Walking the Thames Path National Trail

By Yvonne Horn
This article appears on page 6 of the April 2021 issue.
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Passing the ruins of Godstow Nunnery, northwest of Oxford.

Along its banks, Henry VIII honeymooned. Grand abbeys were built and destroyed. Kings were crowned and queens beheaded. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Wind in the Willows” were written. The Magna Carta was signed. Enduring landscapes were painted, world-class gardens were established, and over-the-top palaces were built. If not for the Thames, there would be no London.

On foot I traced it all, following a route that looked like a strand of yarn thrown to the wind — 184 miles of twists and squiggles.

The plan

There were four in our group, all women, and none of us spring chickens (albeit some springier than others): myself; Betty Jemail, friend, adventurous traveler and, incidentally, longtime ITN subscriber; Betty’s daughter, Gloria Haddad, and a hiking friend of Betty’s, Debbie Ebling.

Betty and I were sharing a pizza when she mentioned she’d always wanted to follow the Thames Path National Trail. “Me, too,” I echoed. “Let’s do it! You find two others to walk with us, and I’ll deal with the logistics.”

Checking our 2019 calendars, we set June 23 as our departure date, marking off 16 days to walk the trail.

The logistics included locating 16 places to overnight that were situated close to the trail and approximately 12 to 14 miles apart — a difficult if not near-impossible task were it not for the aptly titled guidebook “Thames Path” by Joel Newton and Henry Stedman. Its 99 maps covered every inch of the path, along with accommodation and eating suggestions, and charts supplied distances and average walking times.

Taking heed of one of the book’s helpful hints, I contacted Move My Bags (movemybags.com) to have ours delivered to the next inn, pub or small hotel on our itinerary each day, leaving us with naught to carry but daypacks.

Reading the guidebook, I lingered on “saunter,” “stroll” and “basically flat,” to which I mentally added “perhaps a bit downhill,” since we’d be walking downstream, but there was that suggestion to take Vaseline to rub on your feet before pulling on socks….

Map of England.

Could I do it? I thought so. I could walk from my home in California’s Sonoma County to the town of Sebastopol, 13 miles distant, and I could walk there again the next day. (On the third day, though, I might be tired.)

Getting under way

Our adventure began with a stay at the appropriately named Thames Head Inn (Tetbury Rd., Cirencester; thamesheadinn.co.uk).

Close by, at the foot of an ancient ash tree on the edge of a Gloucestershire field known as Trewsbury Mead, a dry pile of rocks and a small stone monument marked the Thames’ headwater. From there, the path would lead us to the official end of the trail, the Thames Barrier, a sculptural steel wall stretching 1,700 feet across the river that can be raised and lowered to protect London from high-tide flooding.

With not a trickle in sight and with a Thames Path signpost pointing the way, we crossed Trewsbury Mead, clambered over a stile and were on our way. It was not until mid-afternoon that the Thames revealed itself outside the tiny Cotswold village of Ewen as a crystal-clear pond fed by a triplet of springs.

On the next days, fine and easy walking took us through designated protected areas, the river widening, with swans, ducks, geese and farmland for company. We passed “pillboxes,” concrete structures constructed as a World War II preparation measure to protect machine gun crews. Some 28,000 were built but never used. For us, they were landmarks on our guidebook’s maps. “Two more pillboxes and we should be nearing… (wherever).”

Locks also marked our progress — all something to look forward to, with adorable, circa 1920s or ’30s lockkeepers’ cottages and pretty little gardens. One, Clifton Lock, even offered pick-your-own cherries!

Engaging the locals

As we were following a national trail so designated in 1996, we expected to find a well-worn path, not the “maybes” through deep grass or trails so narrow they’d qualify as a DUI test that we sometimes encountered. Shaded areas did offer wider dirt paths, and a paved section took us through Cotswold villages of honey-colored stone.

But why did it seem that we were the only ones on this journey? This was a question we pondered over the length of the path, as we met not a soul toting a pack or studying a guidebook. Instead, we met locals out for a jog or walking a dog, and cyclists pedaled by on paved areas.

First of the Thames Path National Trail signposts — 184 miles to go.

A man named Syd rolled up on his bicycle to ask where we were headed and where we were from. When he heard we were from the US west, he embarked on the recitation of his encyclopedic knowledge of Custer’s Last Stand, which he’d have continued to share had we not begged off to be on our way.

Farther along we came upon Ted, done up in tweedy out-for-a-shoot garb. We asked what he was after. His reply: pigeons. An environmental ban had just been lifted at the request of farmers, and Ted was out to get as many of them as he could. Shouldering his gun, off he went through the field.

When we met James on the path from Crickdale to Lechlade, he pulled out his earbuds to say that he takes on a section of the path every other Saturday. That Saturday, his round-trip walk would cover a total of 26 miles. Earbuds replaced, he left us impressed.

And where’d he come from?! Looking as shocked to see us as we were him, a nude man ran by, his bare bottom disappearing into the grass.

At Cookham Lock, I shared a bench with Fiona and asked about the wordage on her T-shirt. Every year, Fiona hits up well-wishers to sponsor her walk along a section of the trail in support of a charity that touches her heart. In 2019, she was undertaking a 49-mile walk covering seven segments of the trail.

“My walks used to be longer,” she said as she gathered her things, “but I’m 79 now and miles seem longer.”

Exploring our stops

After our first day on the trail, we learned a lesson: no more full English breakfasts. With the kitchen at the Thames Head Inn not operating until 8 o’clock and breakfasts cooked to order, we didn’t hit the trail until around 10. So from then on, we asked if a Continental breakfast or a foil-wrapped breakfast sandwich might be delivered to each of us the night before.

With that, we were on our way each day before 7, reaching our day’s destination by early to mid-afternoon with time to stretch out, enjoy a pint and become acquainted with where we’d landed.

At The Trout at Tadpole Bridge (Buckland Marsh, Faringdon, Oxford shire; troutinn.co.uk), the village of Bampton, better known as Downton, the fictional Yorkshire village of the TV series “Downton Abbey,” was across the bridge. Familiar lanes took us past the church and Mrs. Crawley’s house to the community hospital, actually the town library and a museum chockablock with Downton memorabilia.

As the river widened, kayaks, fishermen, picnickers and pleasure boats began to appear. Among them were narrowboats with pots of flowers on their roofs.

We stopped to chat with the owners of La Boheme, who were readying a picnic. Would we care to join them? Well, yes!

In short order, bankside chairs and tables were set up, “shrub” cocktails were poured, and elegant dish after dish appeared: hard-boiled eggs with caviar; white asparagus; multiple salads and cheeses; little cakes, and cookies. At the end of it all, with hugs and thank yous, off we waddled.

Life along the river

Bucolic view of the river as its runs through the Cotswolds.

At Oxford we bid farewell to the Cotswolds, with its bucolic walking and sweet little villages. Crew teams out for early-morning practice replaced ducks paddling in a row. Fine houses on the riverbank boasted boathouses, and paved areas became increasingly populated with joggers, dog walkers and cyclists. We’d entered the Thames Path, part two.

Reaching Abingdon, a pretty little market town and one of England’s oldest inhabited settlements, we checked into Cosener’s House. Hidden from town in its own magnificent gardens, it was one of our fanciest stays.

At Abingdon, with one-third of the trail behind us, we all noted that walking had become meditative and soul-restoring.

The Royal Regatta was under way as we walked through the stylish town of Henley-on-Thames. Held since 1839, it remains a not-to-be-missed social event, with women donning tilted hats and men in their god-awful-patterned school and club blazers.

VIPs watched the regatta from tented sites on one side of the river while we sat on a curb on the opposite side, boots dangling over the Thames, as crews crossed the finish line and the Queen’s gilded barge floated by.

Cheers erupted from our side as the United States Armed Forces pulled ahead of Germany’s Bundeswehr to claim the coveted King’s Cup.

While it was happy happenstance that our stay coincided with the regatta, finding a place to stay was a nightmare as I planned the trip. Hotels in the towns all around were booked far in advance, and at astronomical prices.

“You might try Bisham Abbey,” I was told by one hotelier. “They sometimes have rooms.”

Bisham Abbey, now one of England’s three national sports centers dedicated to world-class talent in a variety of sports, did have a vacancy. We stayed in rooms in a contemporary building on acreage where the 13th-century manor house favored by Henry VIII still stands. We enjoyed all that and a nearby restaurant, The Bull Inn (bullinnbisham.com), where I chose the oh-so-good liver and onions in red wine sauce (£16, or $22) from the menu.

We approached Windsor as in times of yore, traipsing through a field with the castle glowering ahead, and checked into The Crown and Cushion (84, High St., Eton; thecrownandcushioneton.co.uk). Built from old ship timbers in the 1600s, its wonky floors and steep and narrow winding stairs led to upstairs rooms.

Across the bridge, Windsor Castle was a short walk away, as was Eton College in the opposite direction.

We arrived at Hampton Court Palace, England’s answer to France’s Versailles, too early in the day to visit its grandiose interior. Its gates, however, were open, so we were free to wander the magnificent gardens.

Coming to a close

Our walk took on a “rushing toward London” feeling as we followed a Thames now turned tidal and entered bustling Richmond.

Richmond is synonymous with Richmond Hill and the paintings of 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner. Clambering to the hill’s top, we posed in front of a landscape remarkably unchanged from his painting “The Thames from Richmond Hill,” now hanging in the Tate.

Near London’s Putney Bridge, we checked into the German-owned MK Hotel (317 Putney Bridge Rd.), with its budget-friendly, comfortable, contemporary rooms, for a 2-night stay. From the bridge’s Tube station, our travel would be direct to Heathrow when it came time to head home.

Betty Jemail clambering over one of zillions of stiles along the path.

The bridge also served as either the first or the last stop — depending on the direction — of London’s commuter riverboat service. Hopping aboard the commuter boat, we sailed under the city’s iconic bridges and past landmarks to its last stop, Greenwich.

With 5 miles to go, we walked past industrial and landscaped areas, with the sculptural Thames Barrier appearing enticingly ahead of us. Our final steps on the trail took us through a pedestrian tunnel, where we followed a line map of the Thames outlined on one wall, providing us with a nostalgic review of our journey from a pile of stones in Trewsbury Mead to its Barrier end.

With hollers, high fives and hugs, we emerged, prompting a pair of London police officers standing nearby to ask, “Why the celebration?” Our explanation was followed by, “All the way from Gloucestershire!” Apparently, we were the first to have done so during their months assigned to the Barrier.

And that is how our intrepid group of four completed our journey, as an item on the London Police’s Twitter page.

Our walk cost $1,500 each, including 16 days’ accommodations (one double room and two singles) and 15 days of bag transfer ($10 each per day). Breakfasts were included; lunches and dinners were paid separately.

 

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Passing the ruins of Godstow Nunnery, northwest of Oxford.

Along its banks, Henry VIII honeymooned. Grand abbeys were built and destroyed. Kings were crowned and queens beheaded. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Wind in the Willows” were written. The Magna Carta was signed. Enduring landscapes were painted, world-class gardens were established, and over-the-top palaces were built. If not for the Thames, there would be no London.

On foot I traced it all, following a route that looked like a strand of yarn thrown to the wind — 184 miles of twists and squiggles.

The plan

There were four in our group, all women, and none of us spring chickens (albeit some springier than others): myself; Betty Jemail, friend, adventurous traveler and, incidentally, longtime ITN subscriber; Betty’s daughter, Gloria Haddad, and a hiking friend of Betty’s, Debbie Ebling.

Betty and I were sharing a pizza when she mentioned she’d always wanted to follow the Thames Path National Trail. “Me, too,” I echoed. “Let’s do it! You find two others to walk with us, and I’ll deal with the logistics.”

Checking our 2019 calendars, we set June 23 as our departure date, marking off 16 days to walk the trail.

The logistics included locating 16 places to overnight that were situated close to the trail and approximately 12 to 14 miles apart — a difficult if not near-impossible task were it not for the aptly titled guidebook “Thames Path” by Joel Newton and Henry Stedman. Its 99 maps covered every inch of the path, along with accommodation and eating suggestions, and charts supplied distances and average walking times.

Taking heed of one of the book’s helpful hints, I contacted Move My Bags (movemybags.com) to have ours delivered to the next inn, pub or small hotel on our itinerary each day, leaving us with naught to carry but daypacks.

Reading the guidebook, I lingered on “saunter,” “stroll” and “basically flat,” to which I mentally added “perhaps a bit downhill,” since we’d be walking downstream, but there was that suggestion to take Vaseline to rub on your feet before pulling on socks….

Map of England.

Could I do it? I thought so. I could walk from my home in California’s Sonoma County to the town of Sebastopol, 13 miles distant, and I could walk there again the next day. (On the third day, though, I might be tired.)

Getting under way

Our adventure began with a stay at the appropriately named Thames Head Inn (Tetbury Rd., Cirencester; thamesheadinn.co.uk).

Close by, at the foot of an ancient ash tree on the edge of a Gloucestershire field known as Trewsbury Mead, a dry pile of rocks and a small stone monument marked the Thames’ headwater. From there, the path would lead us to the official end of the trail, the Thames Barrier, a sculptural steel wall stretching 1,700 feet across the river that can be raised and lowered to protect London from high-tide flooding.

With not a trickle in sight and with a Thames Path signpost pointing the way, we crossed Trewsbury Mead, clambered over a stile and were on our way. It was not until mid-afternoon that the Thames revealed itself outside the tiny Cotswold village of Ewen as a crystal-clear pond fed by a triplet of springs.

On the next days, fine and easy walking took us through designated protected areas, the river widening, with swans, ducks, geese and farmland for company. We passed “pillboxes,” concrete structures constructed as a World War II preparation measure to protect machine gun crews. Some 28,000 were built but never used. For us, they were landmarks on our guidebook’s maps. “Two more pillboxes and we should be nearing… (wherever).”

Locks also marked our progress — all something to look forward to, with adorable, circa 1920s or ’30s lockkeepers’ cottages and pretty little gardens. One, Clifton Lock, even offered pick-your-own cherries!

Engaging the locals

As we were following a national trail so designated in 1996, we expected to find a well-worn path, not the “maybes” through deep grass or trails so narrow they’d qualify as a DUI test that we sometimes encountered. Shaded areas did offer wider dirt paths, and a paved section took us through Cotswold villages of honey-colored stone.

But why did it seem that we were the only ones on this journey? This was a question we pondered over the length of the path, as we met not a soul toting a pack or studying a guidebook. Instead, we met locals out for a jog or walking a dog, and cyclists pedaled by on paved areas.

First of the Thames Path National Trail signposts — 184 miles to go.

A man named Syd rolled up on his bicycle to ask where we were headed and where we were from. When he heard we were from the US west, he embarked on the recitation of his encyclopedic knowledge of Custer’s Last Stand, which he’d have continued to share had we not begged off to be on our way.

Farther along we came upon Ted, done up in tweedy out-for-a-shoot garb. We asked what he was after. His reply: pigeons. An environmental ban had just been lifted at the request of farmers, and Ted was out to get as many of them as he could. Shouldering his gun, off he went through the field.

When we met James on the path from Crickdale to Lechlade, he pulled out his earbuds to say that he takes on a section of the path every other Saturday. That Saturday, his round-trip walk would cover a total of 26 miles. Earbuds replaced, he left us impressed.

And where’d he come from?! Looking as shocked to see us as we were him, a nude man ran by, his bare bottom disappearing into the grass.

At Cookham Lock, I shared a bench with Fiona and asked about the wordage on her T-shirt. Every year, Fiona hits up well-wishers to sponsor her walk along a section of the trail in support of a charity that touches her heart. In 2019, she was undertaking a 49-mile walk covering seven segments of the trail.

“My walks used to be longer,” she said as she gathered her things, “but I’m 79 now and miles seem longer.”

Exploring our stops

After our first day on the trail, we learned a lesson: no more full English breakfasts. With the kitchen at the Thames Head Inn not operating until 8 o’clock and breakfasts cooked to order, we didn’t hit the trail until around 10. So from then on, we asked if a Continental breakfast or a foil-wrapped breakfast sandwich might be delivered to each of us the night before.

With that, we were on our way each day before 7, reaching our day’s destination by early to mid-afternoon with time to stretch out, enjoy a pint and become acquainted with where we’d landed.

At The Trout at Tadpole Bridge (Buckland Marsh, Faringdon, Oxford shire; troutinn.co.uk), the village of Bampton, better known as Downton, the fictional Yorkshire village of the TV series “Downton Abbey,” was across the bridge. Familiar lanes took us past the church and Mrs. Crawley’s house to the community hospital, actually the town library and a museum chockablock with Downton memorabilia.

As the river widened, kayaks, fishermen, picnickers and pleasure boats began to appear. Among them were narrowboats with pots of flowers on their roofs.

We stopped to chat with the owners of La Boheme, who were readying a picnic. Would we care to join them? Well, yes!

In short order, bankside chairs and tables were set up, “shrub” cocktails were poured, and elegant dish after dish appeared: hard-boiled eggs with caviar; white asparagus; multiple salads and cheeses; little cakes, and cookies. At the end of it all, with hugs and thank yous, off we waddled.

Life along the river

Bucolic view of the river as its runs through the Cotswolds.

At Oxford we bid farewell to the Cotswolds, with its bucolic walking and sweet little villages. Crew teams out for early-morning practice replaced ducks paddling in a row. Fine houses on the riverbank boasted boathouses, and paved areas became increasingly populated with joggers, dog walkers and cyclists. We’d entered the Thames Path, part two.

Reaching Abingdon, a pretty little market town and one of England’s oldest inhabited settlements, we checked into Cosener’s House. Hidden from town in its own magnificent gardens, it was one of our fanciest stays.

At Abingdon, with one-third of the trail behind us, we all noted that walking had become meditative and soul-restoring.

The Royal Regatta was under way as we walked through the stylish town of Henley-on-Thames. Held since 1839, it remains a not-to-be-missed social event, with women donning tilted hats and men in their god-awful-patterned school and club blazers.

VIPs watched the regatta from tented sites on one side of the river while we sat on a curb on the opposite side, boots dangling over the Thames, as crews crossed the finish line and the Queen’s gilded barge floated by.

Cheers erupted from our side as the United States Armed Forces pulled ahead of Germany’s Bundeswehr to claim the coveted King’s Cup.

While it was happy happenstance that our stay coincided with the regatta, finding a place to stay was a nightmare as I planned the trip. Hotels in the towns all around were booked far in advance, and at astronomical prices.

“You might try Bisham Abbey,” I was told by one hotelier. “They sometimes have rooms.”

Bisham Abbey, now one of England’s three national sports centers dedicated to world-class talent in a variety of sports, did have a vacancy. We stayed in rooms in a contemporary building on acreage where the 13th-century manor house favored by Henry VIII still stands. We enjoyed all that and a nearby restaurant, The Bull Inn (bullinnbisham.com), where I chose the oh-so-good liver and onions in red wine sauce (£16, or $22) from the menu.

We approached Windsor as in times of yore, traipsing through a field with the castle glowering ahead, and checked into The Crown and Cushion (84, High St., Eton; thecrownandcushioneton.co.uk). Built from old ship timbers in the 1600s, its wonky floors and steep and narrow winding stairs led to upstairs rooms.

Across the bridge, Windsor Castle was a short walk away, as was Eton College in the opposite direction.

We arrived at Hampton Court Palace, England’s answer to France’s Versailles, too early in the day to visit its grandiose interior. Its gates, however, were open, so we were free to wander the magnificent gardens.

Coming to a close

Our walk took on a “rushing toward London” feeling as we followed a Thames now turned tidal and entered bustling Richmond.

Richmond is synonymous with Richmond Hill and the paintings of 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner. Clambering to the hill’s top, we posed in front of a landscape remarkably unchanged from his painting “The Thames from Richmond Hill,” now hanging in the Tate.

Near London’s Putney Bridge, we checked into the German-owned MK Hotel (317 Putney Bridge Rd.), with its budget-friendly, comfortable, contemporary rooms, for a 2-night stay. From the bridge’s Tube station, our travel would be direct to Heathrow when it came time to head home.

Betty Jemail clambering over one of zillions of stiles along the path.

The bridge also served as either the first or the last stop — depending on the direction — of London’s commuter riverboat service. Hopping aboard the commuter boat, we sailed under the city’s iconic bridges and past landmarks to its last stop, Greenwich.

With 5 miles to go, we walked past industrial and landscaped areas, with the sculptural Thames Barrier appearing enticingly ahead of us. Our final steps on the trail took us through a pedestrian tunnel, where we followed a line map of the Thames outlined on one wall, providing us with a nostalgic review of our journey from a pile of stones in Trewsbury Mead to its Barrier end.

With hollers, high fives and hugs, we emerged, prompting a pair of London police officers standing nearby to ask, “Why the celebration?” Our explanation was followed by, “All the way from Gloucestershire!” Apparently, we were the first to have done so during their months assigned to the Barrier.

And that is how our intrepid group of four completed our journey, as an item on the London Police’s Twitter page.

Our walk cost $1,500 each, including 16 days’ accommodations (one double room and two singles) and 15 days of bag transfer ($10 each per day). Breakfasts were included; lunches and dinners were paid separately.