This coming weekend will see the 25th anniversary of the Thames Path’s inauguration writes Leigh Hatts.
On 24 July 1996 I joined David Sharp to walk downstream through Greenwich to the Thames Barrier.
As we turned into Crane Street, behind the Trafalgar Tavern, we found that the narrow passage had been decorated for the occasion.
Our arrival at the Barrier marked the start of the opening ceremony.
The late David Sharp was the Ramblers’ Association Thames expert who had produced the first guide to walking from London to the Source in Gloucestershire. He was a crucial part of the RA campaign to get a national trail.
I had been in awe of him when in 1981 I started work as the Thames Walk Field Officer.
I was reporting to the Countryside Commission and given a desk at Thames Water in Reading. My task was to spend a year writing a feasibility study for the ‘Thames Walk’.
On 1 June I started out from the Lion on the end of Westminster Bridge and headed upstream. My wife Marion and baby son James were with me for a short distance.
After that I was in my own as a I sought to meet every riparian owner and riverside council.
Most council boundaries run along the middle of the river and I soon found that what happened on the edge of a council area was often not a priority.
David Sharp’s publication was invaluable but there were still huge obstacles to overcome.
London lacked stretches of riverside path and so the Jubilee Walkway signs were the best guide for weaving one’s way along the Thames.
The towpath starts at Putney but it was not continuous.
The path at Windsor was closed and only later did the Crown Estate provide the present alternative on the Datchet side.
There were small problems around Maidenhead and Cookham which were eventually resolved by East Berks Ramblers footpath secretary Margaret Bowdery who is one of the many who made the Thames Path possible. Margaret died in 2017.
At Purley, where the towpath changes sides without a ferry, provision had already been made for a path above the river but as houses were built opposition from new residents grew. That is why you now have to walk through an estate rather than drop down under the railway as older residents had proposed.
At Dorchester there was a long debate over whether to follow the towpath as much as possible or go through woodland below Wittenham Clumps. Dorchester won.
The towpath ends at Inglesham and as many know it was only in recent years that the walk from there upstream to Cricklade has ceased to involve a very busy main road.
By the New Year I had reached Gloucestershire where I managed to negotiate agreement for a path to be near the infant Thames only to read of the landowner’s death a few weeks later .
Soon after I was cut off by snow in Cirencester for several days.
My recommendations submitted in July 1982 were not published immediately but after a pause the proposals were examined in detail and turned into a report for the Secretary of State by Jenny Blair.
In 1989 Environment Minister Virginia Bottomley announced that there would be a Thames Path national trail when she opened Temple Bridge which replaces a lost ferry near Bisham.
Two years after the path opened the first edition of Walking the Thames Path guide appeared. I wrote the upstream guide because I had started in the capital and knew that many like to discover where London’s river comes from. David Sharp wrote the downstream guide.
Regrets? I had suggested that the path should start further downstream. In the end the commissioners agreed on the Thames Barrier but it would have been cheaper in the long term to have seized the moment for Erith or even Margate a quarter of century ago.
I hope that the Thames Path can bring enjoyment rather than just be, as for too many it is, just a fundraising challenge.
Slow walking is the best way to appreciate our heritage of churches, pubs, villages and, best of all, the wonder of the ever changing nature by the water.
One should have time to pause and rest at David Sharp’s memorial seat at Barnes.
I had a unique job for one so young and I consider myself fortunate to have been able to continue being so intimate with the river during forty years of walking and writing.
Caroline of Brunswick, wife of George IV, died 200 years ago by the River Thames.
The Queen’s final home was Brandenburg House which stood in a rural setting on the edge of Hammersmith. Work on building Hammersmith Bridge was four years away.
Here Thames watermen had gathered on the river in 1820 to show support for her during failed divorce proceedings being heard in the House of Lords.
Her husband, best known as the extravagant Prince Regent, had just become King George IV. They had long been estranged but his accession caused her to return to London.
On 19 July 1821 she was refused entry to George’s Coronation at Westminster Abbey. Having had the west doors slammed in her face she hurried round the back to the Poet’s Corner entrance but there Gold Stick in Waiting persuaded her to go home.
That night at Hammersmith she took a large dose of milk of magnesia and became ill.
She died late on 7 August. The death was a sensation and her funeral procession had to be diverted due to crowds.
Her brick house, downstream of today’s Hammersmith Bridge, had been built by Sir Nicholas Crispe in the early 17th century.
The name of the house comes from the Margrave of Brandenburg who bought the property in 1792.
He died in 1806 and his widow left for Naples in 1819. The following year her son arranged for the homeless Queen to move in.
Within six months of her death the house was sold and eventually demolished.
After 1857 the site was occupied by Hammersmith Distillery owned by Haig.
The distillery has given way to today’s Fulham Reach flats (flanked by Winslow and Chancellor’s Roads) opposite Harrods Wharf.
The River Thames is so long, varied and winding that its source is found beyond six counties. One is Wiltshire which means that the new Pevsner features riverside buildings.
The Wiltshire Buildings of England is the first new edition since 1975 when Bridget Cherry revised Nikolaus Pevsner’s text. Now Julian Orbach has updated the invaluable book.
Going upstream in the county we first reach isolated Inglesham which is little more than a church and house.
‘A church interior as William Morris wanted, bearing all the scars of time and with fittings untouched by the Victorians…Morris, living at Kelmscott nearby, foiled an attempt to have the church rebuilt,’ we are reminded.
The nave is Anglo-Saxon and the chapel is 13th-century. The wall paintings are ‘numerous’. Only the recent (17th-century) box pews intrude.
The next objective is Castle Eaton where both the church and pub feature.
St Mary’s also has a 13th-century chancel which one can easily forget as William Butterfield was allowed to undertake a substantial restoration in the 1860s. This was shortly after his All Saints Margaret Street masterpiece had opened.
Castle Eaton’s Red Lion is deemed to be mid-Georgian.
If the Red Lion is not open then the welcome landmark ahead is the tower of St Sampson’s in Cricklade. Once in the small town it is a delight to discover St Mary’s, a ‘basically Norman’ church, which has been returned to the Roman Catholic Church.
Last May as we battled Covid most of us missed the 250th anniversary of Thames Conservancy’s predecessor.
Where Smooth Waters Glide is an online exhibition by the Berkshire Record Office which holds the archive of the Thames Conservancy.
There are fascinating documents and pictures as well as a clear explanation of river governance.
Thames Navigation Commissioners first met in Henley in 1771.
The Thames Conservancy was formed in 1857 and lasted until 1974 when Thames Water took over.
But this change did not anticipate the privatisation of water supply so the National Rivers Authority was hastily formed in 1989.
In 1996 this became today’s Environment Agency.
The Navigation Commissioners were appointed 250 years ago to make the Thames into a highway. This resulted in the creation of the towpath which at the end of the 20th century become the basis for the Thames Path.
It is interesting to find that it was the Thames Conservancy in 1961 which recognised that the river had become ‘essentially a pleasure river’.
But it was during the stewardship of Thames Water that there was the first formal co-operation with the Countryside Commission in producing a feasibility study for a ‘Thames Walk’.
Twenty-five years ago the Thames Path was eventually opened in July 1996.
The exhibition reminds us with dramatic photographs that floods are not new.
We learn when and where flash locks gave way to pound locks.
Thames people include the Treacher family who built locks and bridges.
The most famous figure is maybe Lord Desborough who has given his name to the Desborough Island which he helped to create at Shepperton.
The title, Where Smooth Waters Glide, is taken from a poem of about 1845 attributed to Joseph Tubb which describes the view from Wittenham Clumps near Dorchester.
By coincidence this was the same day as President Biden was Britain agreeing a New Atlantic Charter.
A much reduced flotilla escorted the Edwardian from Rotherhithe to the Houses of Parliament to deliver a copy of the Mayflower Compact which had arrived in Rotherhithe on board The Excelsior, representing The Mayflower.
As Joe Biden begins his first visit to Britain as President of the United States of America there will be a ceremony on the River Thames to mark the 400th anniversary of The Mayflower returning to Rotherhithe.
Last year, despite the Covid restrictions, there were several low-key events to mark the 400th anniversary of The Mayflower sailing from Rotherhithe to America carrying the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’.
An illuminated scroll signed by the Speaker of the House of Commons was taken by water to Rotherhithe before being forwarded to Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington.
Next Friday afternoon 11 June a ‘message from the Settlers’ will be delivered to the Houses of Parliament in the form of a copy of The Mayflower Compact, the Founding Fathers agreement for governance which was signed on board The Mayflower in autumn 1620.
The Compact is considered a foundation of the US Constitution which also embraces democratic principles debated at Putney’s riverside church in 1647.
The message is being brought into London on board sailing-smack Excelsior which will be representing The Mayflower.
This year the sail training vessel is celebrating her centenary during which she rescued the entire population of Bodo in north Norway from the Nazis in 1940.
Excelsior is expected to moor outside the riverside Mayflower public house in Rotherhithe for 48 hours and be lit up at night.
Shortly after 2pm on Friday afternoon the Mayflower Compact copy will be transferred from the Excelsior to MV Edwardian to be taken upstream to Westminster.
MV Edwardian, with an escort of Metropolitan Police Marine Unit, RNLI and London Fire Brigade launches, is expected to pass under Westminster Bridge at 3.25pm.
The Speaker and Admiral Lord West, representing the Lord Speaker of the upper chamber, will be waiting on the Commons terrace with the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of the City of London.
A hundred years ago today, on Tuesday 7 June, George V accompanied by Queen Mary arrived by carriage with a mounted escort to open Southwark Bridge.
The spans were designed to line up with those of London and Blackfriars Bridges.
Work on pulling down the first bridge, designed by John Rennie with just three arches, had begun six years before its centenary in 1919. However, the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 slowed progress and by 1917 all work had been halted.
The new bridge was designed by Basil Mott but the distinctive windows were added by Sir Ernest George who was present at the opening.
The Royal carriage drove over the bridge south from the City to Southwark and returned to Buckingham Palace by way of Westminster Bridge.
Mast Quay in Woolwich has two 14-storey buildings erected in 2004 and after much delay a third block of flats at the downstream end is under construction.
The Thames Path diversion from Woolwich Ferry to the side of Jigger Mast House will probably remain in place for some time. Weeds are growing on the fenced-off path.
On crossing the ferry approach one must follow Woolwich Church Street from the roundabout to go behind Mast Quay.
Take the very first turning on the right which is a double bend access to the two existing blocks. Head to the upstream side of Jigger Mast House to walk along the side of the drawdock. At the river go left.