Arcadian Thames – A Royal Landscape

This is the first of a series of posts featuring the Arcadian Thames.  Here at Kingston University we are located at the heart of the Arcadian Thames – an area offering unrivalled public open access and recreational opportunities and which collectively contains more listed buildings, conservation areas, wildlife sites and registered parks and gardens than in any other comparable location in the UK.

Up to the Tudor period, the Thames landscape between Hampton and Kew consisted largely of quiet riverside villages, orchards and market gardens supplying the capital with food. Following the construction of Richmond and Hampton Court Palaces the landscape began to evolve as successive royal and aristocratic families moved to the area. Up and down the river a series of great palaces, grand houses, magnificent gardens and hunting parks were constructed amid the water meadows and woodland, linked to one another by grand avenues of trees.  By the mid eighteenth century, a true Arcadia had been created – a rural paradise on the doorstep of London.  The Arcadian Thames contains palaces, historic gardens and former royal hunting parks as well as commons, wetlands and long towpath walks.  Taken as a whole it is the largest open space in London.

The term Arcadia is derived from the Greek Arcadia mountain district in the Peloponnese, and taken to mean an “idyllic pastoral landscape” a symbol of man and nature co-existing in harmony.  During the 18th century, an Arcadia was re-created along the Thames below Richmond Hill. Magnificent Royal and aristocratic palaces were constructed along with gardens and parks and linked by a series of avenues, set within a framework of meadow and woodland.

Turner view

This Thames Arcadia is recognised as the cradle of the English Landscape movement and has inspired poets, painters, writers and artists to the present day including James Thomson (poet), Horace Walpole, Daniel Defoe (author), J M Turner (artist), Charles Dickens (author), Benjamin Britten (composer) and the Rolling Stones.  The Thames Path that runs through it links the River with the Hogsmill, the Grand Union Canal and the River Crane as well as the great open spaces of Richmond and Bushy Parks, the London Wetland Centre at Barnes, Syon House and Wimbledon Common.

From its outset the area of the Arcadian Thames has developed as a retreat for royalty, courtiers and the cultural elite. The various royal palaces at Richmond, Kew and Hampton Court were refuges for pleasure and from plague. The historic landscape was designed to be seen from the river which provided the transport from Westminster in London. The River Thames also provided a rich supply of food for the riverside palaces along with the adjacent hunting grounds.

Green grid9

Riverside villas and mansions expanded in the second decade of the 18th century based on the ideal of the villa as a classical retreat for man from the court and city. Lord Burlington led the way with his ideas for Chiswick, inspired by Palladio’s versions of a villa of the ancients. Other examples include Marble Hill, Pope’s riverside house at Twickenham and Horace Walpole’s at the recently restored Strawberry Hill House.  After Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837 she opened Hampton Court and Bushy Park to the public and by 1841 the two gardens of Kew were merged to form the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew which were then opened to the public.

The towns of Kingston upon Thames (where Saxon Kings were crowned) and Richmond upon Thames originated as early riverside towns, which benefited from the Royal presence at Hampton Court and Richmond. The towns further developed in the Victorian period, with terraces extending up the slopes between the River Thames and Richmond Park and the houses and terrace gardens taking advantage of the views from the higher ground.


Through the process of purchase with public funds, legislation and access agreements the privileged landscape of the 18th century was opened up for the enjoyment of the public. By the late Victorian age, this stretch of the Thames has become a ‘Playground’ for Londoners. Arcadia had become accessible to all.  A century ago the view from Richmond Hill was threatened by development. Glover’s island, Marble Hill and even Petersham Meadows were potential sites for development as suburbia crept relentlessly up the Thames.  Against all odds the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open spaces Act of 1902 was enacted and the land on and below Richmond Hill was saved and the view preserved.

syon vista

The Arcadian Thames contains an elaborate network of framed view lines, avenues and vistas along and from the River Thames and Richmond Hill. This visual network gradually evolved from the early 17th century, formed by key landmarks such as palaces, villas, the Royal Observatory, Kew Pagoda, obelisks, bridges, church towers and spires, and the planted avenues which still provide definition and structure to the landscape today. The early avenues around Hampton Court, Ham, Richmond, Twickenham Park and Syon began to dominate the valley and by the 18th century further avenues at Upper Lodge, Sudbrook Park, Marble Hill, Cambridge Park, Whitton, Osterley, Kew and Chiswick were providing the main structure to the landscape, linking main houses and organising the lay-out of the parks and gardens.

hampton court

Royal Parks Hampton Court and Bushy Park: framed view lines, tree lined avenues and vistas

During the 19th century some of the avenues were lost and some such as the Nesfield vistas at Kew, were added. Richmond Hill provided panoramic views across the River Thames floodplain and this view became the first to be protected by Parliament in 1902. In the 18th century framed vistas directed from Richmond Hill were created, one looked down to the grand avenue of Queen’s Ride to White Lodge, a hunting lodge built for King George I. The other looked out from King Henry’s Mound across London to St Paul’s Cathedral. This view towards St Paul’s Cathedral is one of London’s strategic views, now protected by government directive. Besides framed sightlines of avenues and panoramic views, the sequential arrangement of informal views developed by exponents of the ‘natural’ landscape such as Kent, Brown, Chambers, Pope and Walpole are an important part of the Arcadian Thames.


For further information:

An event which may be of interest, organised as part of the Totally Thames Festival 2015 The Thames Safari: The Highs and Lows of the River Thames 30th September, 2015.  Led by experts from the Thames Landscape Strategy, this unique walk sets out to demonstrate the highs and lows of the River Thames. Not for the faint hearted, the walk starts at Kew during low tide and finishes at the Ham flood meadows. During the walk, we will be able to learn how the river is controlled in its upper tidal reaches and experience its changing character as the water levels increase. At low tide, we can mess about on the foreshore, at Richmond we can see the tidal lock and weir in operation, and at Ham can watch the power of the high tide as it sweeps across the floodplain. Pub lunch. Meet outside St. Anne’s Church Kew Green at 10.00 am.

For details on these events please contact Becky


  1. Pingback: Utopian Cycling – Putney Bridge to Hampton Court Fahrradtour | Velo Klubhaus

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