There’s a bench in London perched on the head of a hill like the Queen’s crown. It is a swelling of the land, a gentle wave rising from the earth, rather than a hill. But we city folks must give our mounds more audacious names, or we’d never have hills to climb. Mountains yes, we climb many of those every day. Invisible mountains, the ones that come with living in cities, the ones that swell less gently than a hill. They’re made up of steep lines of stretched nerves, jagged, breathless lives, and cramped perimeters of space – splinters in the skin.
These invisible mountains rise sharply around us. We ascend as best we can, we run to catch up, we hurry Underground to take the next train. Miles of escalators, tunnels of train-tracks, lives heaving, people rushing. And there we are, standing in the middle of this time-lapse video.
We must stand on the right, always on the right side of the escalator, so that others can run down the left, usually two stairs at a time. Half of them run without reason, their feet propelled by an inner programming. Perhaps because they were told that time is money, and early birds get the worms, and that no idiom was enough to stress the gains to be made by sprinting across life. The other half run because by beating the speed of motorised stairs they can save a few expensive seconds to reach the job that pays for their Islington apartment where every square inch costs as much as the seconds they save.
Most often, the Runners run down the left, tutting at hapless tourists who dare to stand on the wrong side of the escalator, and rush to their platforms. The Standers stand on the right till their stair gets to the bottom, and walk to their platforms. The train runs as it runs, and stops at the station as it was scheduled to do. And then, the Runners and the Standers all shuffle forward, they mind the gap, and get on the same train at the same time, and sit down next to each other.
You might be one of the Standers. But in a city that’s running around you, you’re never ever still. Stillness is hard to find. Even while you stand on the escalator, the stairs move you forward, and even as you sit on the train it takes you to the next station, and the next station, and the next.
This is your station today. Get off. Ignore every other place you need to be, forget every other thing you need to do, and get off.
This is where I get off too. This is where the hill is. The real hill. The gentle hill. A swelling of the land in the heart of Richmond.
I walk past shops selling sourdough bread and baby clothes, and make my way to Water Lane. A narrow lane, which slopes down to give you what it promises. The water’s edge, the River Thames. Here in Richmond, the river is a thing of quiet grace, its shores less flamboyant than they are in the city. People walk their dogs, some sit by the water with their coffees and newspapers, morning light bounces off the boats.
I walk with the river on my right, till I reach Terrace Gardens with its manicured picnic-blanket lawn. I don’t stop here. I cut through it and come out on the other side to a field that is straight out of a childhood in the countryside. This is Terrace Fields, the gentle slope that crawls up to my hill and rolls down to the river. At its top is a gravel path still strewn with acorns where my bench sits waiting.
I sit down with the Roebuck Pub behind me, and the land falling away in front, falling down to the water. The river is a silver arc, a sickle moon. The bare trees are covered in cobwebs of mist. The frosted grass swells and dips.
They tell me it’s the only view in England protected by an Act of Parliament. I have seen this view in every season. The same river, the same steeple in the distance, the same row of foliage. But nothing is the same – the seasons fall like curtains at a theatre. It is a four-act play. Soon, the birds that have left will come back, the winter quiet will melt away to their chirps and songs. The empty nests that are now visible in the trees, black blobs stuck in the branches like upturned porcupines, will disappear behind new leaves.
There is a clump of trees in the middle of the river, an island. It’s called Glover’s Island, named after Joseph Glover who bought it in 1872 for not a shilling more than seventy pounds. The island is elongated, it curves with the curve of the river, and looks almost as if it wants to float off around the bend, as if it would like to sail a little, have a wander, see the world. But it stays, this island. It centres the eye, it anchors the view from Richmond Hill as effectively as the law that protects it. On this little island, overgrown with trees and brambles, migratory birds and the minds of city folks come to roost, even if it’s a momentary rest before they must move on again.
A family walks through my view. The children let out a shriek, bringing my gaze back from the far distance. They’re pointing to the corpse of a half-eaten rabbit lying on the slope. Probably a fox, their mother tells them. The little girl starts to cry, in her hand is a stuffed Peter Rabbit, she turns Peter away from the scene, hides him in her coat. The mother hurries them on, she points to a painter with his easel and puts her finger on her lips. Hush.
William Turner painted this view over and over in his lifetime, committing it to paper and canvases that now live in the Tate. Even while he moved his brush to bring out the rippling of the river and the waving of the trees and the smudges of wind, he captured, in every frame, the stillness that is Richmond Hill.
As I get up from my bench, a pigeon flaps down. Its wings are as loud as the half-eaten corpse, its cooing is as mellow as the light. I walk back into my day. Around me the land undulates, the river flows, and boats pass. Everything is alive and breathing. But even in all this movement, there is stillness. The same stillness that is there in the sweeping of the eye and the wandering of the mind, that is there in the flight of birds, and in the flipping of the pages of a book. The stillness that is there in my breath as it comes out in little puffs of mist.
While the rest of London wrestles with its day and runs down the left side of escalators, some will get off at Richmond station. They will walk along the river to a bench on a hill, and for a little while, be still.