I started walking the Thames Path in small sections many years ago. However I finally completed it last year with a multi-day hike between Kemble and Hampton Court. Compared with other long distance hikes I’ve done in England this was a mixed experience. So what is the Thames Path, and what are the pros and cons of walking it?
What Is The Thames Path?
As the name suggests, the Thames Path follows the course of the River Thames, from its source in Gloucestershire to the Greenwich Barrier in London. It doesn’t quite reach the sea, although the 10 mile Thames Path Extension to Crayford Ness takes it a little closer.
The trail is officially 184 miles (294 km) long, although this figure is slightly misleading. This is a walk of three parts: the route divides as you reach London and, if you follow both sections (as I did), the walk becomes considerably longer.
The 151 miles (244 km) from the source to Teddington Lock follows the non-tidal section of the river, and mostly passes through countryside and small towns. However, once the Thames becomes tidal and moves towards London, you can choose to follow it on either the north or the south bank. The two parts of the London section meet again when you cross from the north via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.
The Thames Path In London
The River Thames is at the heart of London’s history, commerce and social life. This means that many of its most important buildings are close to the river, and a hike along the riverside is a walk through the city’s past and present. The two halves of the city are connected by 35 bridges, including railway bridges, foot crossings, and the world-famous Tower Bridge.
The north bank route takes you past tourist icons like the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament, as well as the modern architecture of the City and the revived London docklands. Whereas the south bank passes through Greenwich, Southwark and other less touristy areas, while affording splendid views of the London skyline on the opposite side of the river.
But, whichever bank you are on, you will also find hidden areas. There are cobbled streets and old pubs, street art and sculptures, and even the occasional nature reserve.
The London Suburbs
As you move into the suburbs, the character of the river begins to change. You begin to be more aware of it as a waterway: the Grand Union Canal joins the river at Brentford, and the first lock is at Richmond.
The river is less commercial here. It is more of an amenity: you start to see houseboats and rowing clubs. The walk becomes more leafy, with large areas of parkland – such as Richmond Park and Kew Gardens – close to the river. There are historic houses, including Syon House and Marble Hill, peaceful villages, and sophisticated suburbs.
From The Source To Teddington Lock
The source of the Thames is at Kemble in the Cotswolds. There is a plaque to mark the spot but in practice, unless the weather is very wet, you will have to follow the path for half a mile or so before you see any water. From here it becomes a trickle, and then a stream, until you reach the first lock near Lechlade. Beyond this point the river is navigable, and it gradually widens on its way to London.
The Thames Path mostly follows the river, passing along footpaths and through farm fields. However there are occasions when it is forced to divert, particularly in the town of Reading, and at Whitchurch-on-Thames (this is the only hilly bit of the Thames Path).
As a walker I have to confess that I found some of this part of the path dull: the landscape was monotonous; the route through Reading was uninspiring; and I missed the challenge of the occasional hill. But there were compensations. We passed through peaceful Cotswold villages and the historic town of Windsor. There was the pretty village of Cookham (once home to the artist Stanley Spencer) and the site of Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. Then there were the many country pubs, ideal for lunch or a well-deserved drink at the end of a day’s walking.
Why Walk The Thames Path?
If I am honest, this was in some ways my least favourite of the long distance paths I’ve tackled. The riverside section of the Yorkshire Dales Way was more scenic; there was more history on the Hadrian’s Wall Path; and The Ridgeway had a bit of everything. And, if you’re a hiker who enjoys hills and varied walking, you won’t find much to satisfy you on the Thames Path.
However, there were things that I did enjoy about the Thames Path. For one thing, I liked that process of discovering the river, from its origin almost to the estuary. I stopped and watched barges moving through lock gates, and noted pleasure boats and restaurants. I saw how the river was integrated into the life of the countryside: there were reservoirs and sewage plants as well as waterfowl and canoes. In London I even saw mudlarkers – people hunting for objects that had been washed up by the tide.
But the greatest pleasure was walking through London. This was the city as I had never known it before. The back streets and the suburbs, the warehouses and power stations. There were places, like the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens or Eel Pie Island, that were once tourist hotspots, but are now largely forgotten. And, of course, the London pubs. I would recommend the London sections of the Thames Path to anyone who wants to explore the city in a different way.
Walking The Thames Path: Some Practicalities
- The Thames Path is generally an easy walk, on level ground, although there is one hill section, and several places with steps or footbridges. Note that some of the early sections (close to the source) can be overgrown with nettles, and are liable to become waterlogged in wet weather.
- Within London it is easy to use public transport to take you to and from your accommodation. Elsewhere you can stay in various towns and villages along the way, but you will need to carry your baggage or have it transported for you. Some companies will arrange accommodation and baggage transfer – I used Celtic Trails for the section from Kemble to Hampton Court.
- The closer you get to London the more facilities you will find along the route. In the early stages pubs and eating places are infrequent, and it may be more convenient to carry your own food.