Richmond upon Thames is a mini republic that orbits around itself with only fleeting concern for the rest of London. Time moves more slowly here. People look healthier. The air seems lighter and feels more expensive. A 2016 survey decreed the borough of Richmond the happiest place to live in the city. And for those living closer to the soot-darkened heart of London, it offers an appealing weekend break that’s half an hour from Waterloo but light years away from its scrum of stress and frenetic energy. The good vibes spill out from the town centre to the river, where locals and tourists stroll, occasionally flinging themselves upon the water in boats and canoes. At weekends, Richmond Green is full of picnicking families, young people pleasantly day-drunk, and sporty people doing sporty things. Pervading it all is a sense that Richmond is the good life, distilled.
The Thames looks cleaner here — almost see-through. Richmond Bridge Boathouses rents out rowboats for up to 12 people, although if you’d prefer a drier experience, take the longish river walk to Marble Hill House, and hop on the ferry to equally historic Ham House. Afterwards, reward yourself with a few pints at The White Cross. Watch out, though; at high tide, the pub becomes its own island.
Even if you’ve been to Kew Royal Botanical Gardens before, regular new additions make it worth another visit. Installed last year, The Hive is a 17-metre tall outdoor installation that uses LED-lights and a mesmerising soundtrack to immerse you into the secret lives of bees. Of the perennial attractions, the Palm House is like stepping into a massive steam-room populated by giant ferns and palms. As special as Kew is, it doesn’t have deer — but they can usually be found in Richmond Park. If you don’t see any, mollify your disappointment by climbing King Henry’s Mound, where the trees frame a tunnel-like view directly across London to St Paul’s Cathedral.
Make sure to salute the bust of Chilean revolutionary Bernardo O’Higgins in O’Higgins Square as you head over the bridge to the town centre. Your next stop is Duck Pond Market in Heron Square, where you’ll find quiches, Belgian waffles, and loads of cheeses. After eating, go treasure-hunting at Richmond Hill Antiques; you might just find a hidden gem.
Three to try: Richmond restaurants
Beirut Street Kitchen
A fiver gets you a crispy falafel wrapped in stone-baked flatbread from this Lebanese joint. Don’t miss out on the manakish za’atar (flatbread topped with spices) and pomegranate lemonade.
Traditional Spanish tapas and an expansive wine list. Go on evenings when they host live Latin music and jazz bands. A word of caution — their sangria is potent.
Head up to Brewers Lane for authentic Italian gelato from Galeteria Danieli. The pistachio, fig and mandarin flavour is delicious.
Eyewitness: The good life
The hostess looks genuinely concerned. “You didn’t book? Like, at all? Online, maybe?” There’s nothing arrogant or dismissive about her tone — she just can’t fathom what would make two sane-looking people think they could walk in and get a table at the Michelin-starred Petersham Nurseries Cafe at 2pm on a Sunday.
“Look, you seem… nice. Maybe if you come back at 3.45pm, I’ll see what I can do. But you’ll have to order straight away because we’ll be closing the kitchen 15 minutes later,” she says in a very slow, deliberate and kindly tone.
We should’ve known better. The restaurant had come highly recommended by everyone we’d spoken to, and we’d passed a long line of luxury cars parked in the muddy lane leading up to its entrance.
The appeal is obvious. Right next to Petersham Meadows, a roll down the hill from Richmond Park, it offers a tweedy bucolic aesthetic with a sheeny overcoat of cosmopolitanism. The restaurant is situated in the nursery itself, inside a glasshouse with greenery growing overhead, upon the pillars and along the walls. It’s quite beautiful.
Standing on the outside, looking in through the windows at hands holding bottomless glasses of Champagne and faces flushed pink with wealth, it was hard to spot anyone not wearing pastel-shaded linen.
We spend the next hour and a bit wandering between the adjoining shop and nursery, picking up candles we could never afford and sniffing at extra-terrestrial looking orchids. At 3.40pm, we present ourselves once more to the hostess and she leads us to a table set amid a flourish of ferns and flowers that brush our heads.
We sit and sigh over head chef Damian Clisby’s creations, which include a fennel, castelfranco radicchio and blood orange salad, and grilled Bramata polenta with stuffed artichoke, Delica pumpkin and seasonal vegetables.
I sit back with a glass of wine in my hand and a leaf in my ear. Life is good.
Rooms at the Hilton Syon start from £120 when booked direct through the Hilton website.
Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)