Walking the Thames Path
The Thames is liquid history
– John Elliot Burns (1858 - 1943) English trade unionist and politician
Not many people realise that there are beaches along the River Thames in Central London. Just small ones, but enough to be described as beaches. During the 18th century there were some popular bathing spots there too, such as by Tower Bridge which allowed family swimming until the early 1970s. And men were allowed to swim naked in the Thames within sight of Westminster up until 1815, when it was stopped for sanitary reasons.
Today it is one of the cleanest metropolitan rivers in the world, although most people wouldn’t choose to swim in it. What a lot of people want to do instead, however, is walk it. And with a national trail that runs the length of it, the Thames Path is one of England’s most magnificent long distance walking routes. Packed with history, and indeed swimming spots, at every turn.
The route of the Thames PathThe source of the Thames is in a meadow in Gloucestershire, known aptly as Thames Head, the nearest town being Kemble. Tailor made walking vacations take on the walking trail in either direction, depending on whether you want to start with the lights of the big city at the mouth of the Thames or complete your trip with great riverfront sights such as the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, St Paul’s Cathedral or Tower Bridge. Some experts recommend walking west to east, finishing in London, as the prevailing wind is from the south west, so you won’t be walking with the wind in your face.
Starting at the source, the river bed may actually be dry around Thames Head and the valley less pronounced but it widens out as you go along, taking you through small villages in the Cotswolds and Chilterns, historic towns such as Windsor and the ancient city of Oxford. Every day is different on the Thames Path. On a walking vacation, your expert tour operator will divide the route up into segments for you, book lovely beds for you to fall into at the end of the day and also recommend good eateries along the way – this is the most stress free way to follow the path.
The map below shows the usual daily segments that await on each day of your walking vacation on the Thames Path. As well as covering the entire route, organised vacations give you the option of walking one of two shorter segments: between the source and Oxford, and between Windsor and London.
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The Thames Path highlights
The first town you pass through when walking from the Thames source is Cricklade, which is a typical Cotswolds Town with historic buildings made of pale Cotswolds limestone. The name ‘Cotswolds’ refers to a region of gently rolling hills where the highest elevation is 330m. It is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is a landscape full of history, where villages and small towns developed along the river, catering, in the main, for a wealth of sheep farmers. These include the market town of Lechlade-on-Thames, which has two bridges crossing the river. One of these is Halfpenny Bridge, so named because of the toll that was charged to cross it after it was built in 1792. Or Newbridge, which is now part of the larger and most lovely ‘wool’ market town of Whitney, and which has a beautiful, not-so-new, 13th-century bridge over the Thames, one of the oldest over the river. It has a pub on each end of the bridge, so good news all round.
The Chiltern HillsBetter known as The Chilterns, this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is a chalk escarpment that dominates the Thames Path at Goring and Marlow. It is a landscape of ancient beech woods which are particularly appealing in spring, as they are bursting with bluebells. The amount of woodland meant that this region was also celebrated for its woodcraft and furniture making for over 200 years. The architecture that you will see in some of the traditional towns or villages in the Chilterns reflects the landscape, with flint and timber common materials, the former being a feature of the chalk hills. So, keep an eye out for buildings with flint-speckled walls or black weatherboarded barns with massive timber doors along the way.
Another thing to keep an eye out for in the Chilterns is the magnificent red kite, with over 600 breeding pairs in the area. The story of the Chilterns’ red kites is considered by many to be one of the UK’s greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century.
Thamesian townsOne of the most fascinating aspects of the Thames Path is that you can be walking through wildflower filled meadows one minute and past a great castle, palace or cathedral the next. The urban spots along the Thames Path are most certainly far from benign. Windsor is, of course, a royal town. Its castle is one of several official royal residences and it is one of the largest and oldest occupied castles in the world. Oxford, the famous University City with colleges dating back to the 12th century, has the Thames at its heart, with punters, college riverside gardens and ancient bathing spots all part of the traditional Oxonian scene. And the great Hampton Court Palace takes pride of place on the Thames, just outside London.
Reading is perhaps less beautiful than some of the Thames’ other urban spots, but it does have a fascinating history as the region’s leading manufacturing town. Either side of Reading are two beautiful small towns on the river: Goring and Marlow, both in the Chiltern Hills. The former, more a village, dates back to Roman times, has a stunning bridge over the river, a magnificent lock and 26 listed buildings. Its 11th century Church of St Thomas of Canterbury is beautiful, as is the Catherine Wheel pub which dates back to Elizabethan times.
If you plan your walk on the Thames Path well in advance, you may want to book into one of the most famous eateries along the way. The Hand and Flowers in the stunning Georgian town of Marlow is the only pub in the UK to have been awarded two Michelin stars, but you need to book months in advance. There are lots of other eateries and pubs in Marlow of course, or another option is just picnic on the river in Higginson Park. Stroll along the river to take in the town’s most famous landmark: the suspension bridge spanning the Thames, built in 1832.
The Big Smoke
The twisting turns of the Thames Path finally bring you into the London itself, stopping at some sublime spots on the outskirts. These include the Richmond, where the Royal Park is a must visit, as is the viewpoint over the Thames from Richmond Hill made famous by the painter JMW Turner. This view has, in fact, been protected by law, and is the only view in Britain to have been granted protection in this way, and is well worth the diversion from the river path. Another royal spot of note along the way is Greenwich, close to the end of the Thames Path (or beginning, depending on your direction), where views of the Thames can be taken in from the top of Royal Greenwich Park.
How long does it take to walk the Thames Path?If you decide to take on the Thames Path in one go, your tour operator will plan an itinerary over two weeks for you, walking between 18-26km each day. Another popular way is to divide it into two separate vacations, doing one section on each. One option for this is walking from the Thames source to Oxford over six days, and another is to walk the Windsor to London section, also spreading that over six days. Thames Path walking vacations are tailor made, so your tour operator will help you work out the best route to suit your time frame and budget.
Accommodation on the Thames PathThames Path walking vacation specialists know all the best places to stay along the way, and will organise for your luggage to be transferred from one to the next so that all you have to do is walk and chill out. The accommodations chosen will be as close to the river as possible, and also be high quality yet small and locally owned, with a responsible tourism policy when possible.
So, can you swim in The Thames?
There are of course some beautiful spots along the Thames Path where swimming is most definitely possible. Although caution should be taken at all times, as with all river swimming. We recommend the book “Downstream: A history and celebration of swimming the River Thames”, by Caitlin Davies (Aurum Press) to give you some good ideas, and encourage you to pack your swimsuit in your daypack. The website Outdoor Swimming Society is another font of knowledge on wild swimming throughout the UK.
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