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.