Hiking the Thames Path – England

The Thames path is a 294km hiking route that follows the Thames river from its source in the Cotswolds to the tidal barriers in east London. The walk takes around 11 days to complete and traverses picturesque farmland, historic towns and London itself. The most popular accommodation option is a mix of B&Bs and pubs along the route. The trail is relatively flat and well signposted; most people will find the overall distance and the large gaps between accommodations in the upper reaches the most significant hurdles.

Situation and history

Most of the modern trail was created using tow paths alongside canals built in the 1800s. The industrial revolution and the construction of modern river locks enabled barges carrying goods to traverse the countryside with relative ease. Tow paths were needed on the riverbanks to enable horses and bullocks to pull boats along the river.

The Thames river is steeped in history and the historic sites on its bank include numerous roman ear ruins, the university town of Oxford, Brunel’s famous brick bridge, Windsor castle, Hampton court and a plethora of historic sites in London itself.

People have literally written books on the subject. This one is worthwhile but unfortunately it is a hardcover and therefore quite clumsy to hike with: I never knew that about the River Thames

‘Three Men in a Boat’ is an entertaining account of traveling the river by skiff. Written in 1889 it is a remarkable tale because so little about the river has changed in the past century.

Trail notes

The trail starts in a meadow at an often dry spring. The grass can be thick so expect saturated footwear after even light rain. The infant river is crystal clear near its source and remains this way until it hits the first stretch of river controlled by locks.

The upper section of the trail follows the route of a now decommissioned canal that required constant pumping and maintenance during its short life. Most of the upper trail traverses sparsely populated countryside to the town of Lechlade-on-Thames where the trail enters flat meadows. Walk quietly and you may spot waterfowl such as grebes as well as the occasional wild deer.

In the mid-section the river widens and the trail passes through a number of larger towns such as Oxford, Henley-on-Thames and Reading.

After Maidenhead the trail becomes more industrial and almost a little ominous at times. With the increase in road bridges and other signs of civilisation also comes an increase in people using the river trail.

At Hampton Court, after the last of the big locks, the river becomes influenced by the tides and it is possible to shortcut sections of the river by using tourist or commuter boats.

The trail is fascinating as it weaves through London itself. The route is relatively well marked and, after passing the usual tourist sights between Westminster and London Bridge, weaves through east London. Walking under the Thames at Greenwich is a novelty however the final stretch to the Thames Barrier is a bit dire – plenty of razor wire fences and CCTV cameras.

Planning your trip

The trail is long so allow an adequate number of days or break your trip into manageable sections to be completed over a series of shorter breaks.

Access to public transport is relatively frequent but be mindful that transport in the upper reaches is limited. Do some planning in advance to consider possible exits.

The climate changes as you near the coast but the biggest variable will be the season, not your location on the trail.

Starting elevation: 110m
Finish elevation: 0m
Total descent: 110mm
Trail distance: 294km

Average gradient: flat

Trail grading

The trail is almost completely flat and consists of a mix of grass tracks, gravel paths and concrete footpaths. The largest hurdles are the occasional fence or set of stairs. Frequent coppices and woodlands offer respite from wind, sun or rain.

Gear

It is England so pack for possible rain. Most supplies can be bought en route so pack light.

Ordinary walking shoes would suffice for most of the trail and indeed you may feel slightly out of place wearing hiking boots in some sections. Woollen socks and a blister kit are still worthwhile.

Access to and from the hike

Trains access Kemble, only 3km from the source.

There are a number of towns serviced by trains along the route. This makes it easy to break the trip up into shorter campaigns over a number of weekends.

Navigation and facilities

Signage and good 3G coverage mean that only a basic map is necessary.

There are innumerable places to stop for meals along the route. Take some nuts or muesli bars to keep you going between pubs. Most accommodation will provide a hearty cooked breakfast.

Safety

The trail conditions are good so injuries are relatively unlikely. Nettles, blackberry, enthusiastic cattle and the occasional human are the only real hazards.

Flora and fauna

Expect to see a variety of birdlife and farm animals at close quarters. Deer and other wild animals may be spotted if you are lucky.

Other resources

The trail is a National Trail and therefore has government support. An excellent resource is the official website:

We used the official guide for the trail. The current version can be found here which is split into two sections:

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Our experience

We set off early from the Kemble train station in light rain. The source of the river was marked by a pile of rocks in an unassuming field. By the time we left the field our socks were soaked through and by mid-afternoon we had bad blisters despite our best efforts. The river itself was very pleasant on the first day. Great countryside!

We had pre-booked our accommodation for the week and were thus committed to a pretty tight itinerary demanding we complete the walk in 8 days, not the 14 recommended by the official website. Our plan turned out to be a bit too ambitious. There were surprisingly few public transport options that ran parallel to the river but fortunately some friends drove out to spend the night with us so we managed to short-cut two days of the walk. This gave our feet some time to recover. We had completed the section around Maidenhead on a previous daytrip and thus made relatively light work of the middle section of the trail.

At Hampton Court we hoped aboard a tourist boat heading for town. This enabled us to skip a few drab suburbs and also sections around Richmond Park that we had completed previously. East London was a real highlight around Docklands but the final section of the walk to the barrier was not particularly pleasant. It did feel great to see the tidal barriers!

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