This week being half term – and travel still being kinda, sorta, allowed – we took the opportunity to start a new long-distance walk – the Thames Path.
This is a 180-odd mile walk – or just shy of 300km if you work in those units, and I tend to. It runs right from the source of the river (or rather from a marked stone near where the source is meant to be) to the Thames Flood Barrier in London. Personally I’d like to see the walk run right to the sea, but I can only imagine there being a good number of reasons why that isn’t practical.
The first 100km or so of the Thames Path takes in some very remote locations, and it is worth lumping these early sections together where possible. This means getting a train to Kemble from London, which is straightforward enough, and then walking to Oxford which is the next big place where it’s easy to get to and from by public transport.
There are plenty of other ways of splitting the walk, but this worked for us based on the distances to be covered each day and the start and end points. It being October, we also opted for B&Bs and pubs with rooms – though camping is possible too.
Below is a recap and photos from the fourth section. Section one from the source at Kemble to Cricklade is here. Section two from Cricklade to Lechlade-on-Thames is here. Section three from Lechlade-on-Thames to the Rose Revived at Newbridge is here.
Our fourth – and final, for now – day of walking the Thames, and we have made it from the source near Kemble in Gloucestershire to Oxford. Our last day was the dampest, with mizzle and occasional showers.
Starting out from the Rose Revived at Newbridge – after a fine night’s sleep and a good cooked breakfast – was a nice start to the day as we were immediately on the Thames Path. We even passed a sign which gave us the mileage not just to the Thames Flood Barrier but to the coast! We had a couple of early fields containing cows but, unlike the previous day, we managed to get through easily. Lovely docile, brown cows just minding their own business. Whether breed or age or temperament, these cows did not show any interest in us and we got around them just fine.
Misty mizzle turned to showers and we enjoyed a lonely, quiet section of the Thames interspersed with interesting-looking boathouses on the opposite bank. We soon went through field after field of sheep, which make for much more pleasant walk companions.
There is one slightly unfortunate diversion on this section – at The Ferryman Inn one must divert away from the river for a short spell as a caravan park appears to own a length of the riverbank here. More fortunately however, the fields you end up walking through are easy going, and filled with lovely sheep.
After another lock or two and seeing a few more dog-walkers, we sensed that we were approaching Oxford. The other clue was that our sole ‘Thames Path’ walk signage was being joined by other local circular routes. The next section past Wytham Woods was rather nice, especially as the rain abated and glorious sunshine lit the treetops in all their autumnal colours. We learned that a nearby Oxford University research station means that these woods are among the ‘most studied’ woodlands in the world.
The final few kilometres on the approach to Oxford were very enjoyable, partly with the bright and dry weather, and partly as this is such a lovely way to approach a city like Oxford. I’ve visited a few times now and feel like I know it to some extent, but I also approach from the railway station and that section can feel a bit tacked-on. But approaching as if by boat is such a great way to encounter a place. And it meant I saw a whole side of Oxford I’ve never seen before as I’ve never been to the north west of the city.
From the ruins of Godstow Abbey and down along the river towards the railway station, you are greeted with views across the river to Oxford’s low and spire-dotted skyline, with rowers practising furiously at the behest of megaphone-toting coaches. We even saw a brave swimmer in the Thames (the first and only one we saw!) whose skin was a chilly shade of crimson. The view across the river to low-lying Port Meadow in the late afternoon light as the sun dipped to the horizon was just charming, and I will try to always remember this approach towards Oxford when I am battling my way up Hythe Bridge Street or Park End Street from the station into the town centre.
We called it a day at Osney Bridge, where we shall return at some point in the future to try and continue our way along the Thames Path. From here, things are easier, with public transport and more populated places meaning we can hop to and from smaller sections of the walk in a day or two, rather than having to lump four days together to get through the more remote parts. But I am so glad we were able to do so, and to enjoy the autumnal conditions and weather. It was damp, but we were well prepared for that. And you can tolerate heavy rain and soggy shoes when you know there’s a cosy and warm room awaiting you at the end of the day’s walk.
There’s a real romance to following ancient ways and paths. But following a river is a slightly different beast. Old roads and tracks are inherently man-made, and tend to cut through the landscape to enable efficient transit from A to B. A river knows no such bounds. It wends its way across the landscape, following the contours of the ground and snaking this way and that until it reaches its destination. And so it is all the more fascinating to follow this very natural course (albeit with the manmade bits where the river has been adapted and modified to our needs over the years).
Overall, I think my biggest takeaway is how the Thames seemingly pops up out of nowhere as a reasonable-sized stream. I had perhaps expected a trickle and some pools before it becomes a small stream. But it quite quickly becomes wide and flat, and is crossed by bridges and roads and is a sizeable feature of the landscape. But the other thing that I was naively less anticipating was how the river is not alone: it is joined by countless tributaries along the way, picking up speed and volume as it goes. And the most enjoyable thing was just soaking in the surroundings along its length – the remote countryside and the pretty little Cotswolds towns, and then the sudden jump in scale and majesty of Oxford acting as a neat book-end to this chapter.
I can’t wait to get going on the next section.