homes abound. Syon House and Marble Hill House and Petersham House, Orleans House and York House and other fine homes long gone. Among them Popes Grotto built in the early 18th century when Twickenham was a bit of tourist destination. Owner Alexander Pope built a tunnel to it beneath a road and in so doing created a grotto decorated with stalactites, crystals, marbe and Cornish diamonds. Some of the grotto remains beneath the school that stands there today. Popesgrove was our telephone prefix.
For all the good it did me I took judo classes at St.Mary’s University and a little further on at Teddington, around and about the toy shop on the bridge that for a sixpence operated a small shop window minature railway, my driving test. I made the hash of the hill start blaming it on the slippery leaves on the road.
There are a lot of leaves around here, and a lot to think about too.