The Thames Path
Thames Path: The Basics
WHERE IS THE PATH? A trail that follows the Thames as closely as it can, from its start in the Cotswolds to a fitting finale by the Thames Barrier in London’s East End.
HOW LONG IS THE THAMES PATH? 184 miles
IS IT A NATIONAL TRAIL? Yes
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO WALK THE THAMES PATH? The Thames Path is pretty easy walking and it’s not too much of a push to complete the entire thing in just ten days, averaging more than 18 miles a day – a feat that would be exhausting on many of the more undulating trails. Two weeks provides a more leisurely stroll, or up to three weeks if you want to pause at several of the many towns and cities en route.
WHERE DOES THE THAMES PATH START? There’s a stone ‘monument’ that marks the start of the path and the point where the Thames – occasionally, and only after heavy rain – rises. This is Thames Head, near Kemble in Gloucestershire.
AND WHERE DOES IT FINISH? The finishing line is London’s Thames Barrier.
HOW HARD IS THE THAMES PATH? Flat for almost the whole way, and with a bloody great river keeping you from straying from the path, this is a very straightforward trek. The most difficult aspect of the Thames Path is its length – at 184 miles it’s the fifth longest National Trail – but given that you can manage 18-20 miles per day on this route, you’ll soon find yourself eating up the miles.
We’d often talked about attempting a National Trail together, as a family. Traditionally, my usual trekking companion had been my dog, Daisy, and I looked on our long-distance walks as a way to ‘reconnect’ with her, and to step away from our respective day-to-day routines (which for me means answering emails, paying off the mortgage and falling asleep in front of the telly, and for her means eating biscuits, licking her private parts and failing to catch squirrels).
This arrangement was all very well when I was single, but over the past few years I’d somehow acquired a family. And as I was soon to learn, disappearing for weeks at a time on a national trail with my dog is not conducive to maintaining harmony in a household. It was a point that my partner, Zoe, had been making with increasing force over the past few months.
To further emphasise the point, she also conjured up visions of us strolling arm-in-arm along the riverbank, while swans drifted by and kingfishers flitted from branch to branch. It was a vision of riparian bliss that could only be realised if a) there was someone alongside me, and b) that someone was willing to walk arm-in-arm.
There was, however, one possible obstacle standing between us and to this idyllic daydream of riparian family bliss.
His name was Henry, he’s our son, and he’s only two years old. At this time in life, he was just mastering the art of pulling his pants down before he went to the toilet; so asking him to walk 184 miles along the fifth-longest National Trail was out of the question.
So, once Zoe’s face had made it clear that leaving Henry at home by himself for a fortnight was not an option, there was nothing for it but to strap the boy into his pram, shove his favourite toys alongside him, and head off on our adventure.
I say ‘pram’ but actually what we had was something called a mountain buggy. A mountain buggy is to a pram what a mountain bike is to a regular bicycle. For where a mountain bike has been designed to take you to places where other two-wheelers wouldn’t even dream of venturing, so a mountain buggy is designed to be rugged enough to take adventurous toddlers to places other prams just cannot reach (as long as their parents are willing to push the damn thing). Like a mountain bike, a mountain buggy is also chunkier and heavier than its more slim-line, city-dwelling equivalent, and its tyres are a good deal wider and fatter. And just like a mountain bike, those same fat tyres on a buggy get punctures. About once every 15 miles on average, as it turned out.
Nor were punctures the only impediments on the trail. Far from the relaxing, fun-filled time that Zoe had promised, when you have a two-year-old, apparently, you have to remain vigilant the whole time, particularly on the Thames Path. The proximity of a large, occasionally swift-moving river to a pram with a toddler inside it is a potential recipe for disaster, so we made it a rule that one of us should be tethered to the buggy at all times.
Other potential dangers included the electric fences, which the little grabby toddler hands seem inexorably drawn towards; and the cows.
Ahh yes, the cows. If there is one thing I dislike more than anything else about walking, it’s blisters. But running it a close second is walking through a field of cattle. But at least when I’m on my own I have the option of running away. When you’re tethered to a buggy with your life partner by your side, it looks a mite unchivalrous to abandon everyone and leg it out of a field as soon as there’s a stampede. So no matter how curious and close the cows got – and believe me, on this trail you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get very close to them – if you’re going to do this with a small person in a pram you just have to walk, very very slowly, through them, and hope they don’t take umbrage at your presence.
We weren’t alone in having brushes with bovines. On our trek we met a woman and her 18-month-old son coming the other way (she’d opted to carry him on her back rather than push him in a pram) who told us she’d hitched a lift on a barge to avoid a field where the cows were particularly truculent.
But despite these obstacles, it remains the case that if you’re going to push a pram along any National Trail, then the Thames Path is the best one to choose. Not only is it difficult to get lost (the presence of a bloody great river alongside you for pretty much the whole way ensures that you can’t stray too far from the trail), but it’s also less remote than many paths too. It’s also one of most popular, so there is more likely that help may be available should we need it.
Best of all, however, is the fact that the path is wonderfully flat; indeed, looking back we can only think of one major hill, near Pangbourne, throughout the entire trek. So once you’ve mastered the art of manhandling a buggy over kissing gates and stiles (something that we got the hang of before we’d even left the Cotswolds, and by the time we’d reached Windsor we weren’t even bothering to remove the boy beforehand), there’s little to stop you completing the path with a pram too, should you wish to.
If I’m making it sound all a little too straightforward, well that wasn’t always the case. Anybody who’s travelled with small children before will know how much more work it is. At times, our trek felt more like a military manoeuvre as we pored over maps and planned our next day’s assault on the trail.
Hills or no hills, pushing a pram is hard work, especially along the unpaved bits (which was most of it). Whereas I would be normally be looking to do 20 miles or more per day on this sort of level terrain, pushing a pram reduced those ambitions to nearer 12 miles per day. Not that I am complaining, of course. Strolling at a more sedentary pace chimed nicely with the languid pace of the river itself.
But our main worries about the trip – that the sheer monotony of being strapped into a pram for several hours a day, and several days at a time, would test Henry’s patience beyond breaking point – proved to be unfounded. For the first few days the sheer novelty of walking alongside a river, and sleeping in the same room as his parents at night, was enough to keep Henry from getting too fractious. When that faded, then counting swans, waving at the narrowboats chugging by and singing various songs were enough to keep him – and by extension, us – cheerful. While by the time we got to the outer limits of London, and thus under the flight path from Heathrow Airport, the sheer number of planes flying overhead kept Henry amused for hours anyway.
What’s more, even though I wasn’t physically challenging myself I still enjoyed the fitness benefits this trek provided. I’ve always been pleased with the way the flabby bits on my lower half tighten up over the course of the trek. But on this trek, as I was pushing the pram, I managed to grow a set of guns on my upper arms that had me wearing T-shirts well into November, and long after the weather suggested I should opt for something warmer. Vain, I know, but, well, that’s me.
So did we enjoy the trail? Well, on balance, yes. Henry spent half the time asleep but did seem to be happy during those moments of consciousness. He did occasionally rise from his throne to walk the trail; and sometimes even in the right direction. He also enjoyed waving at boats and counting swans. He also thought it hilarious to us like galley slaves, shouting ‘push’ whenever the buggy got stuck in mud, which we also thought charming. Well, the first time he did it, anyway. (One area where Henry excelled as a child was with his speech, which some have kindly described as being advanced, and even precocious; though, looking back, I think what they really meant was that he’s a bit lippy.)
As for us adults, we enjoyed basking in the gardens of riverside pubs, mooching around Oxford, and leaving Reading. There are some lovely villages to mooch around, massive houses to ogle at and plenty of exquisite scenery to delight in. (The section east of Lechlade was our favourite bit.)
Zoe, a murder mystery fan, also enjoyed seeing Dorchester-on-Thames (where many scenes from Midsomer Murders were shot, which gives you an idea of just how pretty it is); and Wallingford, with its associations with Agatha Christie who lived nearby.
I also appreciated visiting places that I’d heard about, but never had a reason to visit: Maidenhead, Reading, Windsor, Marlow, Abingdon, Eton and Staines. It was good to finally see them and, in most cases, we were impressed with what we found. Whereas with the others – well at least it confirmed to us why we’d never made much of an effort to see them before.
We also both enjoyed the march through London, even though we had both lived there for a combined total of twenty years or more. Seeing the capital from a different viewpoint, marching through bits we’d never been to before, and seeing how they all fitted together, was enlightening, educational and actually quite entertaining.
Overall, it was a good enough experience that, by the end, as we reached the Thames Barrier, we both welled up and shed a few tears, and not just of relief. It hadn’t been plain sailing, but we had built up a decent camaraderie during the trip, and a wonderful sense of achievement at the end. They say that whatever doesn’t break you, makes you stronger. And we had grown stronger in every sense: as a family, certainly, and as a team working together for the same goal. And in doing so we all, individually, developed, both mentally and physically.
And I’ve got the biceps to prove it.
Should you try the Thames Path?
Useful info for Thames trekkers
Transport to and from the Thames Path
As I hint at above, getting to the start of the trail, and getting away from it at trek’s end, is not as straightforward as it should be. Kemble, at the start of the walk, does have a train station that links it with Swindon and Cheltenham; but then you find yourself walking half an hour along the trail to get to its start – only to then turn 180 degrees and walk back along that same path! It’s surely the most annoying beginning to any National Trail. (In the book there’s an alternative route to get to the start of the path, beginning at the Thames Head pub, which at least means you won’t be walking back and forth along the same stretch of path to get to the start.)
At the other end, once you’ve finished the walk you have to march south away from the river to catch a bus from the Greenwich High Road toward North Greenwich Bus Station; or, what I advise, once again retrace your steps along the trail to reach the nearest jetty (again, at North Greenwich), where you can catch the Thames Clipper, and head into the heart of London from there. Passing under Tower Bridge by this method really does feel like you’re breasting the tape at the end of your odyssey.
Transport along the Thames Path
The bus network around the Thames is pretty extensive. The problem is, buses and trains tend not to travel along the Thames, so if you’re hoping to use public transport to complete the Thames Path in stages, you will find on occasion that it’s a bit of a palaver getting back to where you began. Often you’ll have to travel via one of the big towns and cities – Oxford, Swindon and Reading – in order to reach your destination. Even those towns en route with a train service are not as well connected as you’d hope them to be, for the stations are often on a branch line, and one that connects it with few other places on the trail. And when you’re walking the first part of the trail, in and around the Cotswolds, be prepared to catch a cab.
Of course, things do improve as you progress along the trail – though not as far or as fast as perhaps you were hoping – until, by the time you get to London, the public transport is brilliant, with the Tube, bus and ferries serving the trail.
So, in summary, the public transport network serving the Thames Path is extensive; but if you’re going to be relying on buses and trains a lot for your trek, you’ll find it’s not as useful, and many journeys are more convoluted, than you’re probably expecting them to be.
Walking the Thames Path with a dog
You can walk along the Thames Path with a dog, and we have done so, but they have to be pretty relaxed when it comes to walking through fields full of cows. If they’re not, and start yapping at the first sign of a bovine, then the cows in turn will approach to see what all the fuss is about – and you’re going to end up having a rather stressful time of it.
As a result, you will have to keep your dog on a lead for much of the walk, not only because of the livestock but also, of course, when you’re walking in London and the other big cities. But don’t despair: there are plenty of places where your dog can roam unfettered too, free from danger, and Daisy still seemed to really enjoy the trail when she tackled it with us.
So where might I get lost? You have to really try hard to get lost on the Thames Path. There are signposts to guide you and a river to hug so it’s really quite tricky to lose the path for more than a few steps unless you miss a signpost (or a signpost has gone missing). The exception to this rule is London, where the path changes frequently due to building works and, unfortunately, showing walkers where they should now go doesn’t seem to be one of their main priorities. Suffice to say, you should stick to the riverbank for as long as you can and, after you’ve been diverted away from it, try to return to it as quickly as possible and you won’t go far wrong.
Camping and accommodation along the Thames Path
Camping along the Thames Path is easy, with most locks boasting one. They’re cheap and charming, though some are very basic. The biggest stretches of the trail where you won’t find a campsite is between Wallingford/Crowmarsh Gifford and Henley-on-Thames and once you enter London. Thankfully, there are youth hostels serving both these places so you can always stay in them instead (unless you have a dog, in which case you’ll have to upgrade to a dog-friendly B&B). If you’re hesitating about camping on the trail, well, don’t: the campsites are by some of the most charming parts of the path; though plan carefully as facilities nearby are often non-existent.
The hostel situation along the Thames Path is dire, with only Streatley, Oxford and London boasting them (though both the last two actually have more than one). There are no bunkhouses along the entire trail.
As for B&Bs and hotels, there are plenty of them, of course, mostly in the towns en route. Pubs, particularly along the first half of the trek, provide some of the most characterful and convenient accommodation on the trail.
Facilities along the Thames Path
Food and Drink You won’t go hungry on the Thames Path. Hundreds of lovely riverside pubs and cafes and plenty of food stores; really, given how straightforward (and flat) the path is, this is the one trail where you are just as likely to gain weight as lose it.
Shops and ATMs Again, the path is awash with food shops, and while cash points are infrequent in the first few days, there are still enough to keep you afloat.
Trekking companies and baggage carriers Lots of companies offer self-guided tours, and at least one offers baggage carrying and guided tour services.
Dangers and annoyances
The biggest hazard is currently being sorted out, and by the time you read this should no longer be a problem. On the approach to Lechlade it used to be that trekkers would have to march along the fast and pavement-less A361 between Upper Inglesham and Inglesham. So dangerous did the authorities consider it that they, uniquely as far as I can remember, advised trekkers to catch a bus instead and said that this would be considered as part of the trail. Thankfully, after much negotiation, as I write this a new path has now been put in place that avoids the highway altogether.
Other dangers: well some people talk about the end of the path as you trek through London’s East End as feeling threatening; the guide’s original author, Joel Newton, said he felt the atmosphere was threatening enough for him to hide his camera and GPS. We have to say we found it more deserted than threatening, though I suppose if you met with a “wrong’un” on the path on this section, which is largely sandwiched between the river and some tall wire fences, you’ve got nowhere to escape to. But we found it all benign enough and perhaps people’s fear of this section can be ascribed to nothing more than a yokel’s prejudices against the Big Smoke.
Other dangers? Well, I’ve already talked about the cows at some length so I won’t talk about them again here. And do remember that on one side of you for the vast majority of the walk there is a large body of moving water, so just be careful where you step. Oh, and don’t piss the swans off – you may come off second-best.
Tips and hints
1) I have two favourite pubs on (or, in one case, just off) the trail. The first is the brilliant Wild Duck Inn at Ewen, just a couple of miles from the start of the trail (and thus, for those looking to stay in B&Bs for their trek, a great place to spend the first night). It’ll be a bit swish for some tastes – and it ain’t cheap – but this sixteenth-century place has barrels of character and history.
The second pub that took my fancy was the delightfully quirky Flower Pot at Aston. It’s not often you can sit in a pub and have dinner while a parrot quietly chunters to itself in the corner, an arthritic dog curls up at your feet and the entire pub (which, admittedly, didn’t number more than half a dozen people on the night we visited) watched an old episode of Mrs Marple on the telly. It was like sitting in an eccentric aunt’s front room, though only if she’s mad keen on hunting and fishing (there’s a lot of memorabilia on this theme hanging off the walls). It’s friendly, unfussy and relaxed – and, as such, a refreshing antidote to many of the more pretentious pubs on the trail.
2) Can’t decide between the two alternative paths that run along the Thames through London? I advise you to take the south-bank path initially, for it’s the more interesting trail. But if you have time to do other trail too, I advise you to do so; it’s still lovely, just not as lovely as the southern bank.
3) Need to take public transport in London? Do try to catch the Thames Clipper if you can – it gives you a completely different perspective on the city and the river and is a lot more pleasant than the tube.
The Thames Path: Further info
‘Practical, clear-eyed and enthusiastic’ Wanderlust
‘With this book you would have immense difficulty getting lost or not knowing where the nearest restaurant, pub or bus route is’ River Thames News
‘Recommended‘ Adventure Travel
‘Another polished and comprehensive Trailblazer title’ Walk magazine online, Ramblers
The all-in-one, practical guide to walking the Thames Path, England’s most important waterway. Fully revised 2nd edition of this absorbing 184-mile (294km) walk from the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier. With magnificent varied scenery and passing so many ancient sites, this is as much a walk through history as an easy ramble beside a river.
The guide includes:
* Thames Path map – plus 99 detailed walking maps (1:20,000) plus separate plans for the towns and villages en route.
* Detailed accommodation guide with brief reviews of B&B’s, hotels, hostels & campsites.
* Informations about facilities on the way Shops, cafes, pubs, cash machines, post & tourist offices, foods stores – it’s all in here!
* Taking a dog – experienced advice on walking the path from Daisy, the author’s dog, who has walked the entire trail.
* Itineraries for all walkers Whether hiking the entire route or sampling highlights on days walks and short breaks.
* Public transport information including how to get to and from the Thames Path – and how to travel along it.