Walking the Thames Path Part 1 July 2020 A retrospective summary
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Walking the Thames Path – Part 1
July 5th – 18th 2020
Yes, one day after lockdown one was lifted, in July 2020, we were off in our campervan, having chosen a trip that we hoped would not be too busy. The Thames Path is a National Trail, 184 miles long, which follows the river from its source in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier east of London. Covid 19 was still very much around, so we were being cautious. We decided to walk as far as Windsor on this trip, as we did not feel confident using public transport or taxis, or being in London at that time. That would be a total of 130 miles, leaving us 54 miles to do at a later date
Avoiding public transport gave us another logistical challenge. How to get back to our van each day. We live less than 2 hours away, so we decided to take our other car with us, and do a shuttle arrangement at the start and finish of each leg. It was a fiddle, but it worked, and we stayed in our ‘bubble’.
We used campsites which ranged from small certificated 5 pitch sites, to club sites at Blenheim and Henley. The sites are listed at the end.
The official source of the Thames is not on a mountain top like the Rhine or the Rhone, but is a spring in a field near Kemble, just 110metres above sea level. Well it should be downhill all the way then! In July it is underwhelming. Invisible in fact, save for a stone marker and a finger post. In winter, the field can be flooded apparently, but we didn’t see any water for 4 miles! There is an excitement to following a River from nothing, to its role as a major thoroughfare bisecting London, one of the greatest cities in the world, and on to the sea.
Starting in peaceful fields, we became aware of firstly muddy pools, then trickles of water, until, after 6 miles we were definitely following a stream. Suddenly, we were surrounded by water. The path passes through the Cotswold water park comprising 40 acres of former gravel pits, now over 180 lakes, used for all kinds of water based leisure pursuits, as well as wildlife conservation at places like Cleveland lakes and Elmlea Meadows.
No rarities, but a good mix of birds, and of course very quiet, as the watersport facilities were not yet open. As we approached Cricklade, Chris got very excited as we discovered we were also on the
Thames Trail Ale Liquid Highway, with fingerposts indicating convenient hostelries. Sadly, many had not yet reopened after lockdown, but the Red Lion in historic Cricklade offered a welcoming pint… and even more welcoming toilets! Multiple information boards gave us an interesting walk around this interesting town. The tanning industry was thriving in the 13th century when the Priory was built, and was the forerunner of its fame as a glove making town. In 1607, rights of navigation were established, and Cricklade was the navigation limit. Today it is further downstream at Lechlade. It is easy to forget that this is a floodplain, and signs like this are a frequent reminder!
En route to Lechlade is lovely little Inglesham Church with traditional box pews, and rare mediaeval wall paintings. Sadly they are trying to raise funds for restoration after they were damaged when thieves stole the lead from the roof. Lechlade was once a bustling inland port, full of barges collecting wool, cheese and salt to take to London, and also transporting Cotswold stone to be used in buildings like Windsor Castle and St Pauls Cathedral. It would have been rude not to have a drink as the pub was open, but we had to learn about electronic ordering from an app! All part of the new normal. Next day we passed Halfpenny bridge, built in 1762 to replace a ferry, and one halfpenny was the toll to cross.
One frequent and perhaps surprising feature on this stretch of the Thames is the occurrence of concrete Pill Boxes at regular intervals along the north bank. In World War 2 the Thames was known as Stopline Red, and it was seen as an important line of defence if the enemy had invaded.
The locks are all beautifully maintained, and surrounded with flowers. At St John’s lock is the figure of Old Father Thames, which was created for the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1854.
Bridges of all kinds become more frequent and as we approach Oxford, and our excitement was mounting because we had arranged to meet friends at a pub for a meal, something we had not done for nearly 5 months. We had a lovely reunion at the Trout Inn, on the Thames at Lower Wolvercote, which frequently featured in Morse and Lewis episodes! The next stage took us through the water Meadows where Lewis Carroll is said to have penned Alice in Wonderland, past Godstow Abbey ruins, and through Oxford. In this stretch, the Thames is known as Isis, it’s Celtic name. No-one can agree on why! The river was a little busier here , but only with a few narrow boats, pleasure boats and single scullers as that is all Covid rules would permit.
We diverted into Oxford, which was almost eerily quiet. Most shops, and all tourist attractions were still closed. Onward to Abingdon with it’s formidable weir, and home of the Upper Thames Patrol (UTP), formed in World War 2, who ran waterborne and shore patrols and boasted a membership of over 6,000, including women. Towards the end of the war, as the threat lessened, UTP was apparently affectionately known as Up The Pub,
Our favourite campsite was at pretty Clifton Hampden, and it was also our first really sunny evening. The weather had been quite cloudy, but we were grateful, because it would have been much more uncomfortable walking in hot weather.
As we approached Marlow, the houses became more opulent. This beautiful Art Deco House was near the Beetle and Wedge pub, made famous in Jerome K Jerome’s book, Three Men in a Boat. Sadly it was closed for renovations.
The Marlow Suspension Bridge is striking and somehow suits this lovely town. Opened in 1832 it was built by William Tierney Clark, a pupil of Thomas Telford, and was a smaller prototype of the Szechenyl Chain Bridge across the Danube in Budapest!
Lunches were always picnics by the river, and within minutes, swans would appear in hope of a snack. As keen birdwatchers, we were saddened to find that the rich variety of birdlife on the river that we had read about in earlier accounts, seemed to have been displaced by one species, the Canada Goose. They were everywhere, sometimes in groups of many hundreds. Overhead we frequently saw red kite soaring, again a relatively new phenomenon.
At Henley we stayed at the club site just outside town. The rowing museum was sadly closed, but the rowing Heritage was everywhere, although sadly the Regatta was cancelled for 2020. We did find a super pub for an excellent celebratory meal. It was The Greyhound at Rotherfield Peppard, owned by Anthony Worrall Thompson.
A favourite river pub was the Flowerpot inn, at Aston, near Henley-on-Thames, a very traditional pub at which pays homage to the fishing legacy of the river. Note the obligatory facemask! Chris enjoyed a very acceptable pint of Ringwood before we headed for Maidenhead. Here we passed under Brunel’s bridge, built to carry the Great Western Railway to Bristol. One of its arches is known as the sounding arch because of it’s amazing echo, well tested by me!
The end of our 13 day walk was in sight as we approached Eton and Windsor. A few kilometres away was the lovely little church of St Mary Magdalene at Boveney. It somehow felt as if we were in the middle of the countryside in a bygone age, just moment before we entered the very busy urban environment of Windsor. This was exactly the reason we didn’t want to go any further at this time, and we gladly rejoined our campervan and car and headed for home.
We loved the walk. Most of it was in sight of the River, and was well maintained through most of its length. In fact, where possible, it had been mowed and cut back to be wider to allow social distancing. Signage was good as well.
We loved watching the River growing in size and importance. Any other year it would have been much busier, both on and off the water, and we were grateful for the peace and solitude. Conversely we were sad that many places were closed. We had particularly wanted to see Kelmscott Manor, home of William Morris, some of the Oxford Colleges, and various museums.
The next section will be busier, much more urban, and show us a very different side to the Great River Thames.
Campsites used - but many pub stopovers and small sites were not open after lockdown so choice was limited!
Thatado farm C&M CL site
Rough ground farm CCC CL site
Bladon Chains Caravan club site, near Oxford
Bridge House Caravan park, Cliftonville Hampden
Bridge House CCC CL site Wallingford
Four Oaks Caravan Club site, Henley-on-Thames
Hurley Riverside Park, Hurley