Between Greenwich and Teddington, the Thames Path has two branches, one on the north bank, one on the south. My walk has followed the south; the northern version runs almost entirely alongside busy roads, whereas much of the southern is traffic-free. There are eastern extensions on each bank too, not part of the official National Trail, but full of urban interest nevertheless. I’ve included the south-eastern extension.
28 January 2013: South-eastern extension, 11 miles. The power of the flood.
All rivers flood; most have carved out flood plains to accomodate the waters. Then along came man, and built on the flood plains. Like many of the world’s great cities, London is sited on a wide and tidal river, close to the sea, and so the risk of flood is real and ever-present, indeed increasing given nature of climate change plus – in London’s case – the natural sinkage of south-eastern Britain as a result of ‘post-glacial rebound’.
The cost of a major flood in central London, both in human and financial terms, would be incalculable. The flood of 1928 provided a foretaste, the the surge from the North Sea floods of 1953 came within inches of a repeat. Soon after the latter, engineering solutions came to be debated, but it was not until the late 1970s that a start was made. The results can be seen on the south-eastern extension: the mighty Thames Barrier itself, at Woolwich, and the smaller (not small – 320 tons each) barriers protecting the upstream communities of the Roding (on the opposite bank) and the Darent, the latter being where the extension starts.
It’s worth saying that without a pan-London planning authority of some clout – the then Greater London Council – it may have been that these barriers might never have been built. Indeed, the ‘austerity’ posture of the current (2014) government has led to flood defence cuts nationwide, justified in the name of the dead hand of cost-benefit analysis.
The easiest way to get to the Darent barrier is by path from Slade Green station across the Crayford marshes, soon joing the Dartford Creek. Industry forces an inland diversion before Erith, but then you’re riverside until just before the finish. The highlights are at Crossness – the modern sludge-powered generating plant, running off waste from the sewerage works behind, and Bazalgette’s pumping station of 1865, the Gothic interior of which is sometimes open to the public.
25 August 1997 (part one): Thames Barrier to Tower Bridge, 9 miles. The power of the people.
London’s east has been the heartland of the struggles of London’s poor. As you walk from Blackwall Reach to Limehouse Reach, reflect that the West India Docks, on the Isle of Dogs opposite, were the heartland of the 1889 dockers’ strike, a key moment in the realisation of Britain’s working class that, united, they had the means to win better conditions for themselves. As it turned out, international solidarity helped win the day, as without a hefty donation from Australian dockers’ unions, the strike might have been broken by hunger.
A year earlier, the match girls had struck in nearby Bow, and in 1892, Keir Hardie became the first Labout member of parliament, elected for West Ham, just downstream of the site of both disputes. The greatest Labour prime minsiter, Clement Attlee, served in parliament for Limehouse, and for more than 20 years local doctor Alfred Salter served for Bermondsey – a statue of him and his daughter decorated the Thames Path for many years, unless it was stolen for its scrap value: an ill comment on our mercantile ways.
I walked this section (with my long-time walking partner Dave Travers) before the Millennium Dome (now the O2 Arena) was built. The path then took an unpleasant shortcut across the industrial Greenwich Peninsula. Nowadays it’s a tourist mecca, as Greenwich has been for many years. Another inland diversion, into Deptford, remains. Look out too for the Brunel museum at Rotherhithe, commemorating the great engineering family and the first underwater tunnel anywhere in the world.
25 August 1997 (part two): Tower Bridge to Hammersmith, 10 miles. The power of money.
As the panorama of the waterfront of central London passes in front of you, there are any number of power-angles you could take, such as: religion, from the great churches; the creative imagination, at Shakespeare’s Globe and the South Bank complex; politics, at Westminster, if not City Hall. But I’ll settle for money, or perhaps more particularly finance. Across the water is the City, perhaps the strongest grouping of financial institutions in the world, certainly with only New York for a rival.
Its power in the present way we run our nation is predominant; successive governments have bowed to its every request to let it have its way, and even the great economic crises of recent years have failed to buck that trend. We have an inversion of the international solidarity that won the dockers their sixpence an hour: banks too big to fail, merger deals that span nations, offshore tax arrangements that flout morality. This is where lasting international power currently lies, but nothing need be for ever.
A great walk through a great city, with many majestic panoramas. We trudged it, in the rain; but there are bits of this that I have been enjoying throughout my life, and will go on doing so until my last breath. The London Wetland Centre, just before the finish, gives a hint of what the lower Thames was like before industrialisation.
26 August 1997: Hammersmith Bridge to Hampton Court, 14 miles. The power of the crown.
There was once a King of England who so much wanted his own way in matters matrimonial that he created his own church. The story of Henry VIII (whose palace at Hampton Court finishes this stage) is told to all English children to this day, and its aftermath still shapes our nation. Part of that aftermath was the Civil War, not so much a war of religion as a war of monarchy – should we have one? The parliamentarians won out, but not without defeats on the way, such as the Battle of Brentford (1642), its site opposite the gardens of Kew. Even with restoration of the monarchy after a few years, the division of powers placed restrictions on royal prerogative, all but unique in Europe at that time, which remain to this day.
Mortlake is an attractive riverside suburb, after which follow the National Archives and Botanic Gardens, both at Kew. Richmond and Kingston are both well-favoured towns in their own right, and between them lies Teddington Lock, the highest point to which tides flow; it is here that the separate paths on the north and south banks join into one. From Kingston, the path follows the Thames edge of Hampton Court Park.
28 October 2011: Hampton Court to Windsor, 20 miles. The power of law.
Or perhaps, the power of myth. Received wisdom is that Magna Carta, signed in 1215 by King John and the barons at Runnymede more than half way along this stage, was the founding document of the law and constitution of England. Look at it another way, and it was an attempt by the rich and landed to bend an unpopular king to his will.
The rights they demanded were powers and safeguards they wanted. Some, undoubtedly, were humane and progressive, at least by the measures of the time; but if it hadn’t suited the barons’ own self-interest, they would never have been included in the text. (For example, ‘trial by one’s peers’ meant that the jury hearing the trial of an earl or baron was composed only of earls and barons – in essence, a right repealed only in 1949.) And though Magna Carta is taught in schools, there is less about John’s largely successful military campaign against the barons in the months that followed, brought to an end only by his death from illness.
Still, it was an early European codification of concepts including limitation of power and freedom under law; it remained intact in the English legal code for six centuries, and some of it is still in force.
Outer London gets a bit more prosaic for large parts of this stretch, with Heathrow Airport away to the north and reservoirs for thirst Londoners sometimes hemming in the path. It’s fun though to use the little ferry to cross the river at Shepperton – or a lengthy diversion if it’s not running. Soon after Runnymede (see above), there’s a road diversion into Datchet, but the last mile is on the edge of the Home Park at Windsor, the castle in view.
28 August 1997: Windsor to Marlow, 14 miles. The power of privilege (1).
Two sites, Eton and Cliveden (and not too difficult to include Windsor too!). The college, an immensely successful institution in which monied fathers can ensure power and influence for their sons. Amongst the families that made use of this was the Astors, owners of the Cliveden estate, just up the river, through much of the twentieth century. It has a great house and a smaller cottage in the grounds. In 1961 the third Viscount Astor was hosting a reception for the great and the good at the great house, while the less-monied guests of London osteopath Stephen Ward were staying at the cottage. The two parties met around the pool, and so began a liaison between Tory cabinet minister John Profumo and model Christine Keeler that shook the very heart of government; the Profumo affair still resonates in British politics.
The last stage that Dave and I did together in 1997. The former Olympic rowing site at Eton Dorney was not there when we walked it. The brick arches of Brunel’s railway bridge at Maidenhead, immortalised by Turner, were when built the widest and flattest in the world. Around Cliveden (see above), the river starts to gain a truly rural feel. Cookham is famous for its associations with the artist Stanley Spencer, and at Bourne End you cross the river by another railway bridge.
29 October 2011: Marlow to Reading, 19 miles. The power of privilege (2).
The power analogies become harder to push on this stretch, perfectly pleasant if well-heeled. At the centre of the stage is Henley-on-Thames, famous for its annual regatta, a centrepiece of the ‘season’ which diverts our better classes from running the country each summer.
There’s a slight diversion at Aston which does allow a little height to be gained and thus a rare perspective on the river. Henley itself is well worth a stop. There’s a longer diversion at Shiplake, surprising as riverside rights of way appear to exist, but once rejoined the path follows perhaps the quietest stretch of the river so far. After Sonning, the path is dominated by the approach to the major town of Reading.
30 October 2011: Reading to Goring, 11 miles. The power of ice.
For more than 80 miles from the Thames Barrier, there’s been little high land by the river. From Reading, as the path heads towards the Goring Gap, this starts to change, as the Chiltern Hills and Berkshire Downs come closer. These are both ranges of low chalk hills, the latter one of the major hill-groups of southern England. Their scarp slopes were used for an ancient track, the Icknield Way, that cut across the nation from Wessex to East Anglia. Its Thames crossing, the major river crossing on the route, was made at Goring.
It’s only here that there is any sense that the Thames is forcing a passage through higher ground. Indeed, relatively recently by geological standards – before the Anglian Ice Age 450,000 years ago – the Thames did not flow through here, but ran further north, across Essex and lowlands that would later become the North Sea, to become a tributary of the Rhine. It was the aftermath of glaciation that pushed the river south to its present course.
At Tilehurst the railway hems in the path until a diversion around the suburb’s housing estates. Mapledurham mill is a compensation, but another diversion follows at Whitchurch, though the last three miles are river-side.