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


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.