For walkers in London and for Ramblers in particular, The Thames – or rather the Thames Path – is fundamental. We walk on it in so many different ways and circumstances: we simply can’t imagine London without it. Everything starts with the river, so everything stems from the Thames Path.
The Thames Path was the first National Trail to follow a river for its whole length – from its source in the Cotswolds to The Thames Barrier in Woolwich – and now (through the Thames Path extension) beyond that to Crayford Ness. Whilst some people choose to walk the whole length, either as one walk or in stages, most of us just dip in and out when it suits us – repeating some sections many many times, yet never walking others. The National Trail runs for 180 miles, making use for most of its route of the old towpath, which dates from when the Thames was a navigable river.
We believe the Thames Path to be the most walked footpath in the world – and we know that its most walked sections are in London. I joined the Ramblers 15 years ago after moving from Bristol to London. Like many newcomers, I found the capital overwhelming and claustrophobic at first. One of the things I love about Bristol is that, because it’s hilly and bordered on one side by the Avon Gorge, you can see its edges. But London goes on for ever, and the Thames provided some respite. My years in London have almost all been spent within a twenty minute walk of the Thames. I now live in Kingston, less than ten minutes from river, so the Thames Path is my walk to the station, into town, or to the pub on a summers evening.
Each of my jobs has been associated with a different bridge. For a few years, I worked near Blackfriars. Then, working in Soho, I would walk over the Jubilee Foot Bridges every day (east-side in the mornings, west in the evenings). Before my current work moved locations, I would take in the gentle calm beauty of Millennium Bridge each morning, followed by the tourist photo-frenzy every evening. These days, my route takes me over Southwark Bridge (my favourite bridge), restored to its green and yellow painted glory at the beginning of this decade. Southwark Bridge is surprisingly quiet at rush hour – in fact it has the least traffic of any bridge in Central London. Walking along the Thames Path on my walk from Waterloo to the office at Cannon Street helps gather my thoughts at the start of the day and unwind at the end. My partner and I had our first date on The Thames Path, a summer’s evening stroll followed by a drink in a riverside pub.
Discussions about The Thames Path started in the 1950s with two groups, the Ramblers and the River Thames Society, determined that the hurdles could be overcome and that a public footpath would happen. Finally, the Ramblers published a concept for a walk that required no ferries and, with three new footbridges, The Thames Path officially became a National Trail in 1989 – though it took another several years to complete.
The redevelopment of London’s riverside at the time when the Thames Path was being created provided tremendous opportunities for walkways along the riverbanks in the capital. The towpath had ended at Putney Bridge, but now it became possible to continue the Thames Path into the heart of London, through the newly redeveloped Docklands area and beyond; downstream from Teddington Lock the path could be created on both banks, perfect for circular walks. The Thames Path is still evolving and, thanks to a Ramblers volunteer called David Sharp (who wrote the Thames Path guide), each time there is a redevelopment along the Thames in London, the riverbank has to be opened up to the public.
Last year we gained new access to the Thames as a result of developments at Battersea Power station and Lombard Wharf – small sections, yes, and some of it public-private space – but as each small section gets added to the total, the amount of public access increases, and the amount of unpleasant walking away from the Thames along main roads reduces. There are some places we don’t have access to still – the north bank through the City of London between Millennium Bridge and Southwark Bridge is a particular bugbear it would be amazing to improve – but the story of The Thames Path in London really is the story of how one person, volunteering for one charity, can change all of our lives for the better.
As a longstanding walks leader for several Ramblers groups in London (there are 24 in total), I’m always looking for a new theme or angle. All our walks are led by volunteers with different ideas, meaning we offer a huge range of walks both within and outside of London. I sometimes roll out old favourites, but London is ever-changing and vibrant, and there’s nothing like the excitement of working out a new walk on a new theme.
We run evening strolls as well as daytime walks, and winter evening walks can be the hardest to devise as they’re entirely in the dark. Illuminated River provides us with a real opportunity for a new twist on the Thames Path – we can weave from bank to bank, crossing over each bridge in turn. The proposed 2.5 miles of illuminated bridges from Tower to Albert will provide a wealth of opportunity for different short strolls, where we can pause to take in the artwork and focus our attention on the fascinating histories and architecture of the bridges. Many walk leaders choose to turn their walks into a bit of a guided tour, sharing their passions or just something they’ve read up on. So, I’m looking forward to reading up on Leo Villareal, and to leading my first Illuminated River evening stroll in the not-too-distant future.