An American's Perspective on the Thames Path

5th July 2019

Jon Maxwell, an American visitor to the UK, recently sent us this short account of his walk along the Thames. 

Few rivers in the world contain as much history as the River Thames, which stretches in England from its source near the Cotswolds eastward about 215 miles through London to the Thames estuary and North Sea. It is England’s longest and a commercially important river, having been a major route of transport and commerce for centuries.

Prehistoric tribes from long before the Bronze Age lived and worked along its shores. Towns, structures, battlefields and archeological sites frequently have stories to tell, including those of the Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Elizabethans and Victorians.

As late as the early 20th century, the Thames was a polluted and essentially dead river. In recent years it has earned a reputation as the cleanest metropolitan river in the world, supporting about 115 species of fish, including trout and pike, and even salmon, which returned in the 1980s.

Wildlife has rebounded as well; swans, which were scarce just a couple decades ago, are now common. The same is true of herons, cormorants, deer and ducks. The red kite, a raptor, has been reintroduced and can be seen winging its way over fields in search of prey. Cattle and sheep browse the fields, whose open spaces are routinely protected from development .
Along with protection of the river, open space and wildlife, momentum grew in England for creating a long-distance walking route along the river. Following decades of study and planning, in 1996 the Thames Path was approved. The essentially level path runs from the source of the Thames 180 miles east to the Thames barrier below London. (It can be walked in either direction.) It has been officially designated as an English National Trail.

The Thames Path recently caught the attention of my wife, Caroline, and me.  
We chose to walk the path starting near Runnymede, west to the river source
135 miles away.
Runnymede, a large open area containing a 1,400-year-old yew tree, looks very much like it did in 1215 when the Magna Carta, foundation of English law and governance, was agreed to between the king and his noblemen. Windsor, 7 miles upriver, is a charming town and seat of the royal family.

We enjoyed visiting with cordial fellow walkers, boaters and teenagers angling for pike. The river’s locks and dams control boat traffic, and are frequently located near pubs with names like Two Brewers, Rose Revived and The Trout, where a pleasant meal of fish and chips or meat pie can be accompanied by local ale or a lager.

Towns offer lodging, dinner theatre, fine dining such as at the unlikely Beetle and Wedge, or venues where poets Shelley and Coleridge discussed poetry. As the river grows narrower toward the end of our walk, we are struck by how lonesome and beautifully bucolic the walking becomes.

At trail’s end, we were only a short bus ride away from London. And it is all thanks to the good sense and foresight of the British people in preserving and protecting this wonderful river.

(c) Jon Maxwell

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Runnymede Memorial