THE ARCADIAN MERIDIAN – LONDON’S PARADISE LOST
By ANDREW GOUGH
When I launched this ‘Arcadia’ website in the summer of 2006, I never imagined I would stumble upon London’s forgotten Arcadia, on my doorstep, in the Royal Borough of Richmond upon Thames.
In-between the west London suburbs of Hampton and Kew, the River Thames turns abruptly north, flowing in a serpentine fashion for several miles before resuming it’s eastwardly course into central London. In 54 AD Julius Caesar crossed the River Thames here, in Brentford, across the river from the future Palace of King George III, setting the tone for the aristocracy that would follow.
By the 17th century the region had become a haven for artists, philosophers, mystics and kings. They settled here, inspired by romantic vistas and the promise of a cultured, disease free life. A century later their King erected a Meridian down the centre of the River Thames. Curiously, it appears to have been positioned in such a way as to commemorate the rivers most sacred landmarks, symbolically intersecting them, joining them together in a sacred landscape they called Arcadia.
Meridians have existed since ancient times. While the placement of a Meridian is arbitrary, its function is quite specific; project an imaginary line across the earth’s surface, stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole, symbolically connecting all locations within a given Longitude.
Today, the world recognises Greenwich as the Prime Meridian, the standard for time keeping across the globe. Unequivocally, GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time, is the universally adopted acronym for ‘time zero’, having gained acceptance as an international standard over a period of two centuries. However, as fast as the Greenwich Meridian gained in prominence, the memory of another Meridian was fading. And this is peculiar, for it was established by a King who projected it over a stunning riverside landscape, rich in history, and renowned for its visionary inhabitants; innovators such as J.M.W Turner, Alexander Pope, James Thompson, Horace Walpole, David Garrick, and William Hogarth, to name a few. The Meridian was special, for it was thought to represent Arcadia; a diamond in the rough – a paradise amidst the urban chaos of nearby London.
Over the past 20 years, the Alternative History genre has blurred the concept of functional Meridian’s with that of mystical ley-lines. Clearly, Alfred Watkins, the respected English photographer and discoverer of harmonised alignments of natural and ancient man made structures in the landscape, could not have envisaged how his localized site lines, typically 1-5 miles in length, would be extrapolated into esoteric Meridians passing through multiple countries, connecting sacred sites across thousands of miles. Once again, another straight forward theory is skewed by over zealous enthusiasts. Pun intended.
This is especially true of the Paris Meridian, which appears to have been re-branded the ‘Rose-Line’. Dan Brown fuelled the confusion by including many of the so-called ‘Rose-Line’ sites in his novel, The Da Vinci Code. This fabled, albeit largely fictional Meridian of sacred sites is now taken as read, and is said to stretch from Roslyn Chapel in Scotland to Saint Sulpice in Paris.
While Saint Sulpice, a church featured in countless fictional and alternative history books, may be aligned to other ecclesiastically related sites, it is important to distinguish the fact that this represents a local, French alignment, and a quick glance at a world globe reveals that any alignment linking Roslyn Chapel in Scotland with Saint Sulpice in Paris is not following a true north / south orientation, and thus, by definition, is not a true Meridian. This is not to say that local alignments are not of historical interest, but simply to illustrate the difference between a Meridian and a sacred alignment of related landmarks.
In any event, the fictional ‘Rose Line Meridian’ is said to extend further south to the village of Arques. Here, the best selling French author, Gérard de Sède claims to have located the tomb and landscape depicted in Nicolas Poussin’s enigmatic painting, Shepherds of Arcadia.
The painting contains the legendary inscription, ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, or Even I, Death, am in Arcady. Arcadia is featured in both the name and inscription of the painting, reflecting the fascination of 17th century society with all things Arcadian. The work is Poussin’s most famous, and is considered by many to conceal unspeakable esoteric secrets. This legend is reinforced in an intriguing letter. In 1656 the Abbe Louis Fouquet meet with Poussin in Italy and afterwards sent a letter to his brother, Nicolas Fouquet, the French Superintendent of Finances to Louis XIV, describing the encounter. The letter alludes to Arcadian secrets of the highest order:
“He and I discussed certain things, which I shall with ease be able
to explain to you in detail – things which will give you, through
Monsieur Poussin, advantages which even kings would have great
pains to draw from him, and which, according to him, it is possible
that nobody else will ever rediscover in the centuries to come.
And what is more, these are things so difficult to discover that
nothing now on earth can prove of better fortune nor be their
The alleged setting of the tomb does in fact resemble the landscape in the Poussin painting, however the intrigue tarnishes quickly when one realises that there is no record of a tomb at this location before the early part of the 20th century, and that Nicolas Poussin, a 17th century painter, never travelled to the region. Nevertheless, the site has obtained cult status, due in part to the fact that it is located just down the road from Rennes-le-Château; a village whose mystery is arguably the greatest fictional fable of them all.
The glorification of the Paris Meridian aside, it would be wrong to conclude that Meridians did not serve a spiritual or even esoteric purpose in society. In fact, the Arcadian Meridian, as I have coined it, did precisely that.
King George III and the Arcadian Meridian
The year was 1769, and King George III, immortalised in the film, The Madness of King George, anxiously awaited the completion of the Alchemist Observatory in Richmond upon Thames. By sanctioning the work, George was putting the finishing touches on his own personal Observatory and Meridian, despite the fact that the official and Royal Observatory had been established in Greenwich a hundred years earlier. The King was passionate about astronomy and had instructed his architect, the renowned Sir William Chambers, to complete the work in time to view the transit of Venus, which occurred that year on the 3rd of June.
To coincide with the construction of the Observatory, Chambers erected three obelisks. Two were placed in the south, near the River Thames, and were used by George’s Royal Observer, Stephen Charles Triboudet Demainbray, to adjust the transit instruments in the east and west windows of the Observatory.
The third obelisk marked True North and was placed on the opposite side of the Observatory, not far from the ruins of the largest Carthusian settlement in all of England. The location of the Observatory and obelisks left little to chance. They simply adorned an existing alignment of sites that accentuated the Meridian along a wonderfully Arcadian expanse of the River Thames.
At first glance it seems quite extraordinary that George would construct his own, personal Observatory and Meridian. But upon reflection, it makes perfect sense. After all, being King had its privileges, and the idea of mapping and monitoring the procession of the stars was extremely popular in George’s day, as one might expect. This fixation with the heavens manifested in a variety of ways, including the adoption of a card game called Comet, a favourite in George’s Kew Palace. The game was an 18th century derivative of the French card game Commit, a name change that some researchers believe occurred after the sighting of Haley’s Comet in 1682.
George was no stranger to creating lines in the landscape to symbolically illustrate his point. Just prior to constructing the Observatory and Meridian in Richmond he established the Royal Proclamation of 1763, producing a Proclamation Line marking the westward boundary of expansion for the American colonies; his then empire. Revolution was in the air, but George was never one to neglect his passions, for long.
To my knowledge, what I am about to propose has not been suggested before. I believe that George created a memorial for the land he loved by erecting a Meridian through its very centre. Before illustrating this assertion, let say that the association of this region of the River Thames with the romanticised notion of Arcadia is nothing new. What I am suggesting is that England’s King chose to commemorate his beloved Arcadia by placing a north / south alignment – a true Meridian, a line that he could have placed anywhere, right through the heart of his kingdoms most sacred landmarks. As I see it, George’s Meridian symbolically intersected five primary landmarks, or landmark sets, that collectively symbolised his kingdom’s Arcadia. They include:
- Hampton / Hampton Court Palace
- Kingston upon Thames
- Ham House / Marble Hill House / Twickenham
- Richmond upon Thames / Old Sheen
- Syon House and Abbey
Before reviewing the historical significance of each of the Meridian markers, as well as why George would have felt compelled to symbolically connect them, let’s taking a closer look at the Meridian itself. Suffice to say, each Meridian marker sits majestically on the banks of the River Thames.
The Arcadian Meridian Markers
Hampton / Hampton Court
The River Thames twists south before winding north around Hampton Court Palace, marking the southern axis of the Arcadian Meridian. Nearby, the 18th century theatre mogul David Garrick constructed a riverside monument, dedicated to William Shakespeare. Short in stature, Garrick was an Arcadian giant and once prompted Alexander Pope to state, “He was afraid the young man would be spoiled, for he would have no competitor.” To this day, London’s Drury Lane theatre remains one of Garrick’s greatest legacies.
Clearly, Garrick was following in the footsteps a long tradition of local legends, starting with the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, who founded the first buildings here in the early 12th century. Similarly, the Abbots of the Order of St John used the site as a rural retreat some three hundred years later.
Hampton Court Palace is perhaps most famous for Archbishop of York and Chief Minister Thomas Wolsey (c1475-1530), and his King, Henry VIII (1509-47). Henry renovated the palace for his six wives, spending the modern equivalent of £18 million over a brief 10 year span. A few decades later, Hampton Court Palace was home to the 16th century Tudors, who were succeeded by the 17th century reign of James the I, Charles the II, William the III and Mary the II. It was not until 1796, in the age of Arcadia, and lest we forget, the American Revolution, that James Wyatt, Surveyor of the King’s Works, restored the Palace.
The Arcadian Meridian runs just east of the Palace, in the grounds of a garden bordered by a triangular view line.
After Hampton, the River Thames runs due north through the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. Historically, Kingston was an important settlement for a variety of reasons, including its strategic location as the last town before London where the River Thames could be crossed with a bridge.
This ancient town of Kingston was inhabited by the Romans and later adopted by the kings of England. Egbert, King of Wessex, considered by many to be the first king of England, participated in a counsel here in 838 AD. In total, seven Saxon Kings were crowned in Kingston on a coronation stone venerated by Druids to this day.
Kingston, or Kings Town, is believed to be named after the Farmstead of the Kings. Although the Meridian passes east of town, there is no mistaking Kingston’s qualification for inclusion in George’s Arcadia.
Ham House and Marble Hill House
Further north, as the River Thames bends west, the stunning Stuart grandeur of Ham House comes into full view. Built in 1610, Ham House was the domain of Sir Thomas Vavasour, the Knight Marshal to James I. In 1626 it became the property of William Murray, who was a close associate of the future King Charles I. Murray passed his estate to his eldest daughter, Elisabeth, the Countess of Dysart, who was a member of the Sealed Knot, a secret organisation that supported the exiled King.
Slightly further north on the River Thames is the Palladian villa of Marble Hill House; built in 1724 for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk; the mistress of King George II. The house sits in a dramatic 66 acre parkland. Two unusual grottos were constructed in the grounds; one remains intact while the location of the other is a mystery. Inside, five specially commissioned paintings by the Italian master, Giovanni Paolo Pannini, depict scenes of Arcadia, in ruins.
George’s Arcadian Meridian splits the two houses, as if by design.
A short distance from the two stately homes, just down the River Thames, we find the residences of Arcadian legends Pope and Walpole. Pope, the most renowned English poet of the early eighteenth century, lived in nearby Twickenham. Here he erected a massive underground grotto, which miraculously remains intact to this day. A stones throw away in Strawberry Hill, Walpole, a respected politician, author and architectural innovator, built a stunning Gothic castle that remains one of the true gems of this or any other era, and a showcase of Arcadian austerity.
Richmond-upon-Thames and Old Sheen
Richmond upon Thames has been home to royalty for centuries; Sheen, which is old English for ‘beauty spot’, even longer. Artists, authors and dignitaries of all eras have stood in awe of its Arcadian splendour.
Countless accolades celebrate the view afforded from Richmond Terrace, in particular. Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s friend, Pastor Moritz, described it with much affection:
It was evening, the sun was just shedding his last partying rays of the valley; but such an evening, and such a valley! O, it is impossible I should ever forget them. The Terrace at Richmond assuredly affords one of the finest prospects in the world. Whatever is charming in nature, or pleasing in art is to be seen here.
The view was protected by a 1902 Act of Parliament, and thus remains as iconic today as in Geroge’s time. In 2006, the popular alternative rock artist, Richard Ashcroft featured the view from Richmond Terrace on his concert tour advertisements, reinforcing the vistas timeless appeal. Richmond is also home to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, whose long time residence, rather ironically, looks out over the same Arcadian vista. Rock and Roll legends aside, Richmond is more renowned for its royal residents, such as King Henry I (1068 –1135), who once lived in old Sheen. Later, in 1497 when a fire accidentally destroyed Henry VII’s manor, the King built a palace in its place and renamed it Richmond, in honour of his beloved Richmond Castle in Yorkshire.
Henry VIII lived here and hunted nearby in Richmond Park. In 1710 King Henry VIII’s Mound and Avenue was erected in the park, consisting of a curious vista looking towards Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, some 10 miles in the distance; a view that is still clear today.
By 1730, Queen Caroline, wife of George II, commissioned William Kent, the Royal Architect, to construct ‘Merlin’s Cave’ and ‘The Hermitage’ in the Royal Gardens, now Kew Gardens. These ‘esoteric’ buildings contained astronomical figures and eerie looking statues, including wax busts of a Witch, Minerva and Merlin.
A few decades later, Sir William Chambers, the Royal Architect to George III, built the Observatory and its three adjoining obelisks in Old Deer Park. The Observatory set the official time for London throughout the 1770’s, and later became known as Kew Observatory. It served as the principal meteorological office until 1980; its ‘K.O.’ seal having been established as the mark of quality for meteorological instruments.
In Richmond, old Sheen and Kew Gardens, Arcadia was in full bloom.
Syon Abbey and House
Sitting proudly across the River Thames from old Sheen is Syon House, and the remains of the once magnificent Syon Abbey. Formerly known as the Priory of Sion, Syon Abbey was built in 1415 by Henry V, and named after Mount Zion, in the Holy Land. It was the only Bridgettine Abbey in Medieval England. In its day, the Abbey was as large as Westminster Abbey. It was also the 10th richest in all of England, and the single wealthiest nunnery.
The Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and fell into disrepair. A few years later the King’s coffin rested here over night on its way to Windsor, where he was scheduled to be buried. Ironically, and rather mysteriously, the following morning the King’s body was discovered, exposed, attacked and partially eaten by wild dogs.
Adjoining the remains of the Abbey, Syon House was erected in the late 16th century. In the mid 18th century, the ownership of the estate transferred to Sir Hugh Smithson, the Earl 1st Duke of Northumberland. The Duke and Duchess completely redesigned the estate in the 1760’s, the same decade that William Chambers was erecting his Arcadian monuments, just across the River Thames; a stones throw away, in Kew Gardens.
So concludes the Arcadian Meridian. Fact or fiction? Myth or Legend? Let us dig a little deeper and see.
The River Thames ebbs lazily past Syon House, flowing in a north-easterly direction to Kew Palace, the last surviving residence of George III and Queen Charlotte. Like Marble Hill house to the south, Kew Palace contains paintings of Arcadia in ruins, by Giovanni Paolo Pannini. It marks a fitting, northern border to George’s Paradise Lost. From here, the river meanders eastwards towards London; Arcadia fading slowly in its wake.
Few give much thought to Arcadia these days. Sure, they marvel at Syon House or Hampton Court Palace, but from a tourist’s perspective, and not as a sacred landscape. Fewer still are aware of the Meridian. And those who are may argue that the Arcadian Meridian, as I have described it, is less than precise. To that end, let me be the first to acknowledge that the alignment of landmarks along the Meridian is at times quite, imprecise. However to argue its precision is to miss the point.
The alignment of landmarks along the Arcadian Meridian was symbolic, and was meant to commemorate a time when artists, poets and kings mingled in the same social strata, debating life’s finer points. These debates included such Arcadian topics as poetry, painting and gardening; the latter routinely included discussions on the merits of straight lines versus serpentine designs; complexity versus simplicity.
Serendipitously, or by design, the Arcadian Meridian dissects the centre of the serpentine River Thames, creating an image not dissimilar to the American dollar bill symbol; ‘$’. The selection of the symbol as the monetary standard for American currency occurred in 1785, shortly after George erected his Meridian. American statesman and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, proposed the symbol. Interestingly, Jefferson was the principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, a set of laws based on an earlier charter called the Magna Carta, which was sealed by King John in 1215, a few miles down the River Thames from Richmond in Runnymede.
Returning for a moment to the US dollar bill symbol ($), Jefferson’s status as a well read intellectual with deep Masonic affiliations, would have ensured that he was aware of the symbol’s origins as the sign of the fierily serpent set on a pole by Moses, or alternatively, the crucified Christ. The symbol also closely resembles the medieval image of the planet Mercury, and was commonly used by alchemists. Again, the possibility that George’s Meridian was an intentional manifestation of this symbolism is merely conjecture, however intriguing it may be. Regardless of George’s esoteric intentions, the King had a deep appreciation for the heritage of the land, and I believe he was simply paying it homage with the construction of a Meridian, a line that metaphorically shouted, ‘Look, Arcadia is here!’
When I first noticed the alignment I was surprised that I could not uncover other accounts of its existence. After some research, I came across Kim Wilke and the Thames Landscape Strategy; a 1994 initiative, sponsoredby the Minister for Local Government to conserve the northerly stretch of the River Thames from Hampton to Kew.
I duly contacted Mr Wilkie, a respected landscape architect, activist and author, and enquired if his extensive surveying work had revealed the fact that George’s Meridian intersected the landscapes most prominent sites. Much to my surprise, Wilkie had recognised the alignment, and commented, ‘I have been fascinated by the linking of those sites through the Meridian, but found no real evidence about deliberate connection’.
Wilkie is right, intent cannot be proved, or at least has yet to be established. But the weight of evidence suggests that the region was regarded as Arcadia for the majority of the 17th and 18th centuries. Europe was fixated on all things Arcadian at this time, a reality that is perhaps best illustrated in the classical paintings of the day. In the 17th century Poussin painted images of Arcadia, and in the 18th century Pannini, and of course the River Thames local Turner, did the same.
Today, memories of Arcadia are preserved in different ways, including the name of Richmond’s local council magazine, Arcadia, and the countless pubs and restaurants along the River Thames which commemorate the larger than life personalities of the era, such as the popular, Popes Grotto
So what happened to the Arcadian Meridian? Well, nothing, really. It’s still there, however its existence, and purpose, have simply faded from memory. And this is unfortunate, for George was under no illusions that his personal Observatory and Meridian were neither Royal nor official. In fact, he authorised the creation of the first Ordinance Survey work in Hampton, at the southernmost base of the Arcadian Meridian, to facilitate the adoption of the Greenwich Meridian.
The Ordinance Survey work took place in what is today a modern cul-de-sac by the name of Roy Grove, named after William Roy, a Major-General, Royal Engineer and Geodesist in George’s army. Here we find a peculiar cannon barrel, buried upright in the ground.
A nearby plaque commemorates the strangely positioned cannon and states that this is the spot where the first Ordnance Survey work was performed, in 1784. George had commissioned the measurement of fixed points (originally identified by buried cartwheels) in hopes of triangulating the relative positions of the Greenwich and Paris Observatories.
The approach borrowed from the Italian astronomer and engineer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who had introduced a similar technique of triangulation while creating a topographic map of France in the 1670’s. Although beyond the scope of this discussion, the Cassini maps are studied to this day, oddly enough for what they don’t show, and are central to an esoteric debate regarding a variant on the Arcadia theme called Perillos, an ancient village outside of Perpignan, France, believed to conceal profound esoteric secrets, including the tomb of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, the success of Roy’s project served as a catalyst for the measurement and triangulation of the rest of Britain, and subsequently, most of the modern world.
So George was not resistant to the adoption of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian. On the contrary, the international acceptance of an English Meridian standard would likely have been part of his Arcadian vision. George however, did become briefly embroiled in an official, Meridian related controversy surrounding John Harrison, the man who helped determine Longitude with the creation of the world’s first, successful chronometer. George came to Harrison’s aid after the Board of Longitude refused to award Harrison’s H5 time keeping device its rightful status as winner of their Longitude competition, and allowed Harrison to test his device in Richmond. With George’s assistance, Harrison was finally awarded the prize.
George was not the first King to build an Observatory or establish a Meridian. Charles II founded the Royal Observatory a century earlier, in 1675, and commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build it. George would have been inspired by this, as well as the work of the Royal Academy. And as we know, an element of George’s Arcadian vision ultimately did materialize when the International Meridian Conference met in Washington DC in 1884 to determine the true, Prime Meridian, once and for all.
The conference was represented by forty-one delegates from 25 nations whose charter was to vote on a standard for the world’s Prime Meridian. It came as no surprise that Greenwich took the prize of Longitude 0°. George would have been pleased, and would have felt just a little responsible. And quite justifiably so!
I shared my Arcadian Meridian: London’s Paradise Lost hypothesis with Jonathan Betts, Senior Specialist of Horology at London’s Royal Observatory. Jonathan kindly reviewed my findings and confirmed that:
‘George was acting as the grandest of amateur astrologers when he created a Meridian in Richmond. It was his personal Meridian, reflective of his passion for astronomy. Although George’s Richmond Meridian did not represent an line as such, it did briefly take on a semi-official function when George became entwined in the whole Harrison affair’.
Thus, I take comfort in the opinion of two experts, Wilkie and Betts, when I submit that George’s placement of the Meridian along his kingdoms most cherished landmarks, if only for a relatively brief span of time, was an intentional act; one that commemorated a land believed to be a modern day Arcadia. Quite simply, it represented a sort of, Georgian Paradise Lost.
At the end of the day, I believe that the serpentine flow of the River Thames through the heart of London’s Arcadian Meridian encapsulated both the hopes and dreams of a nation and the passion of its King. The allure of this magical land can perhaps best be summarised by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Heart of Midlothian (1818), when he writes of George’s Arcadia in the most eloquent of manner:
“A huge sea of verdure with crossing and interesting promontories of massive and tufted groves, … tenanted by numberless flocks and herds, which seem to wander unrestrained, and unbounded, through rich pastures. The Thames, here turreted with villas and there garlanded with forests, moved on slowly and placidly, like the mighty monarch of the scene, to whom all its other beauties were accessories, and bore on his bosom a hundred barks and skiffs, whose white sails and gaily fluttering pennons gave life to the whole.”
I can think of no better description of Arcadia, and I’m pretty sure George would agree.
Mavis Batey, Henrietta Buttery, David Lambert, Kim Wilkie
The Walker’s Guide: The Thames, Richmond to Putney Bridge
I would like to briefly thank a few individuals who were invaluable in my research. Namley:
Mark Foster, my good friend, designer of the Arcadia web site, and conscience when formulating hypotheses.
Bill Harding, for his friendship and for pointing me in the right direction from the start.
Kim Wilke and the Thames Landscape Strategy for their invaluable work in reestablishing and preserving the history and beauty of the River Thames, and for Mr Wilkie’s kind quote.
Angela Ivey, Marketing Officer for Richmond upon Thames Council – Visit Richmond, for her amazing enthusiasm, knowledge and willingness to get involved. You’re help came just in time!
Richmond Studies Library and Richmond Historical Society, for their tireless and invaluable assistance.