Planning a trip to London? If you need a breather from the sensory overload of her headline attractions, I’ve always reached to the river for a rewarding and less-trafficked recharge. Sometimes you just need to escape the crowds, and the Thames River’s designated path leads you right away from the tourist crush. It’s actually rather liberating.
The official trail spans the full length of this storied river, galloping eastwards from its source in the Cotswolds and traversing peaceful water meadows, medieval bridges, picturesque villages, and through the gilded heart of London to culminate in Woolwich at the Thames Barrier, just a few miles from the English Channel. Drink in the ever-changing scenery, from the Arcadian landscape of Richmond’s lost floodplain to the Dickensian expanse of the Eastern marshes.
You’ll see every imaginable waterborne activity along the way – seagoing ships, floating gin-palaces, bustling marinas, working wharves and merry barges. The full trail lacing England’s best known river, and Europe’s cleanest major waterway, spans 294km, which will take you quite some days to conquer. Serious riparian ramblers set aside a fortnight to accomplish the full walk from source to sea. But if that is far too time-consuming or sounds like too much hard work, there are some ravishing bite-sized sections that can be easily encompassed as day excursions.
For the best in bucolic splendour, take a train out to Henley-on-Thames and you’ll relish the 14km ramble to Marlow. Leaving Henley you follow the length of the fabled regatta course to the race starting point of Temple Island, adorned by a postcard-pretty fishing lodge. Enjoy Hambleden Lock, home to a series of weirs, and historic Hambleden Mill.
Glide by Hurley, a jewel-box village studded with gorgeous buildings, before the downstream approach to Marlow, adorned with the glinting beauty of Bisham Church and bustling with dabbling ducks, picnickers and promenading locals. The wooded slopes of Winter Hill at Marlow’s eastern end helps give this stretch of the Thames Valley, its irrepressible beauty. If you want to keep walking, the lofty turreted grandeur of Windsor Castle will soon loom on the horizon.
Back in London, the Hampton Court to Albert Bridge section of the trail, showcases a blue-ribbon procession of royal parklands, stately mansions, bijoux cottages and sailing clubs. The watery ribbon also features the classic Arcadian landscape of Petersham Meadow and culminates in chic Chelsea Harbour.
The Albert Bridge to Tower Bridge section is the most familiar tourist haunt, boasting all of London’s iconic landmarks, from Big Ben to St. Paul’s Cathedral. But for London with a twist, take the East End river ramble from Tower Bridge to Thames Barrier. Walk on the north bank one way, and home on the South Bank, to encompass all the evocative treats including Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, the historic Royal Naval College and Greenwich Observatory. Pause at Rotherhithe, home of the Mayflower, from where the Pilgrims set sail for the New World in 1620.
You can see where pirates were once hung in chains and where Turner once painted. St. Katharine Docks often plays host to tall ships, while Wapping has delightfully characterful pubs, cobbled streets and converted warehouses. But the climax is the steel hooded flood gates of the Thames Barrier, an engineering marvel, that has repeatedly proven its worth at safeguarding the city from being engulfed by the very artery that has been London’s lifeblood for centuries.
The Thames Path and full-length National Trail is an enlightening way to immerse yourself in London’s character, and that of the counties to her west. For full information on the 294km-long trail, head to www.nationaltrail.co.uk/thames-path/
Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Saturday Mornings with Jack Tame.