I had the desire to walk the Thames path from long before I chose to start. I had delayed looking for a friend that wanted to walk it with me but even if I found someone who wanted to spend that many days lugging a rucksack we would never agree on a date, and it would be put off into the endless to do one day list.
At the time I decided to go and do it alone I was in a rather big rut in life: I was in the long fall out from what I was only beginning to recognise had been an emotional abusive long-term relationship, I had been made redundant from a job that I had completed four years of post-graduate qualifications for while working and I had been asked to leave what I considered as my home at the time I least needed it by someone I thought a friend at the same time. So I was back living with my parents, short-term contracting for work which made even obtaining a tenancy difficult and at a very low point in my estimations of self-worth or self-belief. The fact that I had decided to start was a big step forward from being a rabbit in the headlights and not knowing what to do at all times. Also in choosing to spend that long in my own company and choosing to do something purely because I wanted to rather than for anyone else or anyone else’s expectation (whether the expectation was perceived or real) were also big steps.
There are a number of long-distance walks that I would like to do in the U.K. but I selected the Thames path on the basis of I could only take one week off work, so nine days with both weekends. All the guides I found recommended 11 days and I would need to average just over 20 miles a day while carrying whatever I was taking with me if I was going to complete it, however, I was working on the basis I would be walking towards London therefore if I wasn’t going to get to the finish I could just get the train home and come back to finish it another weekend. The accessibility of public transport was also a big comfort blanket for my mind- if it all went wrong, I could just get on a train and come home rather than being stuck in the middle of the Scottish highlands. Finally, surely navigation will be minimal, just follow the river what could go wrong?
Finally, I planned to wild camp along the way (if you do choose to plan a similar adventure wild camping is technically illegal in England except in parts of Dartmoor as you should be completing the nigh on impossible task of locating the landowner and asking their permission. This is different in Scotland where it is legal. I worked on the theory that the worst that could happen is I could be asked to move and I never encountered any problems in the eight nights on route). I did get concerned about the last nights closer to London but the closest campsite I could find was still about 50 miles from the end, but I didn’t work that out until later. While this meant that I had the additional weight of carrying camping gear, but it would reduce costs and meant that I didn’t have to walk a pre-set distance each day to get between booked accommodation.
With a train ticket booked to Kemble in the Cotswolds as the closest station to the source, a campsite booked for eight night’s time that was too far from the end to finish, some sachets of emergency couscous, a second-hand guidebook and a very loose plan I was off.
Day 1: I spent the train journey in near meltdown panic at my absolutely ridiculous plan and all the what if’s and the possibilities of failure (I’m not sure what there was to fail at this was meant to be a fun holiday, and no one was making me do anything I didn’t want to do), fears of being eaten by rabid squirrels alone in my tent at night or all the crazy axe murders that must lurk near the river crowding my mind. I seriously considered getting straight back on a train home when I arrived at Kemble. I think the only thing that actually kept me going at this point in time was the fact that some work colleagues had pronounced me weird for my intended holiday and that I wouldn’t do it. Obviously, their choice of a holiday is sitting on a beach not moving for a week.
Leaving Kemble station is a short walk to join the path (no water) and then a short walk apparently upstream (still no water) to the source (definitely no water). I found myself in a field, with a small stone and a big tree to denote the start, not quite as grand as I was expecting with no water gushing from the ground and a magical moment of beginning. So only 184 miles to go, already lunchtime on day one I had better get moving. I quickly found a man taking a photograph of a footbridge (no water underneath it, the Thames definitely had some growing to do) who informed me that he was trying to photograph every bridge on the Thames but also that due to water extraction causing the drop in the water table over the years you never got water as far up as the source even when the river was in flood. He was the first of so many people I was using the river in so many different ways for their own recreation.
So off I set, in the sunshine feeling rather happy with myself that I was here even if I didn’t seem to have found a river there were signposts to tell me it should be there and the occasional muddy ditch.
I was merrily wandering through a field when I realised that I wasn’t on the path anymore. All the good feelings I had been having quickly vanished and the negative voices from the train rushed back in- all I had to do was follow the river, and I couldn’t even do that. There would have been no point telling me that there was no discernible river at that point in time. Forcing myself to think rationally I had the choice of walking back the way I had come until I found the path or walking forward towards the road which I could see and the map suggested I would have to cross anyway and then working out if I needed to go left or right to return to the route. I chose to keep walking forward to the road and in doing so felt an instant relief, even if it was the wrong decision it felt better than the indecision I had been facing. That is something I have always tried to remember from this trip with life in general that I feel a lot better having made a decision rather than wavering undecided.
It turned out to be the right decision, and I had only ever been a couple of hundred meters from where I should have been and was left feeling a bit sheepish at my complete panic I had felt moments earlier.
Through the lakes, nature reserves and small villages in pale stone of the Cotswolds I came to Castle Eaton where I stopped in a pub for dinner. From here I walked a couple of miles out of the village to find somewhere for my tent for the night. The first night there was a lot of reservation about finding the ‘perfect’ camping spot where I couldn’t possibly be found, this reservation would quickly be lost over the coming nights until it dwindled down to ‘well there is enough space for the tent’. The first night, however, it got to the point of I’ll have to stop here as I will be in the next village soon and there definitely won’t be somewhere there. I later worked out I’d done about 17 miles in the right direction that day, not bad for someone who started at lunchtime.
Day 2: I started to get a more definite river visible particularly when you get to Lechlade, and it is then considered ‘navigable’ by boats. I found it a lot more enjoyable at this point as there was always something going on with the river and it became ever changing, and I could watch the river grow. There was definitely a sleepy Sunday small village feel to every place I passed through during the day.
I was happily walking along the river just after a village, and there were quite a few other people out for a Sunday afternoon stroll when an older lady started loudly exclaiming to her companions that as a woman I shouldn’t be out walking by myself. Now this is someone who didn’t even know what I was doing (the whole wild camping at night part etc.) but if as a female I can’t safely walk on well-used footpaths close to a village on a Sunday afternoon that suggests that there is a far greater problem with society and men than I had previously considered. I found myself getting angry at the woman for her narrow-minded view and then started to feel sorry for her that she had lived her whole life believing that she couldn’t go out by herself.
By the evening I had reached Newbridge where I stopped at a pub for dinner, where not having had a drink of alcohol for six months I decided to have two pints of cider. After an enjoyable meal right beside the Thames I somehow managed to lose the path walk backwards and forwards up a road getting photos of a lovely sunset trying to find the path, got brambles wrapped around my legs and fell over and then set up the tent with considerably less concern to its location compared to the previous day. The power of cider.
Day 3: I woke up to a misty morning to find that in my tipsy state I had put the tent up almost on the path itself. Pack the tent and get moving. I managed to persuade one of the lock masters to let me use the showers in the lock that they have got boaters; it was a good feeling to be clean. There are campsites at a number of locks which can be booked in advance.
Today I also came to Oxford. It was the summer holidays, and on the outskirts of Oxford, the river was being used by hundreds of children for swimming and play. I also met a group of friends that were walking the Thames path as a series of day trips, having started from London where they live over the last year as an excuse to get together and get out walking. There was also a large group of open water swimmers on a led trip down the Thames, and Oxford Canoe club was out in force practicing on the water. By the end of the day, my legs ached, and my shoulders ached from carrying the rucksack. What I generally find doing multi-day trips is that day 3 and 4 are the days you will get muscle ache, and after that, your body gets more use to the repeated use in that way. I had found I had averaged the 20 miles the last two days, but there was still a lot of miles and days to go and a slightly short day one due to the train journey there to make up somehow if I was going to finish it in one trip.
Day 4: I met a retired man who was walking a number of long-distance walks in stages. He was walking for 3 or 4 days on the Thames path and then he needed to go home as his wife had an engagement for them, but he was hoping to be back later in the year to do a couple more days/when his wife had enough of him being the house and sent him away for a few days. He seemed to have a lot of gadgets including a GPS system to locate himself which I’m sure may have been more useful on some of the other walks he described rather than the well-signposted path.
It was also the first day I met a woman who route marched passed me with a day sack on the first time I saw her ignoring my hello and then stopped about 50 meters ahead for a drink and then decided to talk to me- she was being dropped off by her husband at the start of each day and then being collected and taken back to their holiday cottage at the end of the day. She announced that she was walking faster than me and had only started five days ago and pressed me for when I had started. When I said, I was on my fourth day she announced ‘Oh, well you’ll be walking more hours in a day than me’ and route marched off. People- they’re all mental.
Day 5: There were a couple of sections earlier on in the day where the path doesn’t follow the river directly, and one of those was a definite uphill near Pangbourne. The sides of the river had become steeply banked around here and tree lined. Later in the day, I came to Reading. I know some of the Thames from below Reading better than above through other adventures although I haven’t seen that much of it in summer with green on the trees. The first lock below Reading is Sonning, and there was a lovely café with art for sale, bunting on the lock island and some lovely homemade cake.
I had been contemplating that it had been a couple of days since my shower at the lock and thinking about where to get my next one while walking next to a whole load of water in the river. I then thought about how I go swimming in lakes and rivers anyway and decided I was going to have a dip. I don’t think the teenage boy on a boat expected to see a woman in her underwear swimming around in the river, well he certainly looked rather surprised.
There was a campsite on an island just before Lower Shiplake that I would like to go back and explore some time, large pre-erected tents for groups with bunting, lights and the like. I had dinner in a pub in Lower Shiplake, very nice pie and they charged my phone for me for emergencies and got chatting with the locals so all very friendly.
I walked out of the village back to the river where there were fields and brambles between the field and river. There were what I would assume fishermen’s footpaths through the brambles to the river’s edge where there was enough space for my tent right by the water for the night.
Day 6: I got woken in the morning to the sound of three open water swimmers who were out for a pre-work Thames swim and having a chat before they turned to go home. Up and walking to Henley and I got to watch the rowers on Henley Reach which is a mile long straight section of the Thames where there seem to be multiple rowing clubs out practising, and the area around the river opens up into flat fields.
I did a small detour in Marlow to find a sandwich for lunch and pick up some cards to post for occasions that were happening for family and friends and needed posting and got to sit in the park by the river eating and writing the cards before setting off again. Below the lock after Marlow there were canoes, kayaks and sailing boats out from Longridge outdoor centre with lots of children looking like they were having lots of fun, well they were certainly making a noise like they were.
At Cookham, the river splits into brooks, weir streams and a lock cut and the path takes a small detour away from the water’s edge to avoid the four or five channels that are here. When you join the edge of the river again the far bank is a very steep cut all the way into Maidenhead which contrasted to the open fields. There were, even more, rowers out on the water for the evening in Maidenhead and I stopped at one of the hotels by the river for dinner. Beyond Maidenhead, there is a strip of trees between the path and river, and I camped in these for the night.
Day 7: I woke up to even more rowers who seemed to be out for a pre-work paddle. The path then skirts the Olympic park at Dorney where the Olympic rowing and flat water kayaking took place and passes the new footbridge that was constructed to provide access for the 2012 Olympics before entering Eton and crossing the bridge into Windsor.
I went through Windsor and large amounts of tourists already while being early in the day and got to wave at the castle, I am sure the Queen waved back. The grounds around the castle seemed to go on for a long time while following the river. I then found myself walking through meadows where there was a couple who were going down the banks trying to count water voles. Apparently, the water vole population in that area had been decimated in the London floods the previous winter, and they hadn’t found any indications that they had returned to that area yet. They were, therefore, volunteering their free time to a charity to try and monitor voles and protect biodiversity.
For someone who had previously considered Windsor to be ‘London’ and therefore built up there was a lot of green and open areas during this day and I also went passed the commercial campsite I had originally thought I could use for the last night but was actually about 50 miles from the end and therefore not of much use for my plan. Memo to self: learn to look at distances when planning future trips.
In Shepperton, I stopped at a pub for dinner just before the foot ferry across to the south side of the river otherwise there would be a long loop around Desborough Island. Here I got talking to a local group of friends and their friendly dog, and they were telling me that this whole area had been under water in the London floods the previous winter. It then started to rain for the first time on this trip, so I decided to stay and have pudding. By this time it was dark, the heavens had opened, and the ferry had shut. One of the people I had been talking to then gave me a lift around the corner to a park by the river with some thick trees for me to hide and camp in without having to take the long route around Desborough Island.
Day 8: I woke up and the rain from the previous night had cleared. By now my feet hurt. The rest of me felt fine but my feet hurt and I was walking shorter distances between the points where I was stopping for a rest. Having considered Windsor yesterday as ‘London’ I thought that today would definitely be built up and spent a lot of the day mulling over where I was going to sleep that night and where I should book to stay.
I went passed Hampton Court Palace and spent some time with the other tourists staring through the gates which lead directly down to the river and gives you a lot of big metal railings to walk along with views to big gardens of lawns. Over the bridge and into the sprawl of Kingston which was busy with shoppers.
From Richmond/Teddington lock there is the option of two walks, one on the north side of the Thames and one on the South. Due to the fact that the Thames meanders considerably and that the path can’t always stay directly on the bank of the river means that there are differences in distances between the two options. I opted to stay on the south bank for the day because it seemed to have fewer detours away from the river, there was a large area of green trees around here on the map for the south bank, and I will be honest it was shorter in the distance which my feet now approved of. Also below Teddington Lock is where the Thames becomes tidal, this means that there are considerable changes in the water level and the view throughout the day.
The South Bank takes you passed Kew Gardens which I decided I would have to come back and explore when I wasn’t carrying a rucksack and had been sleeping in bushes for the last week. Dinner in a pub by the river left something to be desired, and I still hadn’t made my choices about where I was going to sleep for the night- did I need to walk away from the river to try and find accommodation as it was getting dark and the rain was threatening. The footpath was lined with trees along the bank, and in the end, I put the tent in the bushes next to the river and path across the river from Fulham football ground where some sort of music event seemed to be taking place. I had certainly left my concerns about trying to find the perfect camping spot from the first night behind.
Day 9: Tropical storm Bertha, who certainly didn’t feel very tropical when you were out in her, hit this day. I was wandering through the streets of London completely soaked. I walked through Wandsworth Park early on in the day which I have never been to before but a huge pagoda and looked like it could be nice on a sunny day.
The path doesn’t always stay directly on the river bank particularly by this time due to buildings that were there long before the path was thought of although it did remain well signposted throughout. After a long detour from the river’s edge near Chelsea Bridge, I was feeling a bit miserable and soggy when I first thought of a Boris Bike. I kept walking a few more miles pondering this thought, part of my brain was telling me it was ‘cheating’ but the other part was telling me it was my adventure I could do it, however, I wanted to. Near the millennium wheel the second part of my brain won out, and I was off on a Boris bike towards the Thames Barrier and away from the tourists buying Union Jack brollies from the street vendors. I went passed the Globe theatre, a burnt out Cutty Sark, the Tower of London was on the other bank and got a bit confused with a footpath closure around the Millennium Dome (being someone who normally avoids London at all costs this was all very exciting and new) before finally reaching the Thames Barrier where the path ends. By now the river is a huge mass of moving water, so far from the field where it started. It was time to just sit and watch the river for a while and think about the journey.
I then discovered that you couldn’t return a Boris bike out here and aimed back towards the centre of London and off to public transport stinking to high heaven. I think people were avoiding me on the train either based purely on my smell alone or for been mistaken for a homeless person. It was one good shower and glass of wine when I got home.
The afterthoughts: It had been a journey for both my body but for my mind as well with a definite rollercoaster of emotions throughout with the fears and the anxiety, the down moments when parts of my body physically hurt but the elation in achieving what I set out to do. Also in finding joy again in the everyday, a beautiful sunset, an ancient church in the middle of nowhere, watching Red Kites riding the thermals, seeing the river grow and change, spotting flowers in the meadows and heaths, meeting people getting out and doing ‘their thing’ whatever that may be in the same space, finding out what my body could do, realising I could carry everything I actually needed on my back, all feeling so near and yet so far from my everyday life. There had been no one else to rely on, but myself and I had done what I set out to do.
Most of us are lucky enough to have been able to walk since we were very small and yet we see so little of our own country rushing about at speed in cars and complain about walking from the car park to where we want to be. There are so many ways of doing long distance walks: the whole route at once, weekend trips or day trips; staying in hotels, B and B’s, camping or wild camping and on well-established routes there are companies that will transport your bags each day for you that the biggest limitations are the time you have to do the trip in and the financial resources you can put towards it. Fitness can be gained on the trip, and a lower level of fitness may mean that you need to allow yourself more time for the trip rather than preventing you from doing it. The biggest step is making the decision to start.