Richmonders may be curious about their namesake, the “other” Richmond. That one in the mother country. If you travel across the pond to visit Richmond upon Thames, a borough of London, you can stand in the very spot that made a lasting impression on William Byrd II, who was born in colonial Virginia, then spent his schooling years in England, and later founded Richmond, Virginia.
At a famous viewpoint on Richmond Hill overlooking the River Thames, a plaque reads, “In the early eighteenth century, the view from this terrace reminded William Byrd, an American tobacco planter, of a similar view from his home on the James River in Virginia, U.S.A., and inspired him to name the new city founded on that river in 1737, Richmond.”
Apart from a perceived likeness of the two meandering rivers, Richmond upon Thames is a wonderful place to spend a few days, offering a piece of countryside in the city. The borough occupies a 10-mile stretch along the River Thames and includes the town of Richmond and several villages. The area is home to some of England’s most revered cultural and sporting venues, and with miles of green space in parks and trails, Richmond has adopted the moniker, “London’s leafiest suburb.” It ranked as number one “happy spot” among London’s burbs in a recent real estate survey on quality of life.
A Royal Playground
During the Tudor, Stuart and Georgian periods, Richmond upon Thames was a favorite retreat of the royalty. In the early 16th century, Henry VII (formerly Earl of Richmond) built Richmond Palace, from which the town derives its name. Only the palace ruins remain today on Richmond Green, however, many nearby royal residences are preserved and open for tours, including Hampton Court Palace, once occupied by Henry VIII, William III, Mary II and other royals up to the mid-1700s.
The borough is home to Richmond Park, London’s largest Royal Park, which was created as hunting grounds by Charles I in the 17th century. Across the river, the Marble Hill House is an elegant villa built for the mistress of King George II. Downstream, Kew Palace is the earliest surviving building at the world-renowned Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, established in 1759.
Ideally, you’ll want a couple of days to explore Richmond, and if you like spending time outdoors, bring your walking shoes. The town is very walkable with many opportunities to enjoy the scenery on foot, and guided walks are available with Richmond Heritage Guides. Here are a few area highlights:
- Ham House – Built by a Duke and Duchess, circa 1610, the grand Stuart mansion is recognized for its outstanding collection of art and furniture. It is supposedly haunted, and visitors have reported the ghostly aroma of sweet Virginia tobacco presumably from the Duke’s pipe smoking. You can walk to Ham House along the Thames Path (about a mile from town).
- Kew Gardens – This spot is a UNESCO World Heritage site, containing the largest and most diverse botanical collection in the world. You can easily wander an entire day and take the Kew Explorer Land Train to key stops such as the famous glass Temperate House, Kew Palace, Treetop Walkway, Great Pagoda, and The Hive, a multisensory honey bee exhibit.
- Richmond Park – Take an outing for picnics and walks in the rolling hills of the 2,500-acre park, considered a national nature reserve for its abundant flora and fauna. Cycling and horseback riding (referred to as hacking) are also very popular; horse and bike hire are available. Check out King Henry’s Mound for long-range views of London landmarks including St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye.
- Richmond Theatre – Catch a West End production or touring troupe, a comedy or ballet at the beautifully preserved Victorian theatre built in 1899. Or discover new talent at Orange Tree Theatre, an intimate in-the-round space.
- Thames Path National Trail – Richmond Bridge, the oldest bridge across the Thames in London, is a good starting point for a walk along the historic towpath. Head towards Petersham Meadows and up to Richmond Hill to the famous viewpoint that inspired William Byrd. The stretch of Thames Path through the borough is cycle friendly; rent a bike at the train station or take a guided ride with Merry Pedaller Bike Tours and Discovery Richmond.
- World Rugby Museum and Twickenham Stadium – The home of England Rugby features museum exhibits that tell how the schoolboy game became a professional global sport. Guided stadium tours are offered, or if your timing is right, take in a match. Twickenham is also home to the estate of J.M.W. Turner, designed and built by the great landscape painter himself.
Lodging and Eateries
Richmond has a good selection of boutique hotels within walking distance of many attractions. Close to Richmond Station and very convenient to shops and restaurants, the Orange Tree offers contemporary designed rooms and a lively pub. The Bingham Hotel is an elegant Georgian retreat with a fine restaurant along the towpath between Richmond Bridge and Petersham Meadows. Near Richmond Park, Richmond Hill Hotel has stunning river and meadow views, and is a short walk into town.
Many great pubs and restaurants are found along the riverfront (some open seasonally). Favorites include the White Cross Pub with a famous riverside beer garden, and the contemporary-chic Gaucho, known for Argentine Steaks. For elegant surroundings and modern British cuisine, try the Ivy Café Richmond or Petersham Restaurant, which boasts panoramic, floor-to-ceiling views overlooking the meadow and river.
Villages in the Borough
Among many enchanting villages and towns on both sides of the Thames, Barnes is very picturesque, with quaint corridors to explore, artisan shops, and a new three-mile circular walking trail. Kew Village at the gateway to Kew Gardens offers attractive boutiques, and Twickenham (best known for rugby) offers lively markets and summertime alfresco dining. Teddington, home of Bushy Park, was the UK base for General Eisenhower while planning the D-Day operation in 1944.
Though Richmond upon Thames is considered one of London’s most attractive boroughs, it is, seemingly, an undiscovered gem for many tourists. Nevertheless, it lives up to its reputation as a jewel in London’s crown.
Richmond upon Thames is 10 miles southwest of central London, accessed by train, bus, boat, or the Underground. Take South Western Railway for a pleasant 20-minute ride from Waterloo station. During summer, regular boat service runs from central London to Hampton Court Palace and other stops.