The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
39. THAMES PATH
Cotswolds to Thames Barrier, England
Distance: 296 km
Time: 12-14 days
It began as little more than a drainage line in the Palaeocene epoch 58 million years ago. Some 500,000 years ago, long before there ever was a North Sea, it was a tributary of the Rhine when its course began to be altered and turned southwards by the Anglian Ice Sheet, helped along by overspill from ice-dammed lakes. Its signature stacked-terrace sediments - remnants of former flood plains - began to be laid down, providing our modern world with perhaps its finest window into the environment of the later Pleistocene era. Hippos, elephants and rhinoceros roamed its banks 125,000 years ago, when it flowed through what is now Trafalgar Square, and Ice Age fossils of mammals and plants have been found throughout this valley that has been a route for human movement for tens of thousands of years. When you walk alongside the River Thames on the Thames Path between its source in the Cotswolds and the magnificent Thames Barrier in east London, as you pass by its 45 locks, 58 islands, 134 bridges and 20 major tributaries, you are not just tracing a line along a riverbank. You are walking through a geological time tunnel that echoes the formation of England itself.
The 296-km (184-mile)-long Thames Path was first suggested in 1948, and was opened in 1996, and though it can be walked in either direction most prefer to begin at its source in the Cotswolds. It begins as a trickle in a field 107 m (356 ft) above sea level at a spring beneath an ageing ash tree, known as Thames Head, near the town of Kemble, where you will find an official marker. This site, however, is disputed, with the Ordnance Survey placing its true source at nearby Trewsbury Mead while others insist it begins at Seven Springs, a tiny hamlet south of Cheltenham. The marker, however, represents a logical enough starting point and as you proceed south you can clearly see the infant river’s footprint - a V-shaped dry, grassy gully that continues on till you reach Lyd Well, a Roman well and active spring that gushes water from its subterranean source and provides the river’s first noticeable body of surface water.
The first of an endless array of hamlets and villages you’ll encounter is Ewen, an old Saxon word meaning ‘source of a river’, where the Thames broadens to a couple of metres in width - though still shallow enough to cross on foot. When the river reaches Ashton Keynes, 11 km from the source, it divides into several streams with the main flow paralleling the High Road and strengthened thanks to the intervention of the Swill Brook tributary. In truth the Thames here is really a tributary of Swill Brook, which is much larger at this junction. But Swill Brook’s identity is swallowed up as its waters merge with its famous cousin.
The river continues through the myriad lakes of the Cotswold Water Park (man-made lakes mostly, thanks to the area’s history of gravel extraction) and skirts the National Nature Reserve of North Meadow before entering Cricklade, which was fortified by King Alfred to protect it against Viking incursions and is the only Wiltshire town on the river. It is here that the River Churn, yet another claimant to being the Thames’s source, joins the river. From Cricklade it is on to the town of Castle Eaton with its lovely ancient thoroughfare, The Street, and its 17th- to 19th-century buildings that you are encouraged to walk down as the Thames Path diverts at this point away from the river, through town, and on to the farmlands to the east before rejoining the river near the town of Kempsford. A bridleway takes you into Upper Inglesham, where you might want to take a taxi or bus to Inglesham rather than walk along a busy A361. Just be sure not to leave Inglesham without seeing the delightfully unaltered 11th-century Church of St John the Baptist with its atmospheric Jacobean boxed pews.
The Round House between Inglesham and Lechlade, originally built as accommodation for canal lock-keepers with their horses on the ground floor and the keepers above, is where the Thames and Severn Canal joins the river, and it is from here that the river becomes navigable. Lechlade was a bustling port in the early 1800s when in excess of a dozen 65-ton barges at a time carried salt (and cheese, bricks, meat, lead, animal skins, timber and flour) along what was known as the ‘Old Salt Way’ to the markets in Oxford and London. Walking into Lechlade you leave the river again after crossing the Ha’penny Bridge, a lovely old stone bridge. It is here where the rivers Leach and Coln enter the Thames, adding considerably to its depth, and widening it to over 16 m.
The next section from Lechlade to Newbridge, at just over 26 km, is the Thames Path’s longest slog. Here you’ll find 6 of the river’s 45 non-tidal locks including St John’s Lock - at 71.5 m (234 ft) above sea level, the river’s highest - and a succession of concrete pill boxes built as a line of defence against a German invasion that never came. This section is a lovely ramble through the open country that is the river’s flat flood plain. The horizons are wide here, with hedges and meadows grazed by sheep and cattle and Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve, an important habitat for ground-nesting birds, covering 250 hectares of wetland meadows in the Upper Thames Floodplain. On your way to Newbridge you’ll pass over the oldest bridge on the Thames - the Radcot Bridge built around the year 1200 and reconstructed after the Wars of the Roses - with its lovely pointed arches of Taynton stone.
The river broadens still further at Newbridge, yet despite the resultant increase in river traffic the path to Oxford remains pleasantly rural. Just make sure you take a diversion to the village of Kelmscott to see Kelmscott Manor, the summer home of William Morris, and his grave at Kelmscott Church. Soon the path again leaves the river, this time at the tiny hamlet of Bablock Hythe only 8 km west of Oxford. Skirting Wytham Woods to the city’s north the path goes under the city’s ring road, past the remains of Godstow Abbey (circa 1133) and through Port Meadow, that wonderful expanse of common land grazing pastures still populated largely by horses and cattle that hasn’t been ploughed in thousands of years.
The path to Abingdon, an attractive market town with the remains of its wonderful 7th-century Benedictine abbey, is where the River Ock enters the Thames. Crossing to the river’s southern bank on the Abingdon Bridge you then make a series of twists and turns alongside an increasingly meandering river and arrive in Clifton Hampton with its wealth of thatched Elizabethan cottages, and Wallingford, which in the days prior to bridges offered the most convenient fording point on the river north of London. Then it’s on to the Goring Gap, a narrow route through the chalk of the Chiltern Hills cut by the river during the last Ice Age which constricts the otherwise broad valley and its river and draws them in like the eye of a needle. The tranquillity of the Goring Gap soon gives way to the city of Reading (although the path keeps to the less urbanised north of the city), and from there it’s on to Sonning with its lovely hump-backed bridge, and Henley-on-Thames, site of the Royal Regatta.
Numerous villages and points of interest here include Bisham, recorded in Domesday Book with its All Saints Parish Church and altar that is so close to the river that floodwaters have been known to lap at its base; Marlow, a Georgian town with its graceful 19th-century suspension bridge and the wooded slopes of Winter Hill on the opposite bank providing one of the path’s most picturesque backdrops; and the watery expanse of Cock Marsh, 46 acres of water meadows near Cookham that has been common land since 1272. Between Cookham and Boulter’s Lock, just out of sight behind a rising hillside of beech, lies the grandeur of Cliveden House, which has played host to almost every British monarch since George I. Now one of the world’s finest hotels it costs nothing to leave the path and take a leisurely stroll through its immaculate gardens.
Windsor is next, which means not only a stop at Windsor Castle but a lovely walk through the castle’s Home Park, the beginnings of which date to the 1600s. By now green space is becoming harder to find on the Thames Path, although the grasslands and meadows of Runnymede and the Home Park of Hampton Court Palace will make one want to linger. At Teddington the river becomes tidal and it is here, the site of the river’s longest lock, where you’ve a choice of which riverbank to follow; or you can even criss-cross it using one of the increasingly frequent bridges as you make your way to Putney. The south bank will take you through Petersham Meadows, the Old Deer Park in Richmond and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; the north bank offers Marble Hill Park and Dukes Meadows.
The heart of London is now before you, and the choices continue: the promenades at Wandsworth and Battersea Park on the south bank; or Hurlingham Park, Westminster and the Houses of Parliament on the north bank. Greenwich soon beckons, and from there to the O2 Centre - past working wharves, dilapidated piers and the Millennium Dome - where the iconic gleaming hoods of the Thames Barrier, the finish line, appear.
To walk the Thames Path is to come to an understanding of what it means to be English. Its waters gave birth to London, and to the rural landscapes of thatched cottages, hedges and village greens that stretch from the Cotswolds to the city. Runnymede, Greenwich, Hampton Court, Windsor, Oxford, Eton, the Tower, Westminster Abbey. Is it any wonder it has been labelled a ‘museum of Englishness’?