We’re all facing many challenges at the moment due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought fear, isolation, and financial hardship to some; there is disruption to work and schools and every part of our lives. We can no longer just pop out to the shops, go for a walk in some parks, eat in restaurants and cafes, and, hardest to deal with, we can’t see our families and friends. Some people who, like me, live alone are more alone than usual; other people suddenly find themselves in sometimes claustrophobic proximity to those they live with. Coping with 24/7 rather than just seeing each other after work in the evenings and at the weekend; not being able to go out to normal separate activities; attempting to home school children whose energy is rising like a pressure cooker about to burst … well a lot of it isn’t easy.
I feel extremely fortunate that I have a garden to get out into; family and friends who FaceTime me much more often than usual; and work that I’m used to doing at home and is still occupying some of my time, and while I’m doing it, for a time life seems normal again.
We’re all adapting in some way. I’m ordering all kinds of things online whereas previously I bought very little online. I continue my fortnightly Italian one-to-one lessons with Fabio via Skype while he sits in his family’s home in Palermo (where he’d returned to for a week and then his flight back was cancelled) and I’m at my desk in London. It’s not quite the same of course, but it is a kind of normality. And it’s also about creating some kind of structure to our days to bring a rhythm into our lives that gives a sense of stability.
One of my new habits is an early morning walk before breakfast. We’re officially allowed one walk a day for exercise and I decided to go out first thing when it’s quieter. It’s also a very lovely hour at this time of year when the weather is warm, the sun newly rising, and the air fresh and light clear.
I’m very lucky to have Kneller Gardens nearby; barely a 5-minute walk away from my house and through which the River Crane flows. Below is a photo as I crossed a little bridge over the river into the park this morning. You can see it was quite early!
Though to the other side it was brighter with the sun starting to shine through the trees.
Kneller Gardens were opened in 1931, the land bought from the Jubilee Farm estate to provide open space for the new houses that were being built in West Twickenham and Whitton. It’s become a popular haunt for me with my family who live in Whitton, as when I walk to their house (a mile/20-minutes walk away), I go through the Gardens then through a subway under the Great Chertsey Road (A316). I’ve spent many happy times there with my little grandsons and of course one of their favourite things is to watch the ducks. Now I’m sending photos of the ducks each morning for them to see. I can’t wait until Mr & Mrs Duck below produce some ducklings!
People often ask me if there’s a connection between the Gardens and Kneller Hall, which is famous as the home of the Royal Military School of Music. I’ve always thought probably not with the Great Chertsey Road running between them, and the Hall a mile away. But now – with a little more time on my hands! – some basic research reveals that there is indeed a connection.
A house was first built on the Kneller Hall site in the mid 1600s. This was bought in 1709 by Sir Godfrey Kneller, who was a Royal Court painter. He demolished the original house and built a new one, which was named Whitton Hall. However, on his death his widow renamed the house Kneller Hall after her late husband. The Gardens at the time were a bathing area – presumably because of the River Crane – and surrounded by farmland.
The Gardens are now owned by and maintained by the local Richmond council. There’s a playground, tennis courts, a cafe and open space for games, exercising dogs or simply having a walk.
My preference – unless cutting across diagonally to walk to my son’s – is to take the path along the river. I’ve always liked being by water, be it a river or the sea. In ‘normal’ times, however, my instinct is always to walk in the other direction towards the Thames. A walk down to Twickenham’s main street and cutting through a side road to the riverside takes me to the Thames in about 10-15 minutes. So I don’t have a shortage of water to walk by. But since the pandemic, and the restrictions on our outdoor activities; of having to keep our distance from others while out and about, it’s seemed a good idea to go for a walk along the quieter River Crane.
A change of normal routine is what marks this period of time for us. We’re all having to do things differently, make changes and adapt to the restrictions and where we can find a way round (without breaking any rules!) them to still do some of the things that are important to us. And walking is something I usually do a lot of.
The morning walk has become a routine to set me up for the day; establish a sense of purpose. It’s become a time of reflection; a time when I look around and take in what’s surrounding me much more than before. I find it lifts my spirit. Yesterday morning I woke quite angry with the world for what it was delivering at the moment, but by the time I returned from my walk by the river, surrounded by nature, I was happier and more positive.
This blog focuses on travel and food and of course at the moment, I can’t write it in the way I’ve done for the past 9 years. I can’t travel to faraway cities or even my daughter in Worcestershire; I can’t go to restaurants and cafes and write reviews; I can’t interview anyone; I can’t even just pop out to buy ingredients for a new recipe I come across. What I’m being forced to do is travel to what’s right before my eyes!
As I walked this morning, going further than other mornings right to the Crane Park Island Nature Reserve, it occurred to me that most of the time I ignore this lovely space right on my doorstep; right before my eyes. I remembered that the last time I’d walk to the Nature Reserve was before my son’s second child was born; I’d walked there with him, his wife, and Freddie, who was only 2. Now Freddie is 5.
I’ve always loved travelling. Most of my travelling has been to Europe – I’m a true Europhile. I’m always planning where I can travel to next, be it old favourites like Amsterdam, Turin or Nice, or a new place to explore. And my choices are always guided by food; I’ve no interest in going anywhere that doesn’t offer me great food experiences. I like to think of how this all expands my experience and understanding of our world; how I learn about other cultures, see amazing sights, beautiful buildings. And all this is good – very good – and it is enriching, and I hope it won’t be too long before I can do it again – but how often do we stop and see what’s right before our eyes?
This morning I walked along the river, came out of the Gardens, crossed Meadway and continued along the River Crane Walk. Signs of spring were bursting around me: cow parsley, bluebells, pretty white hawthorn blossom.
There are some beautiful carved benches along the walk. Wouldn’t you just love this one in your garden?
Although you won’t see any real cranes along the River Crane now, you can appreciate one in this lovely carving on a bench.
Cranes are marvellous birds. They live a very long life; some species for 80 years. In Eastern tales – China, Asia – they represent harmony and long life. They’re very loyal and mate for life and show respect for elders and ancestors. We should all have a crane in our lives. And I do, in fact, have a crane sculpture in my garden – though I must find it a mate!
One of the things I like about this walk is its wildness. It’s true wildness! It’s not manufactured wildness. A lot of upkeep is done by volunteers of The Friends of the River Crane Environment group, particularly in keeping the paths clear and the river free of rubbish and pollution. But as you look around, it is simply an overgrown and wild area where nature rules.
Finally I came to my destination – the Shot Tower, a Grade II listed building, and the Nature Reserve. The Shot Tower was built in 1823 and small lead shot was produced here. Crane Park was the site of the Hounslow Gunpowder Mills, built in 1766 and at the time one of the largest in Europe, supplying gunpowder to the army and navy. Other mills that were once further along the river date back to 1066.
The Nature Reserve is a delight. I always find it amazing that the River Crane, so small and narrow near my house, widens enough to accommodate an island this size. Once part of the gunpowder mills site, the reserve was created in 1981 and has been managed by The London Wildlife Trust since 1986. It provides a home for many rare species and has even been visited by Sir David Attenborough – a local who lives in Richmond.
You can go through a gate and cross a little bridge onto the island. I’ve done this a few times and it’s a great thing to do. However, I decided against it this morning as the paths are quite narrow and with a view to keeping my ‘social distance’ it didn’t seem a good idea. Anyway, I’d left home early and hadn’t had my breakfast yet and needed to head home!
Below is a view across the island from the gate.
Turn to the right from looking across the Nature Reserve and you see the open space of Crane Park.
Now I backtracked, the river now to my right as I made my way back to Kneller Gardens.
There are a few little bridges crossing the river and on one a man stood in the middle, looking down the length of the river. We called ‘hello’ to each other and I stopped – at far more than the 2-metre social distancing rule – and we chatted for a while. I’ve no idea who he was, we didn’t even exchange names. But we exchanged some nice, friendly talk and smiles and he pointed down the river as I moved on, and told me to watch out for the kingfisher that was around.
I looked across the river and saw lots of beehives. Twickenham has quite a vibrant beekeeping association and it’s easy to buy local honey.
I crossed Meadway (a road leading up to the A316 from Twickenham) again and was back in Kneller Gardens. The light made some beautiful wooden sculptures of wild animals stand out as I walked and they were a sign that I was almost home.
What a joy it is to go for such a walk on an April morning, the sun coming up and warming the air, the light casting sparkles on the river and shadows from the trees. Sometimes it is very good indeed to travel to what’s right before your eyes – or just down the end of your road!