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

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.