"HISTORY is my thing and local history is particularly my thing. It is about understanding origins and this is a fascinating town," explains John Cloake on his passion for the history of Richmond.

John is the author of a number of books which draw on the 40 years he has spent poring over the past of the town we know today. Instrumental in the establishment of both the Richmond Local History Society and Richmond Museum, John has also helped others discover local history.

Although he was born and bred in Wimbledon, John, 79, says he has known Richmond all his life. He explains: "When I was young, my mother would take me and my sister for long walks over Wimbledon Common, into Richmond Park through Robin Hood Gate, up to Richmond gate and walk into Richmond along the river, sometimes as far as Kew. We would then have to get all sorts of buses to get home."

He was first fired with enthusiasm for history' while at King's College School in Wimbledon. "My history master encouraged me to go to the parish church and ask the vicar for permission to look through the parish chest, where all records were kept. That is when I first started researching local history of any kind," he said.

After serving in the army, he studied history at Peterhouse, Cambridge University, before joining the diplomatic service. Periods abroad included Baghdad in the late 1940s, Saigon, New York, Moscow, Tehran and Bulgaria. "Almost every place I served had a revolution since I was there, which bodes ill for the US," he said.

John married Molli in 1956, who he met at the American Embassy in Saigon and they decided to stick' in Richmond after returning from a period in Moscow in 1963. They had been staying at the Richmond Hill Hotel and on their first morning of house hunting they were shown the Rosary on Ormond Road. It was this house that ignited John's interest in the history of Richmond. He said: "It was a 17th century house and I went off to research its past at the record office and found out all about it. From then I have never looked back, I have delved more and more into the history of Richmond.

"It started as a hobby and I have always been interested in historical angles. It started in my spare time, even in my lunch hours."

John became a member of the Richmond Society and in 1975 he was asked to do a lecture for them on the history of the plan of Richmond Palace and the monastery in Shene. At that time there was no local history society in Richmond and John was involved in setting it up. He explains: "When it was initiated, it was just a section of the Richmond Society with me as chairman; when it became independent, we had 300 members." He was chairman until 1990, when he became president.

One of John's proudest achievements is his part in the developing what is now Richmond Museum. He was asked to join a working party to consider the idea of starting a local museum and became chairman of the project.

He said: "The Richmond riverside project was being built and the council had said they would use part of the town hall for community purposes, so we approached them to ask if we could have part of it.

"It took three years' negotiation until we signed the agreement. In this time we became a company of residents. If we raised all the capital, the council would provide the accommodation, heating and lighting and cleaning, then two years after we opened they would provide staff costs.

"After a great fundraising effort, we got it going on the day the Queen opened the riverside development and she also opened the museum, five years after we started thinking abut it. It was a great achievement." John remained chairman of the museum until 1995, but he is still a patron and provides advice.

After he retired in 1980 and returned from serving as ambassador in Bulgaria, he published his first book, a pamphlet called The Growth of Richmond. He then planned to focus on writing Richmond's history, but was asked to write the biography of Sir Gerald Templer, which took four to five years to write. "I interviewed lots of people, from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the man who was his boot man, and travelled all over Ireland and Malaya."

John's books include Palaces and Parks of Richmond and Kew, which is in two volumes and is the royal history of the area, and Cottages and Common Fields of Richmond, a social and economic history.

"They are the result of 40 years research of original documents. There are lots of books about the history of Richmond, but most copy from each other and the errors multiply. I went back to the original documents and worked from them."

John did much of his work at the public record office in Chancery Lane, looking at the original rolls. "I felt slightly queasy when I unrolled the manor records from the date of the Black Death and found that a third of the population here had died. The lord was recording the death of so many tenants and what happened to their land," he said.

"I can follow the history of pieces of property in Richmond from Henry VII and some can be taken back until the 14th century. I have put it on record so other people can use it. It is a very beautiful town in many ways with a very interesting history, it seems worth pursuing that. I could probably walk through Richmond and tell you everyone who lived there in the 18th century, but not know who lives there today."

Richmond Past is John's most popular book, "the only one which has ever made me any money, the rest I have subsidised". It is now being printed for the fifth time. "My wife had been nagging me, saying I should produce a short history of Richmond. I had said no, because I didn't want to spoil it for the other books, but I ran into a publisher who was working on a series of these past' books who asked if I would do one on Richmond," he said.

During his time researching there were a number of discoveries that fascinated John, including, "When I found the origins of every piece of land which was enclosed in Richmond Park, which no-one had done before.

"Also a wonderful document, a survey of the Manor of Shene in 1314 which has the names of every tenant, what land they held, what services they provided to the lord of the manor and what he provided for their food. It was a magical illustration of how the manorial system worked."

In 1998 there was also a great discovery about the history of Richmond Palace. He said: "We had no way of knowing what the Privy Lodgings at Richmond Palace actually looked like. Out of the blue, I got a letter from an artist in Florence who had found a plan of Richmond Palace in the Medici archive.

"Henry Prince of Wales had planned to rebuild it and had asked an Italian architect, Constantino de' Servi, to design plans. It revealed that the actual building was smaller than we thought and further to the west."

How has Richmond changed in John's time? "One of the main changes has been the growth in interest in local history and conservation. The Richmond Society has become far more active and now there is a much expanded history society. And we now have a museum, with the help of the council.

"There has also been an increase in people who use the local studies room in the library. When I was first doing my research, I would often be the only person who was making any use of it, now there are a lot of people working on local research. People are looking up their family history as well as local history."

And the museum is helping to encourage the next generation of local historians, sending out boxes of artefacts and hosting school visits. John explains: "It is about encouraging them to look at what is around them. How did it all start and what happened in between?"