Walking on the Thames – 14 days and 300 kilometers


A journey from the Cotswolds to one of the greatest cities in the world.

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My friend, James, and I found the way and were greeted by a cheerful man.

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“Where are you going?” He asked. At Lechlade, we replied. “It’s ambitious,” he offered.

What he didn’t know was that our ambitions were bigger than an 18km march through the English countryside. It was day two of a 14-day, 300km trek from the source of the Thames to the flood barrier in east London.

A day earlier we had passed through Trewsbury Mead, a grassy meadow on the edge of England’s famous Cotswolds. Here a stone tablet marks the beginning of the Thames, although for most of the year this spring is dry, as it was for us. As I left, I smiled in amusement as it took just over an hour by train from London, and now it would take two weeks to walk back.

The Thames Path connects historic villages and towns before passing through one of the greatest cities in the world. It largely follows the river and is one of many National Trails in Britain. Most people complete sections of the path over time, while the most ambitious do it all at once. The beauty of the Thames Path is that you can create your own adventure to suit your schedule and your stamina.

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Since the Thames is a lazy, winding river, the route is relatively flat (there was only one big hill to tackle) and we encountered walkers of all ages. With convenient train and bus options, it’s easy to get to most parts of the way. We also took advantage of a transfer service for our luggage from hostel to hostel.

At the source of the Thames.
At the source of the Thames.

Shortly after leaving Trewsbury Mead we came across a small puddle of water bubbling up from the ground. It was as if someone had left the tap on. I confess to having felt a certain emotion when I saw the beginnings of this famous river.

This is where we met Chris. He too was walking along the river. The three of us were in silent reflection. His pilgrimage on the Thames was motivated by grief, as his wife had recently died of cancer.

We all had our own reasons for being there. I knelt down, took water in my hand and let it run down my forehead. It was a kind of baptism. We walked with Chris all day and, like the river we were following, the conversation flowed smoothly from topic to topic.

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The Thames Head Inn is the only inn and pub near the source of the River Thames.
The Thames Head Inn is the only inn and pub near the source of the River Thames. Photo by Ken Donohue

Our first stop for the night was the village of Cricklade, which calls itself “the first town on the Thames”. At 12e Century St. Sampson’s Church, we saw a headstone in the graveyard dating from the year 1691. And a pub along Cricklade’s High Street opened when the first Elizabeth was queen in the late 1500s.

Leaving Cricklade the next day, we stopped to speak to Geoff, who lived in the town and looked to be in his late nineties. To our untrained eye, the field we were crossing looked like any grassy field. Geoff gave us a history lesson by pointing out the shape of the field and the little folds in the ground. It turns out that we were passing through an early medieval farmhouse where peasants received narrow strips of land.

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The trail passes through remote and rural parts of England, including farmers' fields, where walkers share the trail with animals.
The trail passes through remote and rural parts of England, including farmers’ fields, where walkers share the trail with animals. Photo by Ken Donohue

The early days of the Thames route are relatively remote and rural, as was the case when we arrived in Newbridge at the end of our third day. There is a hostel and two pubs. And a bridge that is not so new. Newbridge Bridge was built in the 1200s and is the oldest span over the River Thames.

Every day we were greeted by a symphony of birds. Perhaps, by encouraging each of our steps. And as we wind through the historic heart of Oxford, with its impossibly ornate buildings and bustling streets, and under Britain’s busiest motorway, the M25, the path stays pleasantly clear of the mostly urban areas. Even in parts of West London the trail is a dirt road covered in leafy trees.

While my feet sometimes hurt to rest, my mind did not get tired. An adventure like this is never a destination, it’s a journey. And walking gave us the opportunity to meet people we might not have otherwise. Whether it was fellow hikers, the people who live on the many narrow riverboats, or those in the villages and towns on our route, the trip was made all the more special by meeting them.

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We met Jules and his young daughter in a small park near Wallingford. What started as a small chat led Jules to offer his canoe, so that James, an avid canoeist, could paddle a few hours downstream. I continued along the trail on foot and Jules met us later where we agreed to take the canoe out.

Holy Trinity Church is in Cookham, one of many picturesque towns along the Thames.
Holy Trinity Church is in Cookham, one of many picturesque towns along the Thames. Photo by Ken Donohue

Abingdon, Goring, Shiplake, Marlow, Henley and Windsor: these are just a few of the towns along the river, each with their own unique character. When the Thames reached London and flowed under Hammersmith, Blackfriars and Tower Bridge among others, it shook its meanders. He is now mature and majestic.

On our last day, we had the pleasure of passing London’s iconic sights: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye and St. Paul’s Cathedral. We even walked under the river in a pedestrian tunnel, where we came out in Greenwich.

Further on the path sailed through industrial London and as we rounded the O2 arena I could see our arrival – the huge metal pillars of the Thames Barrier, designed to protect London from flooding. At the level of the barrier is a long concrete wall engraved with the names of the towns and villages crossed.

I walked slowly along the wall, reflecting on the 14 days and 300 kilometers it took to get from this peaceful Cotswold meadow to one of the greatest cities in the world.

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