The Thames Path National Trail follows a route that literally flows through the entire story of England.
The Path hugs the country’s most famous river for nearly 300 kilometres from its source in the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier in London. It’s the only long distance path to follow a river for almost its entire length.
I have time enough to hike 100 kms of riverbank, from Abingdon near Oxford to Windsor near London. It’s worth it, however, to simply spend a day along the river, which is what most walkers do.
Until the arrival of the railway this river was the country’s most crucial trading route. Much of today’s trail follows tow paths that date from medieval times when barges were hauled either by horse or sheer manpower. Tow paths often switch between opposite river banks, indicating where owners had denied access to their land. Many locks along the river add to the overall charm of this quintessentially English adventure.
The Thames can be very busy in fine weather, even more so at weekends, and is especially busy during special events like the Henley Regatta each July. It’s generally best to book in advance if you plan a sit-down meal at a pub, cafe or restaurant beside the water. The same rule applies to accommodation along the river.
Between the lovely villages of Goring and Streatley the river forms the boundary between Oxfordshire and West Berkshire. The Bull Inn in Streatley features in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in Boat. The main characters and their dog visit it “much to Montmerency’s satisfaction”. You should probably do the same.
The Goring Gap, where the river flows between the hills of the Berkshire Downs and the Chilterns, is the narrowest part of the Thames Valley. Towards Pangbourne and Purley I’m strolling through Wind in the Willows countryside and can imagine Mole and Ratty huddled deep in the riverbank muttering about the thud of boots overhead.
The trail climbs a gentle incline through woods filled with birdsong before snaking across open meadowland filled with wild flowers with wonderful names like oxe-eye daisies, cuckoo flower and meadow cranesbill. Ducks flutter in the reeds, dragonflies dart above the surface of water and there’s a heron perched on the prow of a small boat. On the opposite bank stands a magnificent home. England most truly is a green and pleasant land.
The Thames Path is not always this pretty. A stretch near Purley is particularly dismal because after Mapledurham Lock there’s a housing estate blocking the waterside trail. I have to walk uphill through a huddle of boring bungalows and almost miss seeing the sign that directs me back, across the railway line and down the slope, to regain the riverside. Seeing that Thames tow paths have existed for centuries, I think it’s outrageous that a private commercial development was allowed to curtail access to the river bank.
The Thames Path is primarily for walkers although there are a few short stretches, mostly in the London area, that are also open to cyclists. The Path is divided into 15 sections of 14 to 27 kilometres in length. In most instances the walking is not that strenuous and therefore suitable for all ages.
The Path is open all year, weather permitting, and is accessible from most parts of the country using public transport. Most users are day walkers. All you need are comfortable walking shoes, a small pack for food and water, seasonal clothing and train tickets to your chosen departure point.
The official site for the Thames Path has an amazing amount of pertinent information, including accommodation options.