Thameside Molesey

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989

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In comparison with some of the massive waterways in other parts of the world, the Thames is merely an insignificant stream. There are no towering gorges, no magnificent waterfalls, no rapid cataracts.

  'But none in charm surpasses England's own,
  Thames or Isis, river known to song'.

In length, in breadth, and in nobility it is far surpassed by many others. 'But', as John Burns said, in an oft-quoted retort when chided on this score by some transatlantic visitors, 'every drop of the River Thames is liquid 'istory'. And surely there can be few parts of the river, outside the capital itself, to which this maxim can apply with greater justification than the three miles or so between Hampton Court and Sunbury Lock, where it forms the northern boundary of East and West Molesey. Murray's Guide to Surrey (1898) says: 'The walk along the towing-path on the left bank from Hampton Court to Walton Bridge is one to be recommended'. It was so then — it is so now.

Although the scenery here is perhaps not a prospect of breathtaking grandeur, nevertheless neither is it a tedium of monotony and boredom. Almost every step opens up a view of something different - an island, a building, some river craft. Each has its own story, its own characteristic associations with the history, customs or literature of England. It is rather like the girl next door, the girl who is not a ravishing beauty, hut who has, however, the sort of pretty face and graceful figure with which one falls in love.

Molesey towpath

The journey starts, on the towpath at Molesey, early this century.

Samuel Carter Hall and his wife Anna Maria, Victorian writers, who at one time lived in Palace Road, wrote in The Book of the Thames (1869) 'The Thames is the King of Island Rivers; if deficient in the grander features of landscape, it is rich in pictorial beauty; its associations are closely linked with heroic men and glorious achievements, its antiquities are of the rarest and most instructive order; its natural productions of the highest interest; it wanders through fertile meads and beside pleasant banks, gathering strength from a thousand tributaries; on either side are remains of ancient grandeur, homely villages, retired cottages, palatial dwellings, and populous cities and towns; boats and barges, and sea-craft of a hundred nations, indicate and enhance its wealth; numerous locks and bridges facilitate its navigation and promote the traffic that gives it fame. Its history is that of England'.

Soulless indeed must he be who is not moved by the riverscape's natural charm, its subtlety and variety, its moods and caprices, whether it be viewed 'en fete' for a sunny summer's regatta, or festooned with the icy rime of winter, during the soft breeze of morning, or when the setting sun drenches the silent water with a rose-red hue.

One may find however, that the best time to ramble the towpath is when timely spring's green leaves and pink blossom line the waterside, or on one of those fine sunny days that often occur in October or early November, when autumn sets its golden-brown on the trees and turns the creeper to russet-red. Then one may saunter and have the riverside almost to oneself without the tourist crowds to disconcert one's thoughts. Then might the mind shuttle back and forth from present to past, conjuring pictures of incidents, fifty, a hundred, even a thousand or more years a go, back to the time when the river was worn and shaped, gouged out of the ground by a receding glacier at the end of some ante-historical ice-age. How many feet, one may ponder, have trod this self-same path since our primeval ancestors paddled their dug-out log canoes through the lonesome river, leaving their craft to be found in its muddy bed centuries later.

Historical retrospectives are not all that will crowd the rambler's mind. The riverside is rich in literary and artistic associations; poets and authors, painters and actors, have crowded to its banks. Countless pens have waxed lyrical of its captivating charm since Edmund Spenser, over four hundred years ago, wrote in Prothalamion (1596):

  'Along the shoars of silver streaming Thames;
  Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems,
  Was painted all with variable flowers,
  And all the meads adorned with dainty gems,
  Fit to deck maidens bowers, and crown their paramours
  Against the bridal day, which is not long;
  Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song'.

Our particular stretch of the river has been beloved by many artists and photographers. The most notable was probably Alfred Sisley, the French Impressionist, who spent almost a whole year here in 1874, usually with his easel set up somewhere along the towpath. He loved rivers, and the Thames around Molesey reminded him of his precious Seine. The results are now scattered in art galleries and private collections around the world. They depict the river through its many facets — the gaily garlanded regatta, the lock, the water thundering over the weir, the crowded towpath, the bridge — a unique record of Molesey's riverside as it existed over a century ago.

Sisley painting of Molesey Lock

Alfred Sisley painted Molesey Lock in 1874.

The very name 'Thames' is ancient. We find it mentioned by Julius Caesar half a century before Christ. It derives from a British word meaning 'dark' - the dark river, and appears analogous to the Sanskrit 'Tamasa', the name of a tributary of the Ganges. In the middle ages it was variously spelled: Temese, Temesa, Tamise, Temmes, and Tems.


The Molesey Thames

The Molesey Thames in 1907 — seen from the Surrey bank, with the houseboat Gypsy above and below, Hampton Church and Garrick House.

West Molesey towpath

West Molesey towpath, where 1920s bathers dwadle, a panama-hatted fisherman sits motionless in the reeds, and the yachts go sailing by.

Towpath above Molesey Lock

The towpath above the Lock at Molesey in 1910 was just the place to parade in your Sunday best.

Molesey Lock

The Duke of York steamer at the Lock.

ISBN 0 86023 414 2

Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.

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A printed copy is available from:

  • Molesey Residents Association: Ernest Mallett, 20 Walton Road, East Molesey, Tel 020-8979-6446
  • Bookshop: 68, Walton Road, East Molesey 020-8224-3232
  • Molesey Library, The Forum, Walton Road, West Molesey 020-8979-6348
  • Houben's Bookshop: 2a Church Court, Richmond 020-8940-1055
  • Alternatively you may be able to get second hand copy on amazon.

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Images © 2006 M J Baker and S A Baker, all rights reserved.
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