Recently I have been making regular visits to Kingston, an ancient market town by the river Thames in London. Before the Norman Conquest, Saxon kings of England were crowned here. It has been many years since I last explored the town in any great depth, although it was the site of my judicial triumphs of a while back Sadly it has fallen victim to the usual dreary shopping malls. However, it still retains vestiges of its venerable past.
I had forgotten all about the overhanging wooden upper storey which had once graced a medieval townhouse but which is now superimposed upon a modern building. Its rediscovery reminded me of the fact that when I had worked in Kingston I came across an ornately carved 17th century staircase in the midst of a nondescript bookshop. It seems the building had been substantially altered over the centuries but the staircase had always been preserved in situ. I used to love finding an excuse to linger on the staircase and admire the finely wrought carvings. It struck me at the time that the depictions of barrels with the ancient God of merrymaking, Bacchus, sitting astride one of them, implied that the staircase was once housed within an inn. This was the same conclusion reached by H E Malden in his 1911 edition of A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 3. He wrote:
" No. 5 Market Place, just opposite (now belonging to Messrs. Hide & Co. furniture dealers, etc.), formerly the Castle Inn mentioned in 1537, retains an early 17th-century staircase from the ground to the second floor; the heavy square newels have carved and panelled sides and ball tops, the carriages or sloping strings are carved as laurel wreaths. The handrails are heavy, and the space between the strings and handrails is filled in with heavy foliage, roses, and other subjects; at the head of the first flight are three tuns, and on the first floor is a Bacchus seated on a tun and holding up a cup, and there are other human figures worked in with the foliage. Various initials, evidently original, are scattered over the work; on one newel head IORPGVP, on another newel CB EB SB AB; in a true lover's knot N B S; on a human face in a third newel FV and HB; on a fourth TS, TI, and another GD”.
Another shop facing the market place was first built in 1422 and its façade remodelled in 1922.
In 1909 the façade of an Edwardian building was decorated with plaster statues of some of the more illustrious characters associated with the town.
Daniel Lysons, writing in 1792 describes the Elizabethan town hall which was still to be found in the market place. The current building on the same site was erected several decades after Lysons had published his work. Over its entrance is a gilded statue of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, dating from 1706.
Despite having worked in Kingston-upon-Thames for a number of years I had never realised that it was possessed of some charming almshouses built in 1668 by Alderman William Cleave. Mature trees, parked cars and workmen wielding long scaffolding poles as they made their way to their van parked cross the road all conspired to thwart me in my efforts to photograph the row of two storey houses. Aside from the windows which had been replaced in the 18th century with the Gothic style made fashionable in England by Horace Walpole, who designed his eponymous villa at Strawberry Hill, the overall design of the almshouse remains pretty much the same as when they were first built. Afterwards I realised each of the 12 houses had been provided with that ultimate luxury for the period, a front door. This is a very different arrangement to that found at the almshouses in Shoreditch, built in 1714 as part of the bequest of Sir Robert Geffrye. At the latter, within each two storey house four tenants were obliged to share the communal front door to their lodgings.
At Kingston the central gable of the almshouse displays a sundial bearing the date 1668 and the alderman’s initials. Below is a slate plaque with a carved stone surround detailing William Cleave’s bequest for six poor men and six poor women of the parish. The two doors to the main entrance both have six panels echoing the symmetry of the architectural scheme and perhaps representing the twelve beneficiaries of Cleave’s charity. I assume this central segment would have been the living quarters of whoever oversaw the almshouses on a daily basis. Much as I have always loved the Geffrye Museum, I think the Cleaves almshouses would rank somewhat higher in my estimation. I was able to sneak a quick peek inside one of the houses when someone fortuitously opened their front door. I could see what I assume was an original mantelpiece above the fireplace but all else was hid from view. Though more cramped than at Shoreditch the Kingston residents would have had their own separate bedroom, front parlour and front door. In the 17th century this would have constituted an almost unparalleled luxury for the poor of the time and something many a resident of modern care homes might well envy.
Leaving the almshouse behind me I made my way back to the town centre and passed by the work of art by the Scottish sculptor and installation artist David Mach. It is called “Out of Order” and consists of a number of iconic red telephone boxes toppling against one another like a series of gigantic scarlet domino pieces. It is quite rare to see such telephone boxes on the streets any more although at one time they were ubiquitous. Unfortunately, more often than not they were either vandalised, used as a urinal or both. Yet for a number of years they were the only means for me to make a telephone call that afforded me a reasonable degree of privacy, although it did not spare me from strangers rapping on the window, anxious to make their own call and keen for me to end mine. I was not so keen to use the telephone in the communal hall where every conversation could be overheard by anyone else in the house. One eccentric young woman would regularly ring up her boyfriend to scream at him for his alleged infidelities. Invariably there would come a point when the barrage of insults would grind to a halt as she ran out of money, whereupon she would politely ask him to call her back. Once he did so she would unleash her torrent of abuse anew. Theirs was a relationship that verged on the violent. Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering Victorian photographer, allowed his sexual jealousy to degenerate into murder.
Eadweard Muybridge (the spelling of his Christian name was a mere affectation on his part and reflected what was believed to have been the Anglo Saxon rendering of his name Edward) was born in Kingston. At the age of 35, Muybridge immigrated to America. Illness, resulting from an accident, obliged him to recuperate in England where he began to study photography. On his return to America he was able to make a name for himself as a photographer and famously used his skills to conclusively proof that a galloping horse will momentarily have all four hooves off the ground at once. Whilst in America he cold bloodedly gunned down the man he believed to his wife’s lover. Amazingly, he was acquitted by the jury. Even more astonishingly, this incident did not appear to have dented his reputation or his social standing. Members of the British Royal family were happy to attend a lecture in 1882 he gave at the Royal Institute, less than a decade after his trial for murder.
Another part of Kingston which I had forgotten about was the Clattern Bridge, which spans a tributary of the River Thames. It is thought that the name of the bridge derives from the clattering sound the horses hooves made as they were ridden across it. Daniel Lysons in 1792 refers to “a small stream, called Hog's Mill River, over which there is a bridge of three arches, runs through the southern part of the town, and falls into the Thames”. Part of these stone arches date back to 1293, when the bridge was first built.
The source of the evocatively named Hogsmill River was immortalised by the Pre Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais in his painting “Ophelia.”
Kingston was once a thriving inland port. Now the only boats to ply its waters are cruisers, river launches and rowing boats. I once dated a man who belonging to a rowing club called the Sons of the Thames. I was intrigued to see that last year Sons of the Thames won the Frank Harry Cup at Henley Women's Regatta. Either Sons of the Thames admit women or else there were more facets to my date than I had ever suspected.
A few miles along the river lies Hampton Court Palace, the Tudor counterpart to the long vanished royal residences of the Saxon kings. On Wednesday afternoon I decided to take a leisurely stroll along the Thames towpath to Hampton Court Palace. As ever, the palace yielded up even more surprises for me, more of which anon.