A rural retreat in the capital

Fancy escaping the rat race while enjoying a city break? Rod McPhee found a way of combining both elements with a weekend spent messing about by the river, and in the park, and in the shops

MENTION Richmond and most people, in Leeds at least, are likely to think you're referring to the rather upmarket market town in North Yorkshire.

Elsewhere they're only likely to think you mean the west London suburb/town of Richmond, correctly known as Richmond-upon-Thames.

And as pleasant as the North Yorkshire counterpart is, I can confirm you'll have a far more enjoyable weekend break in the latter.

In recent times Richmond-upon-Thames has garnered some rather unwelcome attention in the form of a study which branded it as the worst clone zone in Britain.

Retailers

According to the report the local high street has the lowest number of independent retailers on it, nudged out, apparently, by chains and big names.

The revelation gained a rather angry response from locals, who said the findings were not only inaccurate but misleading.

Wandering around the town centre it's fair to say this does paint a very unfair picture. Sure, the main thoroughfares are lined with familiar brands and signage (no bad thing if you want to blitz the shops) but that's more of a mark of how popular and wealthy the area is.

It is one of the richest spots in London and the major retailers and restaurants are just here waiting to soak up those pounds. But it doesn't take too much wandering around to find the nice little independents.

Furthermore, the overall layout and ambience of Richmond-upon-Thames doesn't feel indistinct, quite the contrary. This isn't some concrete collection of Stepford streets, but an intriguing blend of high street, twee lanes, parkland, landmark heritage buildings and, of course, that superb waterfront.

The main shopping area is just two minutes from the edge of the tree-lined Thames, offering the feel of being in the countryside, knowing all too well you're just a stone's throw from the cosmopolitan bustle.

It is inner city rural – where you can wander out of House of Frazer and, minutes later, find yourself in a field full of cows.

That's right, you're just a short walk from the entrance of the huge Richmond Park. Of all the royal parks in London this is the biggest. At a whopping 2,360 acres it is three times the size of New York's Central Park.

And it's home to some serious wildlife. Over 600 deer – red and fallow – and it is a site of special scientific interest due to the many different species of insects and birds.

Given the enormity and seclusion this is not surprising. Getting away from everything isn't a problem here.

But every now and again you can come across an eye-opening reminder of how close you are to the middle of London with stunning views of St Paul's Cathedral suddenly appearing through a clearing of trees.

Be warned though: this park is vast, so if you want to go exploring, get a map, make priorities and PLAN. Take a wrong turn and you could find yourself in any one of a number of suburbs miles from your accommodation.

We stayed at The Petersham, renowned in the area as being the best hotel to stay in.

Built in 1865 it is a grand, brick-built monument to Victorian leisure just a mile or so from the heart of Richmond.

This landmark building, with its distinctively pointed tower, seems to blend into the leafy hillside as if it had always been a part of the landscape.

Small wonder they chose this spot to locate the hotel in. It overlooks not only the river and the cattle-filled meadows but also the edge of Richmond Park itself.

It oozes class and has all the feel of a country house – grand staircases, huge oil paintings, antiques and oak-panelled rooms. But the facilities are 21st century with wifi internet access and LCD TVs with ports for laptop connection.

Outstanding

We also dined in the award winning Petersham restaurant, which sports, near its entrance, walls covered with photographs of politicians, movie stars, businessmen and sports legend who've visited over the years.

But, interestingly, the menu is still challenging and doesn't rest on the laurels of its reputation. Among our choices, for example, was a unique lasagne which replaced the meat element with salad leaves. Sounds odd? Yes, it does, but it really worked and made the meal outstanding.

The restaurant also offers a superb vista, making the most of the hotel's location. It was clear during out visit that this was very much a destination in its own right with families, couples and business types all using it as a meeting place. The combination of the view, the ambience and the excellent food and drink makes it a must, particularly if you're actually staying at The Petersham.

The beauty of this hotel, and Richmond as a whole, is that it can be anything to almost anyone. It's a city break, and country retreat. It's unspoilt parkland and shopping heaven. It's getting away from everything but just a 20 minute train ride from the heart of the capital.

From here you behold a sublime picture to take home – lush grass and foliage, the Thames and town centre in the distance and beyond that just a hint of London just eight miles away.

Yet up on the hillside it is incredibly peaceful and relaxing. Even with the windows open you barely here more than a distant plane or the odd car horn. It may be Richmond in London, but it's probably more tranquil than Richmond, North Yorkshire.

FACTFILE

Rod McPhee stayed at The Petersham, Nightingale Lane, Richmond, Surrey, TW10 6UZ. Tel. 020 89407471 or visit www.petershamhotel.co.uk.

Travel from Leeds to London Kings Cross was by rail with East Coast Trains: advance return fares, booked online, start from 20 standard class or 77 first class: book via www.eastcoast.co.uk, call 08457 225225 or visit any staffed station.

EP 18/12/10

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