I jogged the entire length of Thames path through London. Here’s what I learned

The Thames path sign at the Thames Barrier. Image: Bencherlite/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s possible to live in a city like London for years, even decades, and barely visit a fraction of it. You can go to the museums, the landmarks, and know every twist and turn of your route to work, but still be oblivious to much of what’s out there.

I’ve lived in London for nine years, but recently realised how little I really knew. What on earth is Eel Pie Island? Why is there a nature reserve next to Crossness Sewage Treatment Works? And does the OXO Tower Restaurant serve gravy?

Fortunately, there exists a single footpath along which these questions, and many more, can be answered. The Thames Path offers enthusiastic urban explorers an easy way to get to know London – a simple route connecting the city’s outer fringes with its bustling centre. As the history of the River Thames is intertwined with that of the capital, it provides a fascinating insight into its past.

Of course, the Thames Path extends well beyond London – it follows the river for 184 miles from source to sea – and only about a quarter is within the city’s boundaries. To walk the whole route takes two weeks, but the London section can be done in a few days. Alternatively, you can cycle it in a weekend, or perhaps even a single day if you’re wearing Lycra.

Me? I foolishly decided to jog.

The route. Image: TfL.

Before setting off, however, I enlisted the help of Transport for London. The TfL website helpfully provides a downloadable guide to the Thames Path between Hampton Court Palace in the west and Erith in the east.

I disembarked at Hampton Court Station, a literal stone’s throw from the Thames, to begin my adventure. For nearly half of the path’s distance from here to Erith there is a choice of whether you follow the north or south bank, but for the first three miles the northern side is your only option. This is chiefly thanks to the huge houses that line the river and whose owners use the Thames as a parking spot for their speedboats.

Beyond Teddington Lock I encountered the aforementioned Eel Pie Island. It’s a treasure trove of quirky cottages and historical peculiarities, such as the sign on one house that introduces a fine of 40 shillings “for any person omitting to shut and fasten the gate”. The island was once home to a famous music venue, Eel Pie Island Hotel, which hosted The Rolling Stones in the 1960s.

The Thames Path unfortunately does not hug the river for its entirety, occasionally being forced inland by industry, housing, or geographical awkwardness. Twickenham and Brentford are two early examples, and although signposted it can be tricky to follow the path without referring to either TfL’s guide or a smart phone.

Richmond Lock & Footbridge. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Back on the south bank at Richmond the path is charmingly sandwiched between the river and Kew Gardens. There are views of another Thames island, Isleworth Ait, managed by London Wildlife Trust for its population of German hairy snails.

The Thames Path is wonderfully leafy in these parts, punctuated only by riverside pubs and rowing clubs. One of the prettiest stretches can be found at Strand on the Green, where at high tide the river ripples up and onto the footpath – every house comes with its own flood barrier. Just beyond Chiswick Bridge, conversely, a wet woodland called Duke’s Hollow is protected to maintain a rare natural habitat reliant on tidal inundation.

The tranquillity of the Thames Path continues uninterrupted until Wandsworth. Here luxury towers loom over the remnants of declining industry, a juxtaposition neatly summarising London’s recent past. One positive side-effect of such developments is that the riverside regeneration of Nine Elms includes planning permission for a brand new section of the Thames Path. The first stage has already opened in front of Battersea Power Station, where two-bed flats start from just £1.39m.

Beyond Vauxhall the path becomes somewhat familiar, littered as it is with landmarks and tourists. Such is the tangle of humanity along the South Bank on a summer’s day that to survive is to succeed. I escaped by scurrying up the OXO Tower, but was disappointed not to find even a single drop of the brown stuff.

It was only after I passed under Tower Bridge that the throng thinned. Here I discovered the Garden Barges, a group of houseboats boasting an oasis of floating greenery on their roofs. To my good fortune, on the day I visited there was an open day with a stall serving tea and scones.

As I reached Rotherhithe the low tide allowed me a chance to enjoy some ‘mudlarking’ – that traditional London pursuit of trying to find any old shit in the mud that might be worth a quid on eBay. I was joined by a couple of teenagers, one of whom found what he excitedly described as “a very large tea bag” – only for me to inform him that it was, in fact, a stoma bag.

It was in 1996 that the Thames Path opened as an official National Trail, but TfL has continued to make improvements over the years. One example is just to the east of the Thames Barrier, where until recently the path snaked around a series of wharves. In June, however, a new elevated walkway was opened over the river, cutting ten minutes’ walking time from the previous route through a housing estate.

The Erith mudflats. Image: Stephen Craven/geograph.co.uk.

A few miles further on and adjacent to a major sewage works is Crossness Nature Reserve, one of London’s last remaining grazing marshlands and a popular place for migrating birds. Thames Water manages both the nature and the sewage here, and it’s next to the Thames Path that I ran into two birdwatchers, their binoculars trained on an outflow pipe where the warm water had attracted a hoard of black-headed gulls.

It’s an unfortunate rule of thumb that the further east you travel along the Thames Path, the more likely you are to be surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. Further ndustrial excursions eventually led me to Erith, where the mouth of the River Darwent marks the border of London with Kent.

And there two miles from the nearest access to any mode of public transportation my journey ended.

To find out more about the Thames Path, check out TfL’s website


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.