When I saw the old map leaning against a trestle table at a local market, I decided there and then: I’ll walk the length of the River Thames.
The map I’m referring to was drawn by William Tombleson in 1834. It charts the course of the river from its source in a field called Trewsbury Mead, near Cirencester in the Cotswolds, to the North Sea. What a beautiful drawing: the river twisting and turning through Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, parts of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, the London suburbs and the capital itself, east London edgelands and the marshes of Kent, with Essex on the northern shore. Bridges, woodlands, tributaries and churches are marked.
The map I’d stumbled upon was a reproduction from the 1970s (most originals are badly worn as they were used as guides by walkers), but that didn’t bother me. I bought it for £22, with a nice maple wood frame, and a plan began to form.
Having been brought up by the river in East Sheen, worked most of my life by it in Wapping and London Bridge, and lived by it for years (currently in Mortlake, about 660ft from the towpath), walking the entire 215 miles of the Thames was what I had in mind.
I took three weeks off my job as deputy travel editor of The Times, and booked a series of rooms in pubs, hotels, B&Bs, Airbnbs, a houseboat and even a shepherd’s hut (eat your heart out, David Cameron).
To say this was an indulgence is perhaps an understatement. Ahead stretched the history of England, as played out along the watery banks of a river that has as many stories to tell as any. Winston Churchill once said: “The Thames is no ordinary waterway, it’s the golden thread of our nation’s history.” While the early 20th-century politician John Burns memorably commented that the river represents our ‘liquid history’, and the author Peter Ackroyd, long fascinated by the river’s place in Londoners’ consciousness, wrote that it’s ‘a museum of Englishness’.
Each is spot on. Invasions by Romans and Vikings have happened near the Thames. Magna Carta was signed near it. Kings and queens were born (and died) near it. Traitors have been executed on its banks. Exotic spices and goods from faraway shores have found their way to us. Explorers have set off to New Worlds. Oh yes, and London, the world’s first metropolis grew up around the River Thames, drawing writers as varied as Wordsworth and Shakespeare, Shelley and Spenser.
‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song’, wrote Edmund Spenser in his poem Prothalamion. It’s one of my favourite Thames quotes.
So, off I strode, in the summer of Brexit (about a month after the result of the referendum) from Trewsbury Mead and on to Cricklade, Lechlade, Kelmscott, Newbridge, Oxford, Abingdon, Pangbourne, Henley, Marlow, Staines, Teddington, Kew, Bermondsey, Greenwich, Thamesmead, Gravesend and the Kent marshes.
I took the southern route for the final section, as I was interested in the countryside that so inspired Charles Dickens. ‘Ours was a marsh country, down by the river…’ begins the opening passage of Great Expectations. Of course, these are just a randomly selected scattering of the many interesting spots on my walk. And it wasn’t just the places that brought to life my journey.
It was the people I met along the way, too: people still coming to terms with the momentous decision to leave the EU. Some were jubilant. A farmer regaled me, at length, about the awfulness of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy by the banks of the river in Oxfordshire. Others were damning of the Brexit campaign. “It’s a disaster — downright lies from beginning to end,” said one walker.
During 21 days, including many a meander from the river, I walked 368.72 miles with a daily average of 17.56 miles, about par for the course for a soldier marching in the Roman army. I’d taken 821,722 steps and burnt 79,623 calories. No wonder I was always so hungry.
Tombleson’s map, propped by the table in the flea market, had a lot to answer for. Sometimes the best travel comes when it’s least expected.
From Source to Sea: Notes from a 215-mile Walk Along the River Thames by Tom Chesshyre is published by Summersdale. RRP: £16.99.
Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)