Walking the Thames Path Part 3 The final 24 miles - September 2021
Finally, we felt ready to begin the last part of the Thames Path National Trail. We started the walk in July 2020, straight after the first Covid Lockdown, and we walked 130 of the 180 miles, ending in Windsor. Part 2 was done after Lockdown 3 in April 2021, and was from Windsor to Kew, but we delayed the final instalment until we were both double vaccinated, and felt more confident about using public transport, in particular London Underground.
So, late September 2021 saw us staying on Abbey Wood Caravan and Motorhome Club site in East London, in Buzzbee our campervan. A really great site with good facilities, very friendly and helpful wardens, and just 10 minutes walk to Abbey Wood station for a 40 minute trip to central London. The site is in the LEZ charging zone, but Buzzbee was exempt.
We had 24 miles left to walk, and we planned to take 3 days. Please pour yourselves
Day one, we caught the train to Charing Cross, then the District Line to Kew. The underground is still much quieter than in pre-covid days.
At Kew Gardens station we spotted a plaque on the footbridge. Always read the plaques! It turned out the bridge is a very early example of the use of reinforced concrete, and was built with an overhang to protect pedestrians from Steam Train smoke and soot!
We picked up the path where we left it 5 months ago. It started out tree lined, with views to charming old houses on the opposite bank, and soon passed the official finish point to the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Races… today being won by an Oxford duck with some help from photo edit!
We passed the Ship Inn next to the huge buildings that were Mortlake Brewery, founded in 1487 to quench the thirst of Henry VII’s court at Richmond. It expanded steadily from that point, owned by Watneys from 1837 and producing that keg beer favourite, Red Barrel. (Who is now humming the jingle?) It ceased to be a brewery in 2015. Barnes village had charming rows of Georgian cottages, including one where composer Gustav Holst lived, and another once occupied by Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal ballet. On a balcony as we left Barnes was a more modern resident, a Star Wars Stormtrooper!
Further along the river, after Hammersmith Bridge, stands the magnificent Harrods depository building, now converted into apartments, and then we reached the London Wetlands Centre, a fine bird reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Putney Bridge marks the start of the Boat Race, and on either side of the bridge is a Mediaeval church tower, indicating that this was an ancient crossing point of the river, by ferry, then a wooden bridge before today’s bridge was built in 1886. On an imposing apartment block near the bridge, a blue plaque told us that between 1914 and 1926, Fred Russell lived here, the father of modern ventriloquism! Who knew?
The river is always interesting. We saw the new stand being built at Fulham FC’s ground, artists dodging the showers, and this beautiful line of London Plane trees, reminding me of the dread of the ‘itchy ball seed heads’ being thrown at me when I was a child.
This area is dwarfed by new development, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but as someone who grew up in South London in the 60’s and 70s, much of the riverfront was a complete no-go area of derelict warehouses, muddy creeks and dodgy dealing! The names of the alleys and new blocks remind us of their origins. Calico House, Cinnamon Row, Molasses House.
In amongst these glitzy high rise blocks of offices and apartments, we spotted beautifully proportioned Prospect House, built 1795, whose plaque tells us it was frequented by George IV! Whatever that means! We then crossed the River Wandle, a tiny stream today, but once the largest tributary feeding into the Thames. Its source is 2 springs at Carshalton and Croydon, and in its heyday, its waters powered 90 mills along its 11 mile length. Walking around the Cringle Dock waste transfer station was not the most scenic part of the walk, but incredible to think that this site processes 5,000 tonnes of refuse per week. We saw many barges along the river carrying yellow containers of processed waste from here out to the huge ‘Energy from Waste’ plant at Bexley, one of the biggest in Europe.
House boats became more apparent on the next stretch, often based on huge Dutch barges, and with gardens on their roof. Pretty Albert Bridge, built in 1873, was never really strong enough, and has been regularly modified. Even today, the amount of traffic is restricted, and soldiers marching across must break step.
We had planned to finish here today, but were enjoying ourselves so much we decided to carry on, through Battersea Park. The beautiful Peace Pagoda was erected in 1985 by the Japanese Buddhist movement. It’s founder, Nichidatsu Fuji, pledged to build Peace pagodas around the world in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs. There are currently 80. Coming into Battersea we saw the brand new railway station, only opened this month, and the modern development around the old power station. But where is the Pig?! (Only some people will understand the reference!)
We continued past Vauxhall bridge, and the homes of MI6 and MI5, to Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Started in the 13th century, it is one of the oldest buildings in London.
Next door is the church of St Mary’s which houses an excellent little garden museum, exploring the history of gardening, in memory of John Tradescant, a tudor gardener and Plant hunter, who is buried there. There is also a tomb to William Bacon who died when hit by lightning while looking out of his window in 1787! One lovely display was of these pottery exhibits, made during lockdown in one of the many creative initiatives to reach out to people isolated by lockdown. The ‘Clay for Dementia’ project delivered clay to participants, ran zoom classes, then collected the items and fired and glazed them! Covid was horrid, but some really lovely things emerged as a result. These pony shoes date from 1850 and were worn when ponies pulled grass mowers, so their hooves didn’t mark the turf! These watering cans are over 200 years old, and the glass item is a cucumber straightener!
We kept walking, now along the embankment outside St Thomas hospital opposite the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament. This path has become a Covid tribute Wall, which was very poignant as it stretched a very long way.
I was born in St Thomas hospital many years ago, with my mum having a view of the Big ben tower, so this is my home town, and my River Thames! I am loving walking through my home city!
Finally, we passed the London Eye. It was here we realised just how quiet London still is. No queue. Only half the pods occupied, and this usually bustling south bank was really quite empty. Of course there are hardly any foreign tourists at the moment, so if you want to come and enjoy London when it is less crowded, now is a good time. We decided to finish today’s walk at Waterloo East, where we could easily get the train back to Abbey Wood. Just by the station we spotted this wonderful façade of the Royal Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women. Always look up!
What a super day we had, and as we had walked 13 miles instead of 8, we decided that tomorrow we would finish the last 11 miles in one day, rather than 2.
The next morning brought bright sunshine, and arriving back at Waterloo, we set off down river past so many icons of British history. Laurence Olivier stands proudly outside the National Theatre, and St Paul’s soon comes into view. The Doggets Coat and Badge Pub was rebuilt, but continues the tradition of awarding a red coat, cap and badge to the winner of an annual single sculls race between apprentice watermen. Walking under Blackfriars Bridge we found tiled murals telling the history of bridges here, although it didn’t mention the wibbly-wobbly Millenium footbridge which had to be restabilised as it swayed too much and made the pedestrians queasy! The old Bankside Power station has a new lease of life as the Tate Modern, and almost next to it is the wonderfully reconstructed Globe theatre, a great venue for Shakespearean plays and other entertainments, although be warned, it is open air and most visitors have to stand, as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day.
The narrow alleys around London Bridge give a sense of life here in earlier times. Excavations have found plague pits here, and also the remains of Winchester Palace, with it's Rose window, the London home for the powerful Bishops of Winchester. Clink prison was here, now a tourist attraction, and we passed the reconstruction of the Golden Hinde, Francis Drake’s flagship for the first ever circumnavigation of the world.
Southwark Cathedral was built in the 12th century as St Mary Overie church, at the oldest crossing point on the Thames. Highlights were the wooden effigy of a knight from 1280, the wonderful nonsuch chest made in 1588, and this beautiful wooden Stuart tomb from 1616. The brightly coloured tomb was for John Gower who was poet laureate to Richard II and Henry IV. There was also a lovely display of mudlarking finds. You have to have a license to search the muddy banks of the Thames in London, and items are regularly found illustrating our social history from all eras, especially roman, mediaeval or wartime.
At London Bridge we had a great view of the Shard – no cocktails for us today - and then walked through Hays Galleria past the lovely kinetic sculpture the Navigators by David Kemp 1987.
Outside was HMS Belfast, and then Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. What an amazing city London is.
From here, everything was new for me as I have never walked further than Tower Bridge.
Looking back, the new high rise world of the business heart of the City of London now towers over Tower bridge.
The walk from here was a mix of modern apartments converted from warehouses, and older housing, much built after the wartime bombing.
Our first find was the poignant statue group of the Salter family. Dr Salter trained at Guys hospital and was hailed as the best student of his day, but when he saw the poverty, overcrowding and insanitary conditions in Bermondsey in 1898 he devoted his life to helping the area. His wife Ada was equally involved with the work, with a particular interest in working women, and in 1909 was elected as the first female councillor in Bermondsey. She recruited women to Trade Unions, and during the Bermondsey uprising in 1911, thousands went on strike. Ada organised food for their families. In 1922 her husband became MP for Bermondsey, a role he held until his death. In the same year Ada became Mayor! They instigated huge reforms. Free medical care, long before the NHS, health education taken into all the streets, health and fitness centres, planted 9,000 trees and organised social gatherings and entertainments to lift spirits. They organised huge slum clearance schemes, and were hugely loved and respected in the area. Tragically, their only child, a daughter Joyce, died in 1910 of scarlet fever, and she is the child by the wall in the sculpture.
Just opposite is the ruin of the Manor house of Edward III which was buried under warehouses, and only found again in the 1980s.
St Marys church in Rotherhithe has mediaeval origins, but was restored in 1747. It still has box pews, and a beautiful organ dating from 1764. It has many connections with the river and the sea, with Captain Cook and the Captain and Crew of the Mayflower among others. This Bishop's chair was made from the wood of the Temeraire warship, which fought at the Battle of Trafalgar.
J.W Turners painting, the Fighting Temeraire, was painted while it was at Rotherhithe, where it was broken up.
The 17th century Mayflower pub was sadly closed (it was only 11.30 am), but has a great view across the Thames, and the crew of the Mayflower drank here before setting sail from Cumberland dock nearby. Across the river is the Prospect of Whitby pub, adjacent to hangman's Dock, where pirates were hung!
In a strange twist, the path now ran through Surrey Docks Community Farm, with a very welcome little café, and busy with young families enjoying this resource in a very urban area. It was built on the site of one of the largest shipbuilding sites on the Thames, where over 100 ships were built between 1740 and 1820 for the East India Company and Royal Navy.
Deptford riverside was where Henry VIII commissioned ships for his fleet and established a huge storehouse. Elizabeth I, Samuel Pepys and Peter the Great of Russia all visited. It became a victualling centre for the Royal Navy. Ships biscuits, mustard and chocolate were manufactured here, meat was slaughtered and salted, and the rum rations were stored in Henry VIII’s storehouse! Just one of the many vaults could hold 32,000 gallons of rum! They were very well guarded.
Ahead of us we saw the masts of the Cutty Sark, the beautifully preserved tea clipper that was once the fastest sailing ship in the world, and we knew we were nearing Greenwich. The dome is the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel, opened in 1902 and still in use today allowing you to walk under the river to the Isle of Dogs. We stayed firmly on the south bank. No time today to visit the Naval hospital or the Royal Observatory.
We kept on walking past Trinity Hospital almshouses, built in 1613, and on to the pub! As a teenager I had frequented Greenwich at weekends and we often visited the Trafalgar, the Yacht or the Cutty Sark pub! Today we treated ourselves to a quick drink in the lovely Cutty Sark before continuing towards our goal.
The Thames was getting wider and evidence of industry past and present was more in evidence. Looking across the river at Docklands business district, I remember when Canary Wharf Tower was built and was the highest building in London. Now it is dwarfed by the buildings around it. My mother and her family grew up in Poplar, just behind the tower blocks and next to West India Dock. The whole area was bombed relentlessly in WW2, and as a child I remember being shown bomb craters. The docks never really recovered after the war, and were ripe for redevelopment.
Back to our path, and we had to skirt several derelict sites and pass under the conveyor belts of a huge gravel and cement works as we approached the huge Millenium Dome. There were some interesting sculptures and distance markers. My favourite was 'Here ' which represents the distance in miles if you travelled around the circumference of the earth and came back here!
We went on, past the Emirates cable car, installed for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games. Suddenly, our final goal was in sight. The Thames Barrier.
We sped up! Opened in 1982, it stretches 520 metres across the river and can be raised to protect London from flooding.
So we finally made it. Hurray!
It is the end of the Thames path, our 180 mile walk from an invisible spring in Gloucestershire to a vast river, heading towards it’s estuary and the North Sea. Still busy today downstream with container ships, we have loved following this wonderful river, learning about its geography, history and the lives of people connected to it. We have walked from one side of my home city to the other, which has helped me join the dots of many places I had visited or heard of in my life.
We would recommend any or all of the Thames path as a great walk, and as a way to explore not just the river, but also its role in the history of the country.
If you have enjoyed the post, do please give it a ‘like’ or even better, a comment!
Why not sign up and you will get an email whenever a new blog is published, and you can follow us on Instagram too.
Thank you for reading!