To begin this blog, I’d like to mention that I am from Richmond, Virginia, USA. Somewhere in the middle of the east coast in a city that once served as the capital of the south is the house in which I grew up along with a teenage sister, two dogs, and the parents that raised me. My term in London has been the longest I’ve gone without seeing my parents and by far the furthest I’ve ever been from home. I woke up on the morning of November 4th, 2016 feeling quite melancholy and longing to be back in Richmond if just for a day so, with the vague hope that a place with the same name could in some way cure my mid-term blues, I hopped the overground to Whitechapel and then took the District Line east for twenty-four stops.
Now going into this walk I was already aware of the connection between the Richmond here and my Richmond across the Atlantic. William Byrd II named Richmond, Virginia in 1737 in honor of the place where he spent most of his childhood. A planter and surveyor, he was born in Virginia but spent his childhood in and around Essex. The story goes that he stood at the top of Libby Hill, now an upscale park at the eastern end of the city of Richmond (I’ve been there many times myself), and looked out over the James River thinking of the view of the Thames from Richmond Hill, London. Now whether or not this story holds truth is up for debate, but Byrd did indeed name the colony Richmond and he is still considered its founder today.
So there I was, leaving the tube station and turning left in hopes of somewhat walking through Richmond’s history. I walked south down Petersham Road and followed it past a plethora of shops until it curved eastward and forked as it met the B321. I took the path to the left, Hill Street, the route upward, in order to get a decent vista of the Thames. I passed flower shops and cafes and pubs, expensive furniture shops and even more expensive houses, until I arrived at the terrace gardens. With the view in sight, I kept walking until I saw it: a huge grassy hill sloping downward, bordered by trees dressed in autumn colors stretching all the way to the Thames river bowing elegantly westward under a cloudy sky. It was so strange to think that Byrd stood looking out over the James River from Libby Hill thinking about his childhood in Richmond, England while I (279 years later) stood looking out over the Thames River from Richmond Hill thinking about my childhood in the Richmond that he named.
My view from Richmond Hill on 4 Nov. 2016
I learned in my research that the view was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1788 and then multiple times my JMW Turner in the early 19th century. James Thompson wrote about the view in 1748 while William Wordsworth did so as well in 1820. It is clear that, since it became a public space, Richmond Hill has been well loved by all who visit. Facing the threat of development in the early years of the 20th century, the park was saved by the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act passed by Parliament in 1902 and became the only view in England to be protected by law.
England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday. Joseph M.W Turner, 1819. Courtesy of Tate.org.uk
The Thames from Richmond Hill. Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1788. Courtesy of Tate.org.uk
From the top of the hill I turned around. I walked back down the hill in order to see the Terrace Gardens which had caught my eye earlier. It’s a small but beautiful patch of grass with meandering pathways, benches, and mossy old fountain. It turns out that the gardens were originally three separate eighteenth century estates (the Buccleuch House, Landsdowne House, and Cardigan House) that were combined to form a public park in 1887 and have since been a site for both formal garden plants and more sustainable native plant species, as well. As time passed it naturally began to rain so I took temporary shelter in a thatched teahouse, called the Hollyhock Café, at the center of the garden. It was an interesting but charming construction that seemed a little out of place, so I figured I would do some digging about its history. Sitting with a cappuccino as rain poured down on the roof above, I found out that the cafe sits on the site of the Duke of Montagu’s summerhouse and that the building, itself, had been there since the late 1800s. It was featured in the announcement for the public opening of the gardens by HRH Princess Mary Adelaide in 1887 and has been in use ever since.
Hollyhock Cafe: Terrace Gardens, Richmond Upon-Thames. 4 Nov 2016
By the time I finished my coffee the sun was drawing closer to the horizon and I knew it was time to head back. Walking back down Hill Street, passing once more the posh shops and restaurants, I noticed to my left a rather beautiful old building made of red bricks with a clock attached to its side. The building was the Old Town Hall of Richmond and was erected in the “Elizabethan Renaissance” style and opened on 10 June, 1893. W.C Ancell designed the decorative structure complete with cornices and a tile roof, while Messrs Potts & Sons of Leeds created the ornate clock hanging above the street.
After admiring the Town Hall I began to shiver in the cold and quickly walked to the station. Twenty-four stops and an overground train later I was back at New Cross Gate and ready to write about my first psychogeographic walk in Richmond.