Return to the River Thames

By Mark Wright

Having walked the 59 mile central section of the Thames Path from Oxford to Marlow last summer, my daughter Ebony and I had no hesitation in returning this year to continue our journey. Our plan this time was to walk the eastern section, a 44 mile stretch from Marlow to Richmond, as well as an additional day to Westminster, covering the first 14 miles of the London section of the trail.

As always with these things, Ebony’s priorities lay with food. Long before the matter of how far we’d be walking each day, or indeed where exactly we’d be walking, along came the question, “What’s the food situation looking like dad, anything good?”

So, since I mention it, let’s get it out of the way. The food was delicious, and as you’d expect when visiting vibrant towns such as Marlow, Windsor and Richmond, there was an abundance of choice. Everything we ate was hugely enjoyable. From the British Gastro Pub, and the Italian restaurant, to the Argentinian tapas, and even the simple noodle bar at Westminster where our host was the kindest of men, we were suitably impressed. As for breakfast, can a girl really wake each morning for an entire week and still be excited about the prospect of yet more pancakes, syrup and fresh berries? Well, you have it on good authority from me, she absolutely can!

Before we move onto the walk itself, a little bit of background for readers who perhaps didn’t follow our journey last year? Both Ebony and I much prefer rural landscapes to mountain views, and we’re certainly happier strolling along gravel paths than we are struggling up hillsides. We’ll do it if we’re asked, and I’ve walked all of the 214 Wainwright fells, but it’s always with some degree of reluctance these days. Thankfully, alongside more challenging routes such as the West Highland Way, Pennine Way and Ireland’s Kerry Way, Mickledore offer a number of routes that I would best describe as country walking, my favourite kind of walking, and the Thames Path is a prime example of that.

The walking on the Thames Path is easy. Your only real consideration is how far you’d like to walk each day. We have two itineraries on the eastern section of the trail, one averaging just 9 miles a day and the other 14. We chose the latter, which with hindsight was a mistake, but more on that later.

Ebony and I share a genuine love of walking. The physical process of walking. We’ve always walked. Walked and talked really. Walking does that doesn’t it, It gives you the time to think things through, to talk things over. From the parks of Melrose during Ebony’s formative years in Scotland to the canalside in Leeds, Ebony’s new home, we’ve always laced up our boots and gone for a walk. So I suppose it’s inevitable we’ve gravitated to the Thames Path for these annual trips. A place of immense beauty, a place that encourages conversation. It never really imposes itself upon you, the Thames Path, it’s more subtle than that, it never creates obstacles either, it simply invites you to walk along whilst serving up an ever changing tapestry of delights … boats, bridges, a tremendous amount of trees, beautiful homes, and a host of pretty towns and villages as well as a varied display of wildlife and wildflowers.

Don’t be fooled into thinking the location of this type of leisurely stroll is inconsequential, it’s anything but, this is the ideal setting to stride out. It stimulates the senses, it recharges and rejuvenates.

With the going being so easy, the trail incredibly well sign posted, and the ground beneath your feet relatively free from obstacle, the walking soon becomes secondary, you switch off to the effort involved and it simply becomes an exercise in sightseeing. These sights in turn become the subject of conversation, “Would you like to live in a house like that? or “Does life on a narrow boat appeal?” A pair of red kites circling overhead prompted, “Do you have a favourite bird?” followed by, “Is that wheat or barley, how do you tell?”

We found every half hour or so there was a new topic of conversation. Some were concluded, others weren’t. Passing the delightful St Mary Magdalene’s Church near Eton College the conversation turned briefly to politics. I remained on the centre of the path with Ebony to my left, but not so far left as to be left behind. We disagreed agreeably for a while before moving on to more important matters … our evening meal.

With the hugely enjoyable Oxford to Marlow beneath our belts last year, it would be easy to say Marlow to, well certainly Richmond, is really more of the same, after all, there’s a river, a path, which for the most part is gravel or clay, and some trees, rather a lot of trees in fact, nicely bookended each day by a beautiful town, but the thing is, the Thames Path very rarely remains the same. I’m sure I must have said last year that not only were no two days the same, but each individual day was filled with variety, and this year was no different. Does that make it the same I wonder? I suppose it does, but not in a repetitive way.

The river itself is wide in places while narrow in others, and narrow much more often than I was prepared for. Edging our way east I think I was expecting the river to grow increasingly wider and become less accessible, but it just wasn’t the case, there were remarkable contrasts as it continued to twist and turn its way through the Berkshire and Surrey countryside. The change would come later, in London.

As for now, one minute you’d be walking along the back of a modestly sized property with its lovely flower filled garden, swapping tales with some friendly gent replacing his strimmer cable, never an easy task, the next you’d be gazing over the river at some vast grand design, the cost of which who knows.

As with the central section of the trail, trees are a constant on the eastern stretch too. Mile upon mile of the trail is tree lined. So much so in fact that you forget that there are often towns, sometimes with industrial areas, just a stone’s throw away. The guard of trees shelter you from such things. Despite the knowledge we were passing by the fringes of one of the larger towns, Ebony likened our surroundings to that of walking the lakeshore around Derwentwater, and she was right to do so.

Although admittedly more urban than last year’s Oxford to Marlow stretch of the trail there are still some lovely remote sections of river passing through peaceful, quiet farmland. There are a number of lovely parks too, most notably Hampton Court Park, the Old Deer Park at Richmond, and Battersea Park, which was both lovely and lively. I began to miss my bike. Petersham Meadows on the approach to Richmond was a highlight of the walk as was Runnymede Meadows, famed for the signing of the Magna Carta.

The more urban areas of the path didn’t in any way detract from the enjoyment of the trail. I would go so far as to say they at times enhanced it. The rowing clubs and the marinas all brought added interest to the day. Often we’d break from the trail to take a look around. Maidenhead, Kingston and Hammersmith each received a little lunchtime exploration.

We were lucky to stay in some really attractive towns. Marlow we were of course familiar with from last year and were thrilled to be revisiting. New for this year Windsor, Weybridge and Richmond were all delightful. Westminster too was thoroughly enjoyable albeit with an altogether different feel to the others. Arriving into the towns each evening had a sort of celebratory feel to it. First stop, a thirst quenching drink in a beer garden ahead of freshening up for the evening and out for that all important food. Each evening would end with a walk through town. Yes, more walking. Soaking up the sights and sounds of these lovely locations. The downside of all this enjoyment, if there could be such a thing, is that we didn’t spend enough time at our accommodation, which is a shame as they were really quite special. Perhaps if we’d chosen shorter days, or hadn’t detoured quite so much or hadn’t had that final evening walk through town we’d have had more time to relax in our luxurious rooms, but as I said earlier, we do love to walk!

The Thames Path is very popular, although with the exception of one couple we didn’t really see what we’d recognise as people walking the Thames Path trail. I suppose of course, you’d have to either overtake, or be overtaken by, fellow long distance walkers to properly make an accurate assessment in terms of numbers walking the trail. What is clear however, is the path is well used by its locals. We saw a great many people sharing the path and with such consideration for their fellow users, including walkers, with and without dogs, runners, cyclists in places, and testament to the servicing of the path, individuals using mobility aids. We thoroughly enjoyed the interactions we had with all those using the path.

And so, for a second time, the Thames Path has afforded us an incredibly enjoyable week of walking. A week of telling stories, enjoying delicious food, visiting beautiful towns and staying in fabulous accommodation. Another week of appreciating stunning views and immersing ourselves in an enriching environment. Furthermore, in the end, our bodies and minds are far fitter and happier for the experience.

If Mark and Ebony have inspired you to walk some of, or perhaps all of, the Thames Path, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’d be delighted to answer any questions you may have. You can  email us [email protected] or call 017687 72335. If you haven’t already done so, why not take a little time to read about last year’s walk where Mark and Ebony walked from Oxford to Marlow.