Patrick Barkham finds a floating sense of peace along the Thames in Brentford
Traffic roars away from London. Planes lower themselves gingerly towards the horizon. The river flows past. Brentford supplies a sensation of being the still point in a turning world.
I walked from the railway station and took the Great West Road. Despite the M4 snaking through buildings to the north, the old Staines road was still six lanes wide and full of cars.
This was office land and, post-COVID, it sang with abandonment. Every plate-glass building was adorned with ‘OFFICE TO LET’. Estate agents did not hide their desperation: ‘Attractive riverside setting. Excellent car parking. Available immediately.’ I hope the poor agents have a sideline in flogging sheds for home offices.
As I turned down the steps onto the Grand Union Canal, the road noise vanished – and I was transported into the wonderful parallel world that is our network of navigable waterways. Up there was noise and bustle. Down here, all was tranquil.
The boats were a shock, though. Having not spent much time in London recently, I’m stunned by the speed of change in the capital – such as the fact that everyone who isn’t riding a motorised scooter is now walking a dog.
And, since I last looked, narrowboats have been gentrified. Here they were prettified with solar panels, gleaming sack barrows, bikes, aluminium planters, inflatable kayaks and ‘BABY ON BOARD’ signs. It was a relief when an old-school boat appeared with a ragged plastic tarp for a door.
Seven baby coots cheeped in turbid water beneath the shell of an old warehouse before the shiny new flats of Brentford Lock West, followed by a canal-side building that I assumed was a cool, new university campus but turned out to be the nicest Holiday Inn I’ve ever seen.
Beyond the High Street, the canal path was dramatically flooded – so I took a diversion down back streets past Goddards of Brentford, who seem to own all the interesting corners of the neighbourhood, and run a fleet of removal lorries with a pale blue livery. Over a car bodywork garage, I glimpsed the lush trees of Kew but no sign of the Thames between us.
Across a dinky footbridge and onto the other side of the canal, where the sunny waterside was as warm and wet as the tropics. Goosegrass grew as tall as a man, and swarms of midges hovered above a Canada goose cadging food from a canal-boat resident.
This strange edgeland was both supremely peaceful and stimulating, and in a time of its own. At Brentford’s Thames Lock, a proper canal-keeper wearing a sunhat popped out of his booth to help some boomers tie up their boat while a couple of lads smoked sweet weed under the bridge. It felt like the years 1821 and 2021 churned together.
The canal-side path abruptly ended and I was forced away from some fabulous working boatyards to the mundanity of a Morrisons, McDonald’s and a main road, before relocating the Thames Path where it should be – beside the Thames. Now luxury flats loomed large, but the waterside continued to add a small dose of the wild, with thistle, bramble and ash springing up through the fancy formal gardens.
Derelict boats slumped in the water’s edge, where buddleia grew as an aquatic plant. One of the dead boats was covered in a tarp, as if respectfully drawn over someone recently deceased.
Out on the water, the Thames appeared to have split around a long sinuous island of trees, which I later learned was Brentford Ait. Before Kew Bridge was a Millionaire’s Row of grand Thames barge homes. Admiral Tromp, Heron’s Rest, Legend and the like came with cats, buggies and riverside gardens, complete with gates and even brick walls.
More Canada geese fettled themselves on a slipway, and I crossed Kew Bridge to finish in clean, prim Kew. If Kew had a smell, it would be wisteria. Give me Brentford’s intoxicating blend of mud, water and weeds any day.
Head north from Brentford railway station, west along the A4, before dropping down onto the Grand Union Canal. Follow Thames Path signs to Kew Bridge