History upon Thames

Peter Morrell goes with his wife to the riverside town of Kingston and discovers a millennium of history and heritage while enjoying the 21st century pleasures of good cuisine and comfortable accommodation

A Turks Boat under Kingston Bridge

A Turks Boat under Kingston Bridge

The Gatehouse at Hampton Court

The Gatehouse at Hampton Court

The Fire in Henrys Kitchen

The Fire in Henry's Kitchen

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

Utensils in the Royal Chocolate Kitchen

Utensils in the Royal Chocolate Kitchen

The William and Mary Facade

The William and Mary Facade

One of thhe formal gardens at Hampton Court

One of thhe formal gardens at Hampton Court

The Chimneys at Hampton Court

The Chimneys at Hampton Court

Warren House - Image (c)Warren House

Warren House - Image (c)Warren House

The view from the Holiday Inn

The view downriver from the Holiday Inn

The Facade of the third Boots

The Facade of the third Boots

The Italianate Hall in the Market sqaure

The Italianate Hall in the Market Square

The Clattern Bridge over the Hogsmill River

The Clattern Bridge over the Hogsmill River

The Coronation Stone

The Coronation Stone

Busaba Eathai on the Riverside Walk

Busaba Eathai on the Riverside Walk

I arrived at Hampton Court in the style of Henry VIII, by boat. Not the royal barge but the equally comfortable paddle boat operated by Turks who offer a regular service up the river from Kingston.

I was staying in Kingston upon Thames for a couple of days to discover the history of the town and the comforts that it can offer the modern traveller. In the past Kingston, for me, had been a convenient river crossing point, as it was centuries ago, when it offered the first route across the Thames west of London Bridge. In fact the footings of the original bridge have been preserved under a modern development.

Now, rather than rushing headlong to a business meeting, I was on a mission to find out the origins of the town and why it was chosen for the coronation of several 10th century Saxon kings. But first I would visit probably one of the most evocative royal palaces in the UK, Hampton Court.

Turks River Boats

Hopping on the Turks boat from one of the two conveniently located piers in Kingston was the best way to get to the Palace. There was something quite Three Men in a Boatish about the journey, appropriately as the book starts in Kingston. Author Jerome K Jerome started writing it in the Druid’s Head, a pub in the Market Square. We passed riverside properties, from quirky bungalows to envy inducing architect designed, glass walled mansions.

Hampton Court

Hampton Court itself is a marvel, with its eclectic architecture it is soaked in history. Work was started on the Palace by Cardinal Wolsey in 1514 who wanted to create a building fit for his status as Archbishop of York. However he didn’t get long to enjoy the fruits of his labour, by 1528 Wolsey realised that his moment in the sun had passed and gifted the palace to Henry VIII.

Henry immediately set to work extending the palace adding the now famous Great Hall, with its hammer beam roof. It was here that Henry sat on a raised dais and presided over lavish banquets.

Our first port of call after walking through the arch of the magnificent gatehouse was the Tudor kitchens. The sweet smell of smoke from a roaring log fire adding to the atmosphere and it was easy to imagine chickens being spit-roasted to satisfy a gluttonous Henry’s voracious appetite.

We marvelled at the Chapel Royal before craning our necks to look at the roof as we walked through the stained glass windowed Great Hall. It was then onto the part of the palace built by William and Mary. Started in 1689 they created a huge Baroque style mansion designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The rooms inside are lavish and the guides in the palace provide useful additional information.

There is currently an exhibition ‘The Glorious Georges’ running, describing all the intrigue during the time that George I, II and III spent at Hampton Court but time didn’t allow us to take a look. However before going outside to the famed gardens we did take a look at the only surviving Royal Chocolate Kitchens, built for William, their use continued with George I, under the direction of his own personal chocolate maker, Thomas Tosier.

It was a warm summer’s day and the gardens looked at their very best. They are are split into various plots with different floral themes. At the end is the greenhouse where the world’s largest vine grows. The support wires were groaning from the weight of large, purple, juicy, dessert grapes.

It was time to catch the boat back to Kingston, so to risk going into the yew-hedged maze was tempting fate. Reflecting on the way back, we could have spent twice as long looking around and still not covered everything.

Warren House

It was time for afternoon tea and what better place to relax than Warren House. This is a beautiful country house style hotel less than a 10 minute drive from the centre of Kingston, set on the private Coombe estate. Originally built in 1860 for banker Hugh Hammersley, the house has entertained a succession of celebrities, royalty and politicians who have enjoyed its quintessential English elegance. Converted into a hotel in 2005 it offers a high level of service, as we experienced with afternoon tea.

A sand glass timer allowed just the right brewing time to produce a light, delicate cup of Darjeeling. This complemented the delicate sandwiches, home-made scones and jam with clotted cream, pastries and mini-desserts. The panna cotta with raspberry and coconut was memorable. And all of this in the comfortable lounge overlooking the immaculate garden.

The Holiday Inn

Our home for the night was the well appointed Holiday Inn just outside the town centre. This riverside property is very well located and our large room had a balcony offering views of Hampton Court upstream, Kingston downstream and a basin of brightly painted house-boats and pleasure craft directly below us.

Jamie’s Italian

In the evening a brisk twenty minute walk along the river found us in Jamie’s Italian, one of the Oliver empire restaurants. Although it was a Tuesday night it was packed with diners, and the food showed why it was so popular. We started with a sharing plank of antipasti with some highly flavoured cured meats and salami together with Italian cheeses and olives. Mains were stuffed pork belly for me and spaghetti with seafood for my wife, both delicious and well cooked.. There was a good selection of drinks, cocktails, beers, wines and digestifs. Our wine choice was the Montepulciano, showing good cherry and chocolate flavours and priced at around £20 it was very good value.

Another very bright day gave us a chance to enjoy the view from the balcony before breakfast and what a first meal of the day. Proper bacon, butcher’s sausages, well cooked fried eggs and a big slice of black pudding set us up for the morning ahead. Add to this the excellent and friendly service from all the staff made the Holiday Inn a great accommodation choice.

Kingston History

Back in central Kingston we met Gerard Linehan who works with Kingston Tour Guides. Gerard was a mine of information about the history of the town. We started in All Saints Church with a 14th century wall-painting of St Blaise, 17th century marble font attributed to Sir Christopher Wren and twelve bells of an 18th century Carillon.

It is built on the site where Egbert, King of Wessex held his great council in 838. It was in this spot and the surrounding area that several Saxon kings were crowned in the 10th century. One of these was Æthelred the Unready, his epithet is actually a mis-translation, it should be ill-advised.

The significance of Kingston is lost in time but it did lie on the borders of the Wessex and Mercia kingdoms Reference to the kings can be found all over the town. For example when Jesse Boot opened his third chemist shop, which was in Kingston, he created an elaborate façade with symbols and carvings of the kings.

The other symbol, much in evidence, is the Kingston coat of arms, comprising three salmon. The town was mentioned in the Domesday Book as having one church, five mills and three salmon fisheries.

Kingston was on a major stagecoach route and a team of horses could be changed in minutes or passengers could stay overnight. At one time there were 52 inns and pubs around the Market Square. Although most of the pubs have gone the Square is still a hive of activity. The old ancient market has now been brought back to life and features stalls selling meat, fish and artisan food. In the centre of the Square is a handsome Italianate building, constructed in 1840. It has been the Market Hall, the Town Hall and is now a gallery. The front of the hall is graced with a gilded statue of Queen Mary.

A short stroll from the Square is the Hogsmill River, allegedly the site where the garrulous landlady of a local inn was put on a ducking stool to shut her up, unsuccessfully apparently. The river is crossed using the Clattern Bridge which still has its original 12th century foundations. Its name is said to derive from the sound carts made when they crossed.

Yards away from the bridge is probably the most historically significant artefact in the town, the Coronation Stone, Legend has it that this was the throne used by the Saxon kings during their coronations, it was recovered from a Saxon chapel, now long gone, that stood in the ground of All Saints Church.

Shopping

Returning to the 21st century it is impossible not to talk about the shopping in Kingston. It features both national chain stores and a wide range of boutiques. Parking is easy and it is a magnet for shoppers from miles around. The best known shop is of course Bentalls, designed in 1935 by architect Maurice Webb its façade is a reproduction of Wren’s William and Mary extension at Hampton Court.

Busaba Eathai

All this walking about has made us hungry so we wandered down to the new Riverside Walk development. Bars, cafes and restaurants line the riverbank for about half a mile, offering alfesco eating and glorious views. We chose Busaba Eathai, a Thai restaurant. The menu had a good selection of dishes; noodles, seafood and meat. Our order included Som Tam, a green papaya salad, Sen chan pad, noodles with prawn, peanut, egg, green mango and crabmeat. The stand out dish for me was the Thai calamari ginger and peppercorn, pure foodie nirvana.

Sipping a cold beer on the terrace I looked up at the traffic rushing over Kingston Bridge, people don’t know what they are missing, they should stop and spend a while discovering the secrets of this hidden historic gem.

Useful Facts
Tourist Information
For more information on Kingston Upon Thames, go to www.kingstonfirst.co.uk

 

Accommodation
Rooms at The Holiday Inn London – Kingston South start from £79.00 per room, per night including breakfast.  For reservations and more information call 020 8786 6565 or go to www.hikingston.co.uk

 

Dining
For more information and reservations at Jamie’s Italian call 0203 326 4300 or go to www.jamieoliver.com/italian/Kingston

 

For more information and reservations at Busaba Eathai call 0208 481 6788 www.busaba.com

 

Afternoon Tea at Warren House starts from £23.50 for the Classic Tea and £38.50 for the Champagne Tea.  To book call 020 8547 1777 or go to www.warrenhouse.com

 

Attractions/Activities
A river cruise to Hampton Court with Turks Cruises starts from £6 per adult or £4 per child for a single and £7.50 per adult or £5.50 per child return. For more information consult www.turks.co.uk

 

Tickets to Hampton Court Palace are £17.05 for adults and £8.52 for children.  For more information go to www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/

 

Tours of Kingston Town Centre tours start from the Church Gates in the Ancient Market Place. Summer (1 April to the end of September) at 2.30pm every Sunday afternoon and in the Winter (October to March) at 2.30pm on the first Sunday in each month. Consult www.kingstontourguides.org.uk The walk costs £4.

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