It was years since I had heard from former Surbiton journalist Jill Sanders when she emailed me out of the blue about a project she was working on with her partner, John Inglis.

She said: “I’m sure you will find it of great interest, but as it is quite impossible to describe in words we invite you to come and see for yourself.”

Thus I found myself standing in wind and rain beside the Thames at West Molesey, wishing I was somewhere else, and waiting for them to take me in their boat to their house on Garrick’s Island.

Little did I know the next couple of hours would be so absorbing and inspirational that I have been thinking and talking about them ever since.

The story begins in 1829, when Samuel Leigh published his panorama of the Thames from London to Richmond, an astonishing piece of art showing every landmark on both sides of the 15-mile stretch of river from Westminster Bridge to Petersham Meadows.

Sixty feet long, composed of 46 prints glued together and folded into a concertina, it was designed for boat users at a time when the river was a prime means of transport.

The Literary Gazette called it “a very clever and entertaining publication”, adding that “seated on deck with Mr Leigh’s panoramic plan on our knees, we may, as we glide along the silver Thames, become still more intimately and accurately acquainted with the various natural and artificial beauties by which its banks are embellished, and on which no one can gaze without pleasure.”

Today the panorama, painstakingly drawn by artist John Clark, is of unique educational value in depicting many lost landmarks – notably the old Palace of Westminster, just before it was razed by fire – together with the vanished waterside communities, wharves, churches and stately homes of 184 years ago.

However, as it was primarily for boating use, copies were routinely subjected to the ravages of weather, water and constant handling, so the few that have survived are scarred.

John and Jill, who managed to find and buy a copy, have two main aims. One is to digitally restore Leigh’s production and make it available on a public website.

The other is to augment his concept by making a contemporary panorama of all 52 miles of Thames riverbank through London, from the western boundary of Greater London at Hampton Court to Tower Bridge, including all the inhabited islands and the 33 bridges.

A start has been made on both counts. Sponsored by community groups, John has completed contemporary panoramas of the reaches at Hampton Wick, Mortlake and Eel Pie Island, and the reach from Richmond Hill to Twickenham Bridge.

Meanwhile, the Isleworth Society was so inspired by the project it has funded a panorama of its present riverside and a restoration of its section of the Leigh masterpiece.

John gave me a screened viewing of parts of the original (of which I had never heard until then) and of the contemporary panoramas he has completed to date.

Beautifully filmed, with perfectly chosen music as a background accompaniment, they made me feel I was drifting along the Thames, gazing entranced at the passing scenery.

But why had I been singled out for this extraordinary treat?

Because John and Jill are set on giving Kingston its rightful place in their contemporary panorama (Leigh omitted it because Kingston was not part of London in his day) and knowing of my abiding interest in the royal borough past and present, they hoped I would help them make their project known and to gather historic and current information on as many riverside features as possible between Lower Ham Road and Seething Wells.

Of course, my first move was to tell the Kingston upon Thames Society and the Friends of Kingston Museum and Heritage of my thrilling experience and urge them to send delegates to Garrick’s Island to check out the project for themselves.

Both groups have done so, are as enthusiastic as I am and intend to suppport the Kingston part of the panorama in every way they can.

Samuel Leigh had to rely on paper and superb handiwork for his masterpiece.

John Inglis, on the other hand, has modern technology plus brilliant skills using it.

He started in broadcast television, then became an editor and director in commercials and documentaries, and a visual effects director of movies such as the Superman films of the 1970s.

Early in the 1980s he formed a company at Shepperton, where he developed the first computer graphics systems for visual effects.

He said: “That development became the basis of programs like Adobe Photoshop.

“When the world wide web started I became a website producer, and kept that going throughout the 90s.”

His passion for panoramas began in 2000 when the mayor of Richmond, Michael Jones, was so concerned about developments beside the Thames that, purely for planning purposes, he asked John if could develop a method of depicting the shoreline as seen from the river.

This led to the creation of John’s technique in creating exceptionally long linear panoramas to provide a visual record of river banks.

Now he is devoting his retirement to a full digital restoration of the Leigh panorama, presented as a series of 29 sections that will be available on a special website, plus his and Jill’s huge project of updating Leigh’s concept with a panorama of the entire 26 miles (52 miles of shoreline) of the Thames from Hampton Court to Tower Bridge.

If Leigh had decided to include Kingston’s riverside in his panorama, what would he have seen there?

Passing what is now Lower Ham Road he would have noted Bank Grove, a beauitiful 18th century mansion set in 14 acres, and Chestnut Grove, a fine house with gardens stretching all the way to what is now Kings Roads.

What is now Canbury Gardens was, to quote a resident at that time, “swamp land and osier beds, where snipe abounded and the beautiful kingfisher...the cottage by the towing path was occupied by Mr Stevens, a boatman after whom Stevens Eyot was named.”

There was no railway then and instead of the current rail bridge, apartment blocks and Steadfast headquarters on Thameside, there was Down Hall Meadows, where cows grazed and children could pick wild flowers, followed by Turk’s, boatbuilders since 1710, and the Outrigger, an ancient pub that was rebuilt a century later.

From this part of the river Leigh would also have seen the centuries-old cottages – charming from the outside but squalid within – that occupied a network of alleys known as the Back Lanes.

Today much of this site is covered by John Lewis.

Sailing under the handsome new Kingston Bridge, completed only a year earlier, Leigh would have passed Kingston Tannery, a gin distillery, coal wharf and several inns before reaching Town End Wharf, where incoming cargo boats unloaded.

Queen’s Promenade did not exist then, but Leigh would have seen part of the beautiful grounds, and perhaps the fine 18th century mansion itself, of Surbiton Place.