Barn Elms

Barn Elms, Richmond upon Thames

The eastern part of the Castelnau (Barnes) peninsula

London wetland centre

Barn Elms was orig­i­nal­ly the manor house of Barnes and was for cen­turies the prop­er­ty of the dean and chap­ter of St Paul’s Cathe­dral. Eliz­a­beth I bought the lease in 1579 for Sir Fran­cis Wals­ing­ham, as a reward for ser­vices ren­dered to the Crown, and she is record­ed as vis­it­ing him there on three occa­sions.

Per­haps plant­ed as ear­ly as the 1680s, a Lon­don plane at Barn Elms is now said to be the capital’s old­est and largest spec­i­men of the species. When last mea­sured, ‘Bar­ney’ was 115 feet tall and 27 feet in girth. The tree’s loca­tion is marked with a big pink pin on the map below.

In the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry the pub­lish­er Jacob Ton­son lived at a house on the Barn Elms estate. He was sec­re­tary of an elite polit­i­cal soci­ety called the Kit-Cat Club and pro­vid­ed a pur­pose-built meet­ing place for its mem­bers here.

The home farm where William Cob­bett prac­tised exper­i­men­tal agri­cul­ture in the late 1820s dis­ap­peared under Barn Elms reser­voirs in the 1890s. Cob­bett prob­a­bly wrote much of his cam­paign­ing trea­tise Rur­al Rides while based there.

From 1894 until 1939 the Ranelagh Club was sit­u­at­ed at Barn Elms, pro­vid­ing sport­ing facil­i­ties com­pa­ra­ble with those at Hurling­ham and bor­row­ing its name from an old place of amuse­ment at what is now part of the grounds of Chelsea Roy­al Hos­pi­tal. The club­house was dam­aged by fire in 1954 and sub­se­quent­ly demol­ished.

Barn Elms’ Vic­to­ri­an reser­voirs, which became redun­dant after the inau­gu­ra­tion of the Thames Water ring main in the mid-1990s, have been spec­tac­u­lar­ly trans­formed into the Lon­don Wet­land Cen­tre, part­ly fund­ed by the con­struc­tion of lux­u­ry hous­ing near­by. The £16-mil­lion project was the brain­child of the nat­u­ral­ist and artist Sir Peter Scott, who want­ed to bring the sight of rare ducks, geese and swans to city dwellers. Much of the reserve is devot­ed to dif­fer­ent wildlife habi­tats and there are six view­ing hides, includ­ing the three-storey Pea­cock Tow­er, from which the pho­to­graph above was tak­en.* The indoor ‘dis­cov­ery cen­tre’ has inter­ac­tive exhibits, pri­mar­i­ly for chil­dren, and there’s an out­door adven­ture play­ground and a café.

Looking west towards Rocks Lane across playing fields at Barn Elms, south of Beverley Brook
Look­ing west towards Rocks Lane across play­ing fields at Barn Elms, south of Bev­er­ley Brook

South of the wet­land cen­tre, 100 acres of for­mer GLC play­ing fields and oth­er sports facil­i­ties are now divid­ed between two coun­cils: Rich­mond to the west and Wandsworth to the east. The fields are home to sev­er­al sports clubs, includ­ing Barnes RFC, claimed by some to be the world’s first and old­est club in any code of foot­ball, and Stonewall FC, ‘the world’s most suc­cess­ful gay foot­ball club’.

Wandsworth also runs the Barn Elms boathouse (on the stretch of the Thames called Barn Elms Reach, oppo­site Ful­ham FC’s Craven Cot­tage), which has full time coach­ing staff and an indoor row­ing tank. South Bank sail­ing club is based next door to the boathouse.

In 2010 Thames Water pro­posed to con­struct the main West Lon­don dri­ve shaft of the Tide­way tun­nel beneath play­ing fields at Barn Elms. Fol­low­ing well organ­ised local resis­tance, a site at Carn­wath Road on the Ful­ham river­side was pre­ferred, to the dis­may of res­i­dents there instead. A sub­sidiary shaft will be sunk at Barn Elms, which should be com­plet­ed by late 2019.

Samuel Pepys’ diary mentions several boat trips up the Thames as far as Barn Elms, where he would disembark for a stroll and then return to London. In another diary entry Pepys reports a fatal duel “all about my Lady Shrewsbury, who is a whore … [fought] in a close near Barne-Elmes.”

Postal district: SW13
Website: Barn Elms sports trust
* The view of lagoons at the London wetland centre, from the Peacock Tower hide, at the top of this page is slightly modified from an original photograph by ‘Patche99z’ at Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence. The picture of playing fields at Barn Elms is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Stefan Czapski, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse of either image is hereby freely permitted under the terms of those licences.