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.