Happy Birthday Thames Path!

Walk the trail with Load Off Your Back

Walk beside water and there’s always something to catch your attention. Ducks dabbling.   Herons fishing. The odd small boat perhaps. A fisherman or two. Walk beside the Thames and the potential for activity cranks up a few notches. Walk the Thames through central London, however, and it’s off the scale.

Busy river at Tower BridgeI love my country rambles, a chance to see nature at close quarters and catch up with a friend whilst we get fit for free. So the idea of walking 10 miles on level tarmac through the heart of our capital city was certainly different. But my friend and I both love historic sites, iconic buildings, and new discoveries, so the Thames Path through London ticked all our boxes for a winter walk without mud or slippery slopes.

St Paul's Cathedral and Millennium BridgeAnd what started as a day’s ramble from Blackfriars to North Greenwich has sown the seeds for a far more ambitious hike to discover more of the Thames Path trail, which this year celebrates its 20th birthday.  

Britain has some outstanding National Trails but the Thames Path is the only one that  hugs a river bank for almost its entire length. The trail starts in Gloucester and winds its way through quiet countryside towards Oxford, before swinging south towards Pangbourne and Marlow, Windsor and Battersea, finishing up at the Thames Barrier – a distance of just over 180 miles.  

But first things first. Living on a commuter line into London, we set out to tackle just the final stretch over a few hours with coffee and lunch stops built in. So we jumped off the train at Blackfriars and set off along the South Bank trail at low tide. Beachcombers wandered the shore as we passed the distinctive outlines of Tate Modern and The Globe Theatre, The Shard and the Mayor of London’s wonky oval office.  

HMS Belfast and The CityOn the north shore, away across the Millennium pedestrian bridge, huge cranes reared up amongst the skyscrapers of the city. The Gherkin. The Cheesegrater. The Walkie Talkie. But suddenly we slipped back in time as we passed HMS Belfast and opposite, the 1000-year-old splendour of the Tower of London. And that was just the first half an hour.

Sections of the trail were familiar to us. We’d been to a restaurant here, a wine bar there. But beyond Tower Bridge, the cafes began to thin out, and we found ourselves skirting smart new residential developments where once pirates lay in wait for merchant ships queueing to unload at the crowded docks.  

And as we walked, so the history of London unfolded through wayside information panels and at viewpoints. Our heart strings were tugged by the bronze effigies of Dr Alfred Salter and his wife Ada Brown who lived amongst the slums of Bermondsey at the turn of the 20th century, desperately trying to help London’s poorest people. They paid the ultimate price for their philanthropy, losing their 10-year-old daughter Joyce in 1910 to scarlet fever, but the whole family are now together forever at a riverside terrace looking back to Tower Bridge.   

Gillian taking a rest by statue of Peter the GreatNearby we found the foundations of King Edward III’s manor house at Rotherhithe which once fronted the river, surrounded on three sides by a moat. The gloriously atmospheric Mayflower Pub too which stands close to where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America. Ship’s captain – Christopher Jones – is buried nearby in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin.

Every one of our 26,500 steps (yes, I have an App!) brought new views as we followed the dramatic meanders around Canary Wharf and Greenwich Park. We said hello to the animals at the Surrey Docks Farm and took our turns to pose in the giant chair beside a statue of Russian Czar Peter the Great, who learned shipbuilding here for four months in 1698. We marvelled at the Cutty Sark and the Royal Naval Hospital; looked downriver beside a statue of Nelson; and watched the Emirates Cable Cars glide silently overhead as we stood beside the 02.  

Nelson at Greenwich with O2 in the distanceBy the time we stepped back on the Jubilee Line at North Greenwich, we’d not only enjoyed 10 miles of iconic river scenery but had also been fired up to explore more of this spectacular waterway. We’d like to walk sections of the young river through that lush Cotswolds countryside; explore around Windsor, Runnymede and Hampton Court; and discover the north bank trail through the City of London.

We could, of course, plan our own trip, but we’ve found a better way, thanks to Ramblers Worldwide Holidays. 

Their Load Off Your Back programme does exactly what it says – takes care of all the holiday planning, leaving you to enjoy the walking on any one of 16 long distance trails.

Cutty Sark - GreenwichRoutes are broken down into well-researched sections so you can choose to do all or part of the trail. Accommodation is pre-booked near the route and luggage taken on for you each day. And because the walking is independent, using maps and guidebooks provided by Load Off Your Back, you can start on any day of the week and walk for as many days as you want between April and October.

And for Home Counties walkers who just want to enjoy a bite-sized walk through the history of London, Authentic London Walks run gentle, guided circuits of two hours each. Areas include Covent Garden; Primrose Hill and Camden Town; and Highgate. But be warned – from such modest rambles do hiking ambitions grow. Before you know it, you could be striding our National Trails too!

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Gillian Thornton

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