Discover - The Thames Path, part one
Updated: Feb 14
The Thames Barrier to Tower Bridge
After waking up super early Sunday morning, and not being able to get back to sleep, I left the house and decided to start the Thames Path. It may seem like a bit of a random thing to wake up and decide to do, but I've been meaning to start it for a few weeks now, and the weather seemed just perfect!
After getting the train from Charing Cross to Charlton, there's a bit of an uninspiring walk to the start of the walk, but this was the only logical way of getting to the south side of the river, at the Thames Barrier.
I started out just after 8 o clock, and was aiming to get all the way to Tower Bridge. And after about three hours, and a little over 12 miles I finished the first stretch.
The Thames Path
The National Trail route follows the River Thames for 184 miles (294 km) as it makes its way from its source in the Cotswold, all the way down through into London, reaching the Thames Barrier in Woolwich. There's some rather helpful websites like here and here, which I'll be using to plan the rest of the route in the upcoming weeks, but to be honest, it's quite self explanatory, and it's very well signposted, just stick to the paths closest to the river at all times, and you should get on just fine. That being said, there are a few diversions, but again they are very well directed.
So I should start off with some quick facts on the river itself, and if you do decide to do the walk, I'm sure you'll enjoy following the river's path and exploring it's banks on the journey.
- It's 215 miles long, the longest river entirely in England, and
the second in the UK (after the Severn).
- It's tidal right up until Teddington Lock, which I'll reach later
on, and has a rise and fall of 7 metres!
- Make sure you keep your eyes open for wildlife, cormorants,
gulls, herons, swans are all common sites, and you may even spot
some of the resident seals!
- With over 200 bridges, 27 tunnels, 6 public ferries and even a
cable car, there's plenty of opportunity to take a quick trip to
the other side if you see something that takes your fancy!
This is where the walk officially starts, but there is also an extension if you fancy. Here you'll find a viewing point, information centre and cafe, open 11am until 3.30pm Thursday to Sunday. For more information on the Barrier itself, click here to read a blog post dedicated to it entirely!
Angerstein and Murphys Wharves
Fairly early on in the walk you'll get to the Angerstein and Murphy's wharves. Up until the 1960s this area would have been a manufacturing industrial hub, with raw materials being imported by ship coming in here, and all along the Thames, with the finished goods being shipped back all over the world. Containerisation and the shallow River Thames made it impossible for the new larger ships to reach this area, and much of the work shifted downstream to Tilbury and Harwich. Some docks and wharves were closed down, many structures demolished or converted into fancy apartments.
But this one remains, and I think it's kind of cool! It was established nearly 200 years ago by John Julius Angerstein, whose actually a real hero of mine, as it was his art collection what was really the foundation of the National Gallery here in London. A bit of an entrepreneur too, he established the site here, importing marine aggregates for road construction in the UK. Ships would dredge areas of sea bed around Britain for sand and gravel, then transport it here, and onto the shore by a series of conveyor belts to be graded. You'll see the conveyor belts jutting out into the river, as well as pyramids of aggregates ready to be transported off.
Other bits and pieces you'll see along the first part of the walk...
Emirates Airline, the cable car connecting Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks.
Anthony Gormley's Quantum Cloud (1999), view if from the right angle to see Gormley's body shape among the wires.
The Millennium Dome (O2 Arena)
The high rise office blocks Canary Wharf
Nelson outside his name sakes pub. This is pub is remembered in history for its association with the Ministerial Whitebait Dinner. The little sprats are tossed in flour and deep fried, served with a a lemon wedge and bread. From the 18th century, parliamentarians used this tavern to hold discreet dinner's away from Westminster, and especially enjoyed the whitebait they served here. This went onto become a tradition of grand political Whitebait Dinners, with the ministers arriving by boat from Parliament. The Liberals would come here, and the Tories would go to another pub nearby (The Ship).
Until the railway age, it was also very separate from central London, and even today it does feel very much like a town far out of the busy capital.It's ease of access to ships, high hills and hunting grounds help explain its Old English name “Grenewic” - or “green trading settlement” or “harbour”. These attributes attracted the Tudors, who from the 15th century turned a sleepy hamlet into one of the Royals' favourite residences and thus fundamentally changed Greenwich's development thereafter.
This would also be a good place to finish the first section of the route, as it's still another 5 miles to Tower Bridge.
There's so much to see here so I would recommend exploring the area before heading back home. From the Royal Navy College, Cutty Sark, the Queens House art gallery, or the incredible painted ceiling by James Thornhill.
Carrying on the route...
You'll see the dominating Cutty Sark just ahead of you on the left; have a peer in through the mirrors to see the fairly new space, after a fire caused significant damage.
This is a British clipper ship, built on the River Clyde in 1869 for the Jock Willis Shipping line, and she was one of the last tea clippers to be built and also one of the fastest. The opening of the Suez Canal meant that steamships now enjoyed a much shorter route to China, so Cutty Sark only spent a few years on the tea trade before turning to the trade of wool from Australia, where she held the record time to Britain for 10 years.
Greenwich Foot Tunnel
The tunnel opened in 1902 to allow men living south of the river to easily reach their jobs in the docks on the Isle of Dogs. Notice that it is slightly narrower at the beginning; the result of a German bomb that caused damage and required rebuilding work.
Elephants by We Are People, a street art campaign by Elephantman, aimed at changing perceptions of what constitutes a person, more info here!
St Peter the Great
Tsar Peter the Great of Russia stayed in London in 1698, but accounts seem quite unbelievable, and surround in confusion and mystery. He arrived here as part of Russia's Grand Embassy, and with a keen interest in ships and shipyards, he moved down to Deptford. He wasn't employed here, but it seems he got stuck in, and instead of just watching the men at work, very much joined in, hence why the monument is here. He sounds quite a nice chap doesn't he?! After a little more delving, it wouldn't seem quite that way
When he was staying down in Deptford, it's believed that he stayed the house of 17th century diarist John Evelyn, and things start to turn a little strange. There's quite detailed accounts of poor Evelyn's house being completed trashed, thoughts of the horror stories of people renting out their homes through Air BnB spring to mind. Rooms needed re-flooring, so filthy were they from dirt and grease, the stove replaced, as well as the locks on the doors. The whole house needed to be repainted, the curtains, bed linen were torn to pieces, over 50 chairs broken or had disappeared, 300 window panes broken, 25 pictures ruined, and the garden - Evelyn's pride and joy was completely destroyed. Further on, you'll see a little remnant of Evelyn's garden in Sayes Court Park...
John Evelyn's Mulberry Tree
This is the spot where John Evelyn created his renowned Sayes Court Garden, and was said to have been visited by King Charles II.
Some claim this to have been planted by the king himself, others insist Tsar Alex, but from reading the accounts above, i'm sure you'll agree it's pretty unbelievable...
Surrey docks farm, a community farm that's free to visit
Next year will mark the 400th anniversary of the embarkation of the Mayflower, the ship which carried puritan pilgrims to the Americas in July 1620, and this is probably the very site that the ship set sail. Here we have pilgrim father William Bradford looking over the shoulder of a child reading a comic book.
This lesser known museum is definitely worth a visit, housed in the Engine House part of the Thames Tunnel, designed by Marc Isambard Brunel, you can learn about the construction of the tunnel, as well as other projects by Marc and Isambard (his father).
Named after the ship that took 65 passengers over to the Americas, and it's also the only pub licenses to sell US postage stamps apparently!
All that remains of King Edward III's Manor House in Rotherhithe. Built in 1350 on a small island back then, in the small marshy hamlet of Rotherhithe. It would have been surrounded by a moat, and was most likely used by the king as a base to practice falconry.
Dr Alfred Salter and his wife Ada (look out for their daughter and the family cat to!), remembered for their efforts in trying to alleviate the effects of poverty in the largely working class area of Bermondsey. After setting up a medical practice in the area, he offered services for free to those who could not pay.
Toward's the end of this first section, you'll stay to get glimpses of Tower Bridge, and it's here where this part of the walk ends. Built between 1886 and 189, it's iconic because of its ability to be raised to allow large ships through. A rather interesting story about the bridge was back in December 1952, then the bridge opened whilst the number 78 double-decker bus was crossing it! The incredibly braze bus driver Albert Gunter took the split second decision to accelerate, and luckily cleared the 3 for gap! He was given a measly £10 for his bravery.
I hope this inspires you to start to Thames Path, and let me know if you do!
Heard in London