London to the Source
This book is a guide for those walking 180 miles upstream along the Thames Path from London to Gloucestershire and is therefore an alternative to the official Countryside Agency guide designed to assist walkers heading from the river’s source downstream to the capital.
Towpath to National Trail
As early as the 1880s there was a suggestion that the Thames towpath, falling into disuse as traffic turned from the river to railways, should be preserved as a long distance recreational route. In the next century the call was taken up after the First World War by the Council for the Protection of Rural England and after the Second World War by the Thames Conservancy’s River Thames Walk Committee. Thirty years later the Ramblers’ Association and River Thames Society managed to persuade the Thames Water Authority and the Countryside Commission to produce a feasibility study on a continuous route from London to the source making use of the remaining sections of towpath. This was eventually published in 1985 and government approval for the Thames Path was given in 1989. The route was officially opened, following the creation of 16 miles of new riverside path and three bridges, in 1996.
The 180 mile Thames Path from London to Gloucestershire is the only long distance route to follow a river throughout its length from tidal waters and also the only one to pass through London and major towns. As much as 90% of the Path is public footpath or bridleway.
The birth of a riverside path in London coincides with a realisation that the capital’s waterway offers great opportunities both on and off the water. In the 1980s it looked as if the Thames might become merely a highway for barges taking London’s rubbish downstream to Rainham or Mucking Marshes. However by 1986 the Pool of London had as many as 36 cruiseliners and naval vessels passing under Tower Bridge in a year. Now piers have been built for a riverbus service.
As many as 44 different bird species have been recorded at the Thames Barrier where the national trail starts. The tidal-Thames, fishless at the start of the 20th century, is the cleanest metropolitan river in the world with an estuary supporting 115 species of fish and playing a part in supporting North Sea fish stocks. Salmon, extinct in Greater London since 1833 due to pollution, returned in the 1980s. Smelt, a cousin of the salmon which thrive in good water, congregate below Gravesend in winter and in spring come upstream in shoals to spawn at Wandsworth. Eels pass through central London in early summer. London now has an increasing number of swans although only a few years ago they were so scarce that the annual swan count was abandoned.
Long before the Thames turns non-tidal near the Greater London boundary the river becomes a green corridor running out of the capital. The upper reaches are varied. The water can be a busier highway at Maidenhead and Henley than in London. Elsewhere, especially above Oxford, water and towpath can be both beautiful and lonely. Here accommodation and transport needs to be carefully planned.
In the Home Counties and even in far off Wiltshire there are reminders of London. Duchy of Lancaster territory is encountered around the Savoy and at Kempsford; Shelley knew the Thames from London to Lechlade and William Morris lived by the river both at Hammersmith and near the end of navigation at Kelmscot. Stone for St Paul’s came downstream from Oxfordshire.
The climax to the 180 mile walk is an empty field with an often dry spring. Fortunately there is a nearby hidden pub with strong Thames connections and the first convenient railway station since Oxford.
Peace and Danger
The Thames has many moods. In London it offers peace among the chaos but it can also be the Dangerous Thames with fast currents and cold water. At low tide the beach at Hammersmith can suck a human into the mud. One can easily be cut off by tides. London’s lifeboats are called out on average twice a day and Tower Bridge lifeboat has the has the highest number of call-outs in the UK. The non-tidal upper reaches also have deep waters and the tempting Duxford ford can often be too dangerous to cross. A drought can result in a slower water flow susceptible to freezing but still not safe to walk on.
On the rural stretches the new Countryside Code should always be followed:
* Be safe – plan ahead and follow any signs
* Leave gates and property as you find them
* Protect plants and animals, and take your litter home
* Keep dogs under close control
* Consider other people
Moorhens and voles are seen in quiet pools although they are at risk from the increase in mink which have no natural predator in Britain. Herons and cormorants are a familiar sight around Putney and even in Docklands. Ducks are found as far downstream as Blackfriars. Deer will be encountered and still there are many reaches where cattle are watered at the river’s natural bank.
In 1197 Richard I, who was short of money after the Crusades, sold the river conservancy to the Corporation of London which in 1857 reluctantly handed it over to the Thames Conservancy Board. In fact the City had for much of the time laid little claim to the non-tidal Thames which by 1757 was controlled by Thames Navigation Commissioners who built the towpath. Since 1909 the 96 mile tidal Thames from Teddington to the sea has been under the control of the Port of London Authority. In 1974 Thames Conservancy, controlling the non-tidal river as far as Cricklade, was succeeded by the Thames Water Authority which gave way in 1989 to the even more short-lived National Rivers Authority. The present Environment Agency was formed in 1995.
Thames Path Officer
The Countryside Agency’s Thames Path Officer is Jos Joslin who also looks after The Ridgeway which crosses the Thames at Goring. Her address is the National Trails Office, Countryside Service, Department of Leisure & Arts, Holton, Oxford OX33 1QQ (tel 01865 810224; fax 01865 810207; e-mail [email protected]). Flood information is available from the Environment Agency on 08459 881188.
Left and Right Banks
This Thames guide maintains tradition by referring to the left bank and right bank rather than the north and south bank. Banks can also be east and west. To check which is the left or right bank you should be looking downstream – or back towards London.
This guide includes a possible diversion at Culham to visit the attractive village of Sutton Courtenay on the Old Thames. However, London’s left bank alternative route, designated by the Countryside Commission as an afterthought, is not included as it is felt that long distance walkers will prefer the original right bank path which avoids traffic and affords a fine view of the City of London.
Each chapter includes a short accommodation list although returning to London each day by rail is easy as far as Oxford. The Thames Path National Trail Companion, issued by the National Trails Office, has addresses for bed & breakfast, camping and hostels.
Most of the Thames Path is easily accessible by public transport as indicated at the start of each section.
The following nine OS Explorer maps cover the entire Thames Path: 160 (Windsor), 161 (London South), 162 (Greenwich) 169 (Cirencester & Swindon), 168 (Stroud), 170 (Abingdon), 171 (Chiltern Hills West), 172 (Chiltern Hills East), 173 (London North) and 180 (Oxford). It should be noted that 171 (Chiltern Hills West) overlaps with 159 (Reading) which also shows the Thames between Shiplake and Pangbourne.
Walking the Thames Path can easily take three weeks if time is spent exploring in every town and village. Some will take years by undertaking the route in short weekend sections. The Thames Path in summer is different from the Thames Path in winter, autumn or spring. Having walked one way there is a temptation to walk back and see new views.