Driveways, private gardens and joggers: strolling along West London’s Thames embankment

London has a strange relationship with its rivers: historically, the city owed its prosperity  to its riverine location but, as it grew larger and larger, it seemed to turn its back to them by using as sewers, dumps if not by literally burying them under the ground (there are at least a dozen of such subterranean streams, the most notable of which is the River Fleet which, yes, runs below the happy journos of Fleet Street).

Even the mighty Thames has been subject to some degree of mistreatment, even though it fared better than its smaller tributaries: yes, it might not have been subject to the insult of running into an underground tube, but its banks have never been given, apart from a tiny bit downtown, the magnificient and the grandeur that the river would merit.

Despite that, or maybe because of that, walking along a particular stretch of the river is one of my favourite weekend activities when I’m in London. I generally start either at Kew or by the Chiswick Eyot, that small island that lies next to the Fullers brewery, and march on eastwards.

London is a city that loves to lay in bed after a long week at work, but that’s not true for the embankment. I have made my entrance on the promenade at all times of the morning and, be it six or eight or ten o’clock, it’s always busy with joggers and all the variations on the theme: joggers with dogs, joggers with baby strollers (sleeping offspring included), puffing, out-of-shape joggers and insanely fit ones.

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A few steps and the scenery changes. The elegant Fulham Bridge looms in the distance, steel pillars badly painted green and wood logs squeaking under the impact of trucks and cars that must’ve been sci-fi when Victorian engineers with sideburns designed it. Those who stroll along this bit of the walk need to negotiate their way not only with joggers here, but also with rowers, for this is their kingdom. There are at least three different rowing clubs here, and their members will use the walk as a place where to prepare their gear, while the air resounds of the shouts of the trainers to those furiously paddling in the water. This is also the bit where houseboats abound, even though today the low tide shows the side of living on the water that no real estate agent will tell you about.

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The city is in a midst of a building frenzy and the riverside is no different. The latest development is called Fulham Reach and, I have to say, it doesn’t look as hideous as those built further downstream, near Battersea. On the south bank another similar development has been completed not long ago, refurbishing the Harrods furniture store. In a strange case of vertical integration, Richard Rogers and his partners have established their HQ not far from the building sites. Theirs is a rather low key brick and glass building, notable for the collection of models of their major works, including a Lego version of the Centre Pompidou (now, I wish I was the guy that put it together!).

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But London has the peculiarity of mixing new and old, rich and poor, just opened or utterly dilapidated, in a strange mélange: move away from the posh new developments and abandoned buildings pop up with their usual contour of impossibly ugly estates, mouldy bricks and small windows and smell of fried chicken included.

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I walk past the courts with names taken from Ivanhoe, wondering as I always do about what the heck where their designers thinking when they made the projects, and end up in yet another obstacle on my coasting of the river. This time it’s Craven Cottage, home of Fulham Football Club. The opener game against Millwall is still far away and everything is quiet at the field, ticket offices boarded up and only the fan store open. There’s no one browsing the jerseys and the lady at the counter is reading a copy of Hello.

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Further afield the river seems to find, finally, the grand style it deserves with a rich Italian garden, leafy trees and enough green spaces to keep an army of personal trainers and their Lycra-clad clients sweaty. I sit on a bench for a little while, on what I learn is Jenny’s favourite spot after a ride on the no. 22 bus from Hackney, but the impression of grandeur doesn’t last long; immediately after the Putney bridge my path is halted by a procession of mansions cum guardpost and, finally, the gates of a private club. The park, and the river, stretch behind them but the guard sees my cheap clothers, trekking shoes and bottle of water and has none of it: the view of the river, here, belongs to the élite and I’m not one of them.

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