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SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
SISLEY by the Thames
Getting to the area
Self-guided walk
Paintings 1 to 8
Paintings 9–11
Extension to the walk
Useful information
Eat, drink & stay
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Extension to the walk
Proceeding further along the riverside walk the end of Tagg’s Island with its attendant floating homes comes into view with the small Duck’s Eyot or Swan’s Nest Island just beyond. The area is still home to numerous water birds and a little further along where a road, Sadlers Ride, comes down to the water’s edge the flocks often congregate in expectation of a crust or two. The open area to the left is known as Molesey Hurst and is now the haunt of dog-walkers, strollers and impromptu football games, but it has a colourful history.
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Originally this was an extensive meadow with common grazing rights dating back several centuries. The turf was often stained with blood from duels fought here to settle affairs of honour and from the beginning of the eighteenth century the area was used for a variety of sporting activities, some more respectable than others. Apart from cricket which was probably first played here in 1731, archery, cock-fighting, bare-knuckle prize-fighting, golf and horse-racing have all taken place and all have been wagered on by royals and rogues alike. These events attracted enormous crowds from the city and added to the vibrancy and vitality of the area. Charles Dickens makes mention of the races in Nicholas Nickleby and describes ‘The little racecourse at Hampton was in the full tide and height of its gaiety; the day as dazzling as day could be; the sun high in the cloudless sky, and shining in its full splendour.’ Horse-racing continued at Hurst Park until the early 1960’s when the course was given over to the development of housing and open space that can be seen today.
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There is an island close to the river bank, now occupied by small houses, called Garrick’s Ait, named after the well-known eighteenth-century actor who lived on the opposite bank. Indeed his imposing house and the classical temple he built to honour Shakespeare can be viewed from here and they will be referred to again later. Also to be seen is an impressive houseboat moored on the opposite bank. This is called Astoria and was originally built for Fred Karno who wanted the most luxurious houseboat on the river. In typical flamboyant fashion the upper deck could accommodate a 90-piece orchestra and the musical association continues as it is now owned by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore and has been adapted to house a recording studio. Continue past the island until the ferry crossing is reached. This is opposite Hampton church and has provided a river crossing for more than 500 years and it now operates between April and October. Ring the bell to attract attention.
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On reaching the opposite bank there are several opportunities for refreshment. Apart from ices and cold drinks from the boathouse there is the Bell Inn just across the road or the Jolly Coopers pub round the corner. The church of Saint Mary’s dates back more than 650 years although the present building was consecrated in 1831. Walking back towards Hampton Court the entrance to a riverside garden is reached on the right and this is the location of Garrick’s Temple dedicated to William Shakespeare. David Garrick, the famous actor-manager, lived in the grand house on the other side of the main road and had this classical temple built to commemorate his hero. It housed a life-size statue of the ‘Bard’ by Roubiliac, now in the British Museum, and a copy of this can still be seen when the building is open on Sundays between April and October. Garrick lived here in some style and in 1762 he commissioned two huge canvases by the German artist Johan Zoffany to capture his idyllic riverside domain. These are called The Garden of Hampton House, with Mr and Mrs David Garrick Taking Tea and The Shakespeare Temple at Hampton House, with Mr and Mrs David Garrick and these can be seen, on occasions, at Tate Britain.
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The walk now continues along Hampton Court Road and this is always busy with traffic. A more attractive option at this point is to cross the road and enter Bushy Park at the first opportunity. This is a Royal Park attached to Hampton Court Palace and covers an enormous area and was once part of Henry VIII’s hunting grounds. Deer still roam freely, no longer victims of the chase, and the park offers opportunities for hours, if not days, of leisurely rambles. For the purposes of this walk proceed along the avenue of lime trees with the golden statue of the Diana Fountain in the far distance. When a car park comes into view on the right bear off in that direction and exit the park onto the main road again. Proceed a little further past the entrance to the car park and then take the footpath on Hampton Court Green that runs parallel to the main road.
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Through the trees on the other side of the road the buildings of the Royal Mews, dating back almost 500 years, can be seen and these are still used as stables for the Horse Rangers Association who regularly exercise in Bushy Park. Houses once occupied by Sir Christopher Wren and Michael Faraday are also to be found just before the roundabout outside Hampton Court Palace. The roofline of the Mews can be identified in a painting of a cricket match on the Green by Camille Pissarro, a friend and colleague of Sisley, who visited the area in 1890. The loose water colour was probably the basis of a later oil painting.
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At the roundabout turn right and unless a diversion is planned to the palace for more culture and history or to the Mitre Hotel for refreshment of a different kind, cross over the bridge and you are back to where you started with the railway station over to the left for the return journey to central London.