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.