Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Walton-on-Thames is a riverside town with over 20,000 residents, situated between Sunbury Lock and Shepperton Lock, in the Borough of Elmbridge. It is only 15 miles from central London and has good communications by road, being close to the M25, M4 and M3 motorways. A fast train journey of only 25 minutes to Waterloo station makes it an ideal location for commuting to London. In fact, in 2008, a survey by the Halifax declared the Borough of Elmbridge to be the, “best place to live in Britain”, with the highest quality of life in the United Kingdom. The media rapidly produced further commendations declaring Elmbridge to be the “Beverly Hills of Surrey” and claiming that even the weather here was better than the national average.

The town now has a new shopping centre, “The Heart”, which is a covered mall with over 50 shops and restaurants and with outside restaurant seating. The development contains 279 apartments with views over Ashley Park. Walton-on-Thames has a modern leisure centre, the Xcel Leisure Complex, which opened in 2006, overlooking the River Thames. In addition to a 25 metre swimming pool, sports halls, climbing wall, health and fitness suite, it has an outside floodlit synthetic football pitch.

In the Domesday Book, Walton-on-Thames was recorded as, ‘Waletona’ and as having a church, two mills and a fishery.

The River Thames at Walton is an important crossing point. It was thought that Julius Caesar crossed here on his second invasion of Britain, but there is no evidence for this. Walton Bridge was the subject of a painting by Canaletto in 1754, but this wooden bridge was dismantled in 1783. J.M.W. Turner painted Walton Bridge in 1805, but this stone bridge collapsed in 1859. It is doubtful whether anyone would think the current structure is picturesque. It is the fifth bridge to cross the Thames at Walton and dates from 1999, when it was intended only to be temporary. Work on a new bridge is due to start in 2011 and completed in 2013.

Close to Walton Bridge is Desborough Island, which was created when the Desborough Channel was cut in 1935. It was constructed by the Thames Conservancy and named after Lord Desborough, the Chairman of the Board. The cut made a shorter journey possible by avoiding the meandering stretch of the Thames past Shepperton and Halliford.

At Walton Bridge is the garage of H.W. Motors, (Hersham and Walton Motors) who were the first Aston Martin dealership in the world. In the 1950s, they built their own racing cars and Sir Stirling Moss competed in his first Formula One Grand Prix in an H.W. Motors car.

Next to H.W. Motors is the Walton Playhouse. This is a theatre used for community productions and local amateur dramatic societies. It was built by Cecil Hepworth as a power house for Walton Film Studios. They closed in 1924 and its architect, George Carvill, bought the building. For many years, it was known as the, “Walton Hop”, reputed to be the first disco in the United Kingdom. It closed in 1990.

St. Mary’s Parish Church is of Saxon origin, with parts dating back to the 12th century. It is set at the highest point in the town and has a square flint tower. The churchyard contains the graves of many New Zealand soldiers who died in the First World War. Mount Felix House in Walton, which has now been demolished, was used as a hospital for New Zealand troops. The New Zealand connection is maintained in the street name, ‘New Zealand Avenue’ and the Wellington pub in the town centre.

As would be expected, the riverside pubs have been visited by notable characters. In 1909, Jerome Kern, the composer of the Broadway musical, “Showboat” and many popular songs, including Ol’ Man River, met Eva Leale, the landlord’s daughter at the Swan pub. They were married at St. Mary’s Church, Walton the following year. The Anglers pub, with its seating on the riverbank, is very popular. A short walk along the towpath towards Hampton Court brings you to The Weir Hotel. Overlooking the Weir, this pub is extremely popular with walkers and cyclists, especially on Sundays, where people enjoy their roast dinners.

Walton-on-Thames has had many famous residents, but Julie Andrews is probably the most notable. She was born Julia Wells in 1935 in Rodney House Maternity Hospital, Rodney Road. She became, at fourteen, the youngest ever solo performer to appear at a Royal Variety Performance in 1948 at the London Palladium. She married her first husband, Tony Walton, in St. Mary’s Church, Oatlands, Weybridge in 1959. Her most famous role was as Maria Von Trapp in the film, “The Sound of Music”, which became 20th Century Fox’s biggest ever film.

In Station Avenue, is a 1960s iconic office building. Formerly the head office of Birds Eye Frozen Foods, it is now a Grade II listed building. My sister worked there and remembers that there were live penguins in the grounds.

Next year will be an exciting time for Walton-on-Thames, when the 2012 Olympic Games commences. On the opening day of the 2012 Games, on Saturday 28th July, the Mens’ Cycling Road Race (250km) starts from the Mall in London. The 145 riders will head towards Walton and race along Hurst Road from Hampton Court into Terrace Road, into Walton Town Centre, down Oatlands Drive to Weybridge and then onto the Surrey Hills. The womens’ race takes place the following day over a shorter (140km) route, but still through Walton. The 2012 Olympic Games Cycling Time Trials will be held close by on 1st August at Hampton Court. The whole 13 mile section of the route which cuts through Elmbridge will be surfaced with electric blue non-slip Tarmac. This is the internationally recognised cycling blue used on time trials. The blue colour means overhead cameras can track competitors using matt black background enhancements.

On 14th August, 2011, an official test event for the 2012 Summer Olympics Road Race took place over the Olympic route, from The Mall in London, through Walton-on-Thames, to Box Hill, returning to the Mall, passing through Esher. This was the London – Surrey Cycle Classic Race. It was won by Mark Cavendish, MBE, aged 26. He is the top sprinter in the Tour de France, having won twenty stages and in September 2011, went on to win the Road World Championship in Denmark. On 22nd December 2011, Mark was voted the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He is probably Great Britain’s best prospect for a gold medal in 2012. It is hoped that he can repeat his success next year.